Since securing their Premier League status and reaching an FA Cup final in the 2010-2011 season, although Stoke have experienced some frustrations in the transfer market, they have also managed to make some shrewd signings to improve a squad of players seeking to build upon the progress enjoyed by the Potters since their return to England’s top flight in 2008.
Manager Tony Pulis has worked continuously throughout the summer to enhance his central defensive options, achieving this through the free transfer signings of Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson. Although both players have endured persistent injury problems throughout their careers, they both possess significant experience at Premier League level and are expected to provide healthy competition to Stoke’s current centre-back pair of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth for a place in the starting XI, within which the ultra-talented goalkeeper Asmir Begovic will retain ownership of the No 1 jersey.
The signings of Woodgate and Upson represent a continuation of the development of a formidable defensive unit which Stoke’s consolidation of their place in Premier League over the last three seasons has been built upon. However, in order to play in a more expansive manner, it had been suggested that manager Pulis may delve into the transfer market to try to source the type of full-back accustomed to marauding, over-lapping runs, to support the craft of wingers Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington, but the manager has yet to do so. Subsequently Pulis appears likely to retain faith in his current pool of full-backs, two of whom are to be asked to perform tactically disciplined roles behind Etherington and Pennant. The dynamic wide pair have proven themselves to be genuine creative sparks at Premier League level and when absent Stoke struggle badly to manufacture chances from open play. Therefore there is a strong possibility that between now and the closure of the current transfer window, Stoke will prioritise sourcing an naturally accomplished wide player, with Shaun Wright-Phillips a potential candidate, to relieve some of the pressure on the team‘s current wide duo.
Stoke’s reliance on their wingers, and set-piece situations, to provide sources of goals for the team’s main strike force of Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters, is ultimately an indicator of the absence of any significant creativity forthcoming from the centre of the Potters midfield. Indeed the searching runs of Walters in particular last season created sufficient space to invite willing runners from midfield to advance into goal scoring positions, but this was predominantly not exploited by the likes of central midfielders Glenn Whelan and Rory Delap. If Stoke are to carry a more consistent goal scoring threat than they did last season and subsequently improve their chances of achieving a top-half finish, acquiring the services of a goal scoring midfielder to complement the work of their strike force is vital.
Ultimately, Stoke are at least two players short -winger and forward-thinking midfielder – of being able to mount a sustained challenge on the top half of the Premier League but have retained a squad which is strong enough to avoid a season blighted by the fear of relegation.
Key Signing – Matthew Upson: Following seasons of uncertainty and underachievement at West Ham, Upson will be keen to bring some stability back to his career with Stoke and re-establish himself as an England international in the process. Whilst Upson faces a formidable challenge to become a regular in Stoke’s starting XI, he will be given the opportunity to prove his worth to the Potters due to the scale of their playing commitments on domestic and European fronts.
Key Departure – Abdoulaye Faye: Although released at the end of last season due to no longer being part of the long-term improvement plan held by Tony Pulis, Faye’s contribution to the Stoke cause will be missed on the basis of the major effort he gave in the Potters’ evolution into an established Premier League side and the excellent relationship he enjoyed with the club’s fans throughout his three year stay at the Britannia Stadium.
Wilkinson – Huth – Shawcross – Wilson
Pennant – Whelan – Delap – Etherington
Jones – Walters