Premier League: 13th
FA Cup: Fourth Round
League Cup: Second Round
There is hope and trepidation in equal measure in The Potteries as Stoke fans, for the first time in seven years, go into a new season with little idea what to expect. The replacement of Tony Pulis with Mark Hughes is part of a new direction on and off the pitch for The Potters.
Where Pulis spent big on players with considerable Premier League experience, the club’s recruitment policy is now apparently focusing on the acquisition of younger players from overseas with resale value, while the academy – long viewed with suspicion by the previous manager – is seeing considerable investment. Hughes has vowed to deliver a style of play that’s easier on the eye, which will doubtless be music to the ears of many fans who grew weary of Pulis’ negative, creatively barren final couple of years.
There was a real feeling of malaise and stagnation around ST4 in 2012/13, and it’s hard to deny that fresh ideas were needed. With his disastrous stint at QPR behind him, Hughes now has the chance to rebuild his reputation at a well-run club looking to move with the times.
Yet there is also concern. With the improved TV deal further swelling the coffers of Premier League clubs, allowing the likes of Swansea and Norwich to splash out on high-profile players, Stoke – among the league’s highest net spenders in recent years – oddly appear to have chosen this window to turn off the taps. Just three players have been brought in so far (one of them Jermaine Pennant, released by the previous regime) with Hughes hailing the battling qualities of the players already at his disposal and vowing not to tinker too much.
However, surgery is needed on a side that won just three times after Boxing Day last season, particularly in the final third, given that the last two campaigns have seen the club finish 92nd and 91st for goals scored throughout the entire pyramid of English football. Factor in the time needed for the players to adjust to a new manager after years of Pulis’ very rigid, deeply ingrained system – with training centred mainly around team shape – and teething problems (or worse) seem likely.
Two or three first team additions are needed if a relegation battle is to be avoided, but whether they arrive or not may well depend on the ability to move out some of the higher earners, such as Kenwyne Jones, Peter Crouch or Wilson Palacios. This is therefore very much a transitional season for Stoke. Survival, coupled with a more positive approach, is an outcome the vast majority of fans would settle for.
Manager – Mark Hughes The Welshman is drinking in the managerial last chance saloon following his QPR nightmare. Charged not just with keeping Stoke up but improving their playing style, his early pronouncements have been encouraging, despite apparently having reduced funds with which to strengthen, while friendlies have seen Stoke work on keeping possession.
Key signing – Erik Pieters: Stoke haven’t signed a specialist left back since they were promoted to the Premier League in 2008. The club’s capture of Dutch international Erik Pieters from PSV for a bargain £3m is therefore quite a coup and has understandably been greeted with considerable enthusiasm.
Key sale – Tony Pulis: Not so much a sale as a departure, Pulis’ second exit stirred mixed feelings among the support. While the consensus is that the man in the cap had lost his touch and had to go, there is still sadness at the exit of a man who took the club from obscurity back to the big time. With a squad carved in his image, his shadow may well loom over the Britannia Stadium this season.
Keep an eye out for…Marc Muniesa: There has been no clearer indication of Stoke’s change in direction than the free transfer signing of a Barcelona starlet. Once dubbed ‘the next Carles Puyol’, Muniesa has had serious injury problems in the last few years but was part of Spain’s triumphant u-21 European Championship squad and can play in a number of positions including left back, centre back and central midfield.
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