From the ‘Rugby’ side who shocked the pampered big boys of the Premier League, Stoke City have turned into a classy and thoroughly modern team under Mark Hughes.
Shaking the tag of being a physical side is hardly number one priority for Stoke – results are – but changing opinions has allowed them to attract players who wouldn’t ordinarily have been interested by Stoke.
Around this time last year, Stoke were being heralded as dark horses for a European place. Their new signings charmed us and their transformation from Stoke to Stokelona was as jarring as it was impressive.
They didn’t nab a European place, but they finished 9th once again – that’s three times in a row, now. It’s hardly meteoric progress, but they’re maintaining their level and it’s a level that would have been unthinkable a decade ago – and 9th doesn’t look like a barrier that should be too difficult to break for Stoke.
The clubs who progress in a similar, slow-and-steady fashion are the ones who can sustain their success long-term. Progression may not have come in terms of points or league position last season, but a League Cup semi final was progress and there was advancement, too, in their style of play.
Progress, as usual, is the order of this season. But this time, maybe Stoke can look to go one better in a cup competition and reach a final again.
Prioritising competitions is often a dangerous thing to do, but if it doesn’t look like Stoke will be fighting for Europe – and so many teams will be – then from January onwards, why not look to go as far as they can in the FA Cup?
Crystal Palace, Hull, Aston Villa and Wigan have all been in the final in recent seasons, as have Stoke in 2011 – it’s certainly doable.
Pre season has been fairly quiet for Stoke so far, there are no luxury, prestige friendlies and not a huge amount of movement on the transfer front. That’s to be expected – the club are following a model of progression and constant evolution.
So seeing the likes of Joe Allen and Ramadan Sobhi join the club is not a huge surprise in that they are good players who will make the squad slightly better and fit into the style of play Mark Hughes is trying to install at the club.
It’s evolution, not revolution at Stoke this summer.
The key man is probably also the biggest name: Xherdan Shaqiri. The Swiss international scored the goal of Euro 2016, and possibly even the goal of the 2015/16 Premier League season, too – if you believe he meant it!
Shaqiri’s talent is huge, but he can be temperamental – if Hughes can keep him happy, he’s a special player.
Stoke’s squad is a mix of fairly stellar names coupled with players of a lesser pedigree.
With the money available to every club in the league this season, and with Stoke’s upward trajectory allowing them to sign players of a higher and higher calibre, it throws doubt on the futures of the likes of Mame Biram Diouf.
The Senegalese striker made more Premier League appearances from the bench last season than he did from the beginning. His physical presence and his mobility make him useful as a secondary option, but in order to solidify his place in Hughes’s plans, Diouf will need to show that he’s as good as the bigger names like Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic.