Stoke are an impressive team, on paper at least. They have as many Champions League winners in their squad as any other Premier League team and the summer recruitment has turned a few heads. They are a far cry from the Tony Pulis team that gained promotion in 2008.
But the recruitment has been smart as well as impressive. That is, they haven’t just gone out there and bought big name players. They’ve bought from the second tier, and that’s a smart call, because they’ve bought players with a point to prove.
Each one of the players Stoke have in their ranks who have come from bigger clubs are at Stoke with something to prove, even the Champions League winners. Indeed, calling them ‘winners’ seems to overinflate their role in bringing the trophy to their former clubs. To say that Shaqiri ‘won’ the Champions League with Bayern Munich is simply wrong – he has a winners’ medal, but Robben and Ribery, Muller and Neuer ‘won’ that competition for Bayern.
I’m not playing down Stoke’s achievement nor am I trying to be unkind to Shaqiri and his Stoke mates, but rather I think this is a good thing for Stoke. All of these players – Shaqiri, Bojan, Afellay, even Van Ginkel – arrive at Stoke with the ambition of kick-starting their own careers and becoming big name players in their own right, and not just by virtue of collecting a Champions League medal after a season of covering for more world-renowned players.
I think this helps Stoke in the long run too. It’s obviously a good thing to have hungry players, players who are playing for something more than just their pay cheque. It’s good to have players with a point to prove and who go out there and prove it – especially when they’re as gifted as Shaqiri and Afellay are. But there’s something even more beneficial in there for Stoke too.
And that’s the type of player they have brought into the club this summer. These players that make Stoke into a much more impressive team on paper are all in the same boat. They all fit into that second tier of sub- World Class players, and so although Stoke are hugely impressive on paper, they’re not going to win a Champions League next season. I also don’t think they’ll finish in the top four either. Although stranger things have happened.
But what they can do is challenge for Europe and for domestic cup competitions this season, and because all of the players they’ve brought in are hungry for success and find themselves all in the same boat, they can gel quickly and get working together as a team, rather than a collection of well-paid individuals.
Their start to the season shows they’re not quite there yet, defeat on the opening day at home to Liverpool wasn’t quite the start they wanted, but it was hardly a disaster – especially given that it took a wonderstrike from Philippe Coutinho to seal the victory for a new-look Liverpool. Then a draw away to Spurs happened, and that’s rarely a bad result, but given the fact that Stoke were 2-0 down it’s a really good point.
It was Stephen Ireland, however, who masterminded that particular comeback, it wasn’t quite a team performance – but you wouldn’t expect that just yet. This time next month, the new signings could be bedded in and ready to fly, and if that happens, having a whole team made up of very good players who all have a point to prove and who pull together to play as a unit will make for an exciting season.
Mark Hughes has pulled off a couple of coups this summer, but the biggest one is not simply managing to bring big names to the Britannia Stadium, it’s managing to bring in lean and hungry sub-geniuses to gazump his squad.
Stoke are a team to be feared, not because they have good players, but it’s the state those players find themselves in. They are lean and mean and will work together. Hughes has managed to change the face of Stoke, but he’s kept the Pulis spirit burning hot – it’s a team made up of good individual players, but with the ability to play as a team. He’s got the best of both worlds.