Guardian writers’ predicted position: 10th (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Doyle’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 9th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 500-1
They go into the campaign feeling they are tantalisingly close to satisfaction, maybe even just a new centre-back and striker away from something special; they hope to avoid another ruinous spate of injuries; they acknowledge their manager’s achievements but can’t help wondering about his defensive acumen; if they are not careful, supporters of Stoke will develop an unlikely kinship with Arsenal fans.
But they are not yet brothers in qualms. Stoke’s condition is not critical, as a look at their final positions in the past three seasons – ninth, ninth and ninth – shows there is no need to call the emergency services. No other manager has guided Stoke to three successive top-half finishes in the top flight and in Mark Hughes, who has done so while reintroducing long-lost flair, most fans still trust. And there is no doubt about his willingness to spend money, so hope is high that before the transfer window closes he will sign the striker that his team so obviously need, possibly Saido Berahino, whom they have been courting all summer.
Doing so would enable Stoke to turn inventive attacks into goals more regularly. Last season, despite benefiting from the ingenuity of Xherdan Shaqiri (intermittently), Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic – as well as Ibrahim Affellay until he suffered knee-ligament damage in April – Stoke scored only 41 goals in 38 league matches. They were undermined not merely by weak finishing but also the lack of stealthy runs by a natural goalscorer who can draw through-balls from a slick supporting cast.
That is the main reason why they also mustered fewer shots than any other team except the relegated trio and Tony Pulis’s joyless West Bromwich Albion. Jonathan Walters, Mame Biram Diouf, Joselu and Peter Crouch have varying qualities but none offer the movement and sharpness required to score prolifically. Arnautovic, who dispelled fears that he would leave by signing a new contract in the summer, is usually most dangerous behind a centre-forward.
Stoke’s forwards should benefit from even better service this season. Shaqiri should become more consistent in his second season at the club, as should Gianelli Imbula, who shone in flickers after joining in January as a belated replacement for Steven Nzonzi and has the potential to become one of the most dominant central midfielders in the Premier League. Competition for places alongside Imbula has been elevated by the arrival of Joe Allen from Live
rpool, a signing that will offset the enforced absence of Afellay.
Hughes has attractive options across midfield and has embellished them with a particularly exciting recruit from Egypt. Ramadan Sobhi is a 19-year-old winger but a senior international with his country and a league champion with Al Ahly. He has a marvellous repertoire of tricks and a brazen glee in displaying them. It is easy to imagine him, Krkic, Shaqiri and Arnautovic bewitching opponents on a good day. And there could be more good days than last season, when victories over Manchester City, Manchester United and Everton featured performances among the most thrilling seen by a generation of Stoke fans.
Most Stoke fans have not become infected with the sense of entitlement that contaminates certain others. But last season, despite some giddy highs, still left a slightly sour aftertaste and not just because of the late injury-induced slump.
Stoke’s more-attractive attacking style seems to have come at the cost of defensive solidity and for that there is no acceptable reason. It seems a symptom of flawed organisation or concentration rather than a necessary trade-off for swish forward play. The injuries certainly did not help, with the long absence of Ryan Shawcross particularly debilitating, but even when Stoke were at full strength Jack Butland was busier than he should have been until he, too, was injured in March. Marc Wilson, signed by Pulis in 2010, deepened concerns last weekend when he held a Q&A session with fans on Twitter and seemed to lament the loss of the club’s defensive rigour, claiming “it would help if we ever did any defensive training – which we don’t”.
Perhaps Wilson is disgruntled because he lost his regular place under Hughes and is a reported target for his old boss at The Hawthorns, but there can be no denying that Stoke were uncharacteristically vulnerable at times last season, notably from set pieces. That has to improve.
Ideally that would mean signing a new, rapid central-defensive partner for the trusty Shawcross, as options such as Wilson, Philipp Wollscheid and Geoff Cameron do not fully convince. The only defensive recruit Hughes has made this summer is the 19-year-old centre-back Ryan Sweeney, who was signed for £250,000 from Wimbledon, and although Sweeney has the speed that their other defenders lack when Glen Johnson is unavailable, he seems unlikely to be thrust straight into Premier League action. So either Hughes coaches better performances from his existing players or he buys another new defender. Or both.
The manager experimented with a 3-5-2 formation for most of pre-season, although he said that was because most defenders were unavailable rather than because of any cunning plan, which may be just as well given how ill-suited the players seemed to it. Erik Pieters, for instance, is a perfectly decent left-back in a defensive four but never a roving wing-back. Hughes reverted to a familiar back four for the final pre-season match and Stoke looked more comfortable despite a 1-0 defeat.
After hinting at taking Delilah to Europe last season, Stoke petered out. They won only one of their final seven matches as they made do with the familiar ninth-place finish and the memories of an agonising semi-final defeat by Liverpool in the Capital One Cup. It would do them a power of good to make a strong start to this campaign, especially as the fixtures look challenging, opening at newly promoted Middlesbrough and then facing Manchester City, Everton and Tottenham.
If Stoke have a respectable points haul and two more signings by early September, belief will grow. That does not even necessarily mean going higher than ninth, just more goals, less defensive errors, maybe a cup final and, most of all, a conviction that the manager and players are consistently getting the best out of each other and themselves.
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