Guardian writers’ predicted position 16th (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Wilson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position 13th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 750-1
Stoke City are preparing for their 10th successive Premier League season, having become a byword for grit, application and uncomplicated reliability in the nine years since Tony Pulis brought them up from the Championship in 2008.
During that time they have been characterised as a rugby team by Arsène Wenger, a long-ball team by just about everyone else, and the difficulty of going to the Potteries and claiming a result on wintery midweek nights has entered the language as the sort of test many a cultured or cossetted footballer might fail. Stoke are the Premier League’s hard core. Unlikely to challenge for silverware but unlikely to be relegated either, they exist primarily as a sort of man-trap to keep teams with loftier ambitions on their mettle. Stoke have built their reputation on cutting bigger sides down to size.
That has been the theory, anyway, though last season strayed quite a long way from the usual script. Not only did Mark Hughes’s side finish 13th, after three consecutive top-10 finishes, they ended up with only 44 points, the lowest total since the final season under Pulis in 2013. Perhaps even more worrying, the erstwhile terrors of mid-table became quite toothless, both in front of goal and in terms of turning over top sides. Last season Stoke did not manage a victory against any of the top six, home or away.
But for a solitary success against Southampton, in fact, they would not have recorded a win against any of the sides that finished in the top half of the table. They can still claim to have something of a hold on Manchester United – both games finished 1-1 draws – though other results against the big clubs were revealing.
Tottenham were emphatic winners home and away, scoring eight goals in the process, while Arsenal and Manchester City both came to Stoke and left with 4-1 victories. That never used to happen. They did not always prevail against top-six opponents, but when they were beaten it would usually involve a hard game, a narrow margin and the visiting manager paying tribute to his players for toughing it out. While it would be an exaggeration to suggest they are now playing the role of doormat to the bigger clubs, a lot of the fear factor seems to have evaporated and so far there has not been much evidence of a desire to bring it back.
Hughes has been largely successful in his attempts to play a more sophisticated game after the sometimes over-physical approach favoured under Pulis, and in recent years Stoke fans have enjoyed the undoubted talents of maverick performers such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic. Yet for all the manager’s success in persuading Barcelona and Bayern Munich cast-offs to sign up for a relatively obscure club with no immediate prospects of European football, the expected progress has not materialised.
If finishing ninth in the table for three successive seasons suggested that might be the upper limit of Stoke’s reach, finishing 13th and losing much of the feisty competitiveness that had become the club’s signature appeared to indicate the Potters had peaked.
Arnautovic appears to think so at any rate. The Austrian forward successfully agitated for a transfer, claiming a lack of ambition at Stoke. His personal argument was somewhat undermined by his choice of new club – West Ham United not exactly being synonymous with adventure or achievement – though the general charge is one Hughes is finding difficult to answer. Where are Stoke going under his stewardship? They are probably not heading for the Championship just yet, but mere survival is a thin diet for international footballers and a crowd that has become accustomed to claiming a few major scalps over the course of a season.
Stoke have not been reassuring supporters with their summer transfer business either. In Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters they have lost two crowd favourites, and while they are both at the stage of their careers when it makes sense to move them out, the same could be said of Peter Crouch, Stephen Ireland and Charlie Adam, who are all still there despite no longer being first-team regulars.
Crouch is 37 next birthday, yet he finished last season as Stoke’s top scorer with seven goals. That statistic tells much of the story. Shaqiri missed parts of the season with injury, Arnautovic’s haul of six goals in 32 appearances confirmed that West Ham are getting a stylish and skilful player who does not happen to be a natural finisher, while poor Saido Berahino is still waiting to get off the mark and probably suffering a crisis of confidence following his £12m move from West Bromwich Albion in January. If Berahino scores early in the coming campaign and settles down to repay his manager’s faith in him then Stoke will at least have a cutting edge, though if his drought continues he will probably end up with the crowd on his back and Hughes under fire for poor judgment.
Players making sideways moves, as Arnautovic has done, will only strengthen the view that Stoke lack the drive to keep an elite squad together while simultaneously strengthening the sides around them in the mid-to-lower reaches of the Premier League.
Perhaps there is nothing wrong with financial caution, prudence even, in today’s inflated market. Tottenham Hotspur have not spent much, after all, and neither Daniel Levy nor Mauricio Pochettino appear to be worried. Yet Tottenham mounted a highly impressive campaign last season. Stoke did not, and they have already started to lose key players.
In better news Bruno Martins Indi should return after a successful loan spell last season while Kurt Zouma has arrived on loan from Chelsea. The Cameroonian winger Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting has also joined the club on a free transfer after his contract at Schalke expired and could prove a shrewd signing.
Darren Fletcher has been brought in for his experience and leadership qualities – not that Stoke are exactly short of wise old heads – though Walters’ stubborn effectiveness will be missed. Offensively Stoke still look weak, and if they are not about to splash the cash in the transfer market their supporters will have to put their faith in Berahino getting among the goals and Ramadan Sobhi producing a big season to prove he can fill the gap left by Arnautovic. Realistically, one of those things might happen. Both things coming about at the same time sounds a bit more like a miracle Stoke do not really deserve.
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