Mark Hughes can look back at last season and reflect on his capture of 9th spot as something of an achievement, considering his disastrous experience with previous club QPR. Coming in to replace Stoke legend Tony Pulis was always going to be tough, considering the slow and steady years of progress it took him to turn them into a stable Premier League outfit.
Going one step further proved to be too much for Pulis, and at first, it would’ve seemed the same for Hughes, especially with the public’s perception being generally negative. Yet here we are a year ahead applauding him for the work he has done and the reputation he has forged once again. Football can be funny like that.
Last season, Stoke fans were presented with encouraging displays which saw intent in their players to play the sort of attacking football they crave, something unseen in the Pulis era. With a team notorious for being dull and one dimensional, Mark Hughes managed to add an injection of excitement through the signings of Marko Arnautovic, Oussama Assaidi and Stephen Ireland, with the transfers epitomising their shift of style. A notable 4-1 win over Aston Villa demonstrated the evolution Stoke were going through under Mark Hughes.
With more additions this summer, one more surprising than the others, the progress under the Welshman seems to be continuing as the Potters look to build on last season, and I think it’s only right that they should aim to challenge for a Europa League spot based on this. However, starting a second season as a recently-hired manager will always be more difficult than starting your first. All eyes will be firmly on Sparky and co as the pressure is heightened on their Premier League steam cooker.
There’s no denying it, all heads were turned when Bojan Krkic was announced as the latest player to join the mid-table club. For a mere £3m, Stoke have managed to land an internationally capped Spaniard from the academy Barcelona, previously known for his striking similarities to Lionel Messi. Stoke fans must duly remember that Bojan is so far a failed potential who has been unable to make the cut at top European clubs Milan, Roma and Ajax - which explains the cheap price tag. The success of the transfer will have to be decided later down the line. Along with Bojan, they have managed to add former Manchester United striker Mame Biram Diouf to the ranks after his success in Germany. He will be hoping to erase English fans' memories of his previous spell in the Premier League, where he only managed to score four times in 32 appearances for Manchester United and Blackburn. At a first glance, both deals look like good business, but Mark Hughes will want the pair to inject some flair and attacking prowess into Stoke’s arsenal and get some return on their investment. When looking back, the Potters started business quite early this year with their first addition of Phil Bardsley from Sunderland. A free signing, the Scotland international will add a wealth of experience to a back line already consisting of Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Erik Pieters. Dionatan Teixeira, the 22 year old Slovakian centre back, has also been brought in to provide competition across the back after impressing on trial in March. The relegation of Fulham permitted Stoke to poach Steve Sidwell on a free transfer while the midfielder was in demand by other clubs. Sidwell was Fulham’s top scorer last season and will surely bring some strengths to Stoke’s midfield; a decent option to have on the bench.
It’s worth noting that Matthew Etherington has left the club after his contract expired, and Michael Kightly looks to be their biggest departure so far; however, Stoke are heavily packed up front with their number of strikers hitting seven. There are bound to be more departures in that department, with Peter Crouch being one of the names linked with a move, but in this current situation, Stoke have to sell as I can’t see Mark Hughes accommodating and keeping all of his strikers happy.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
It’s quite obvious that Bojan is the player who leads this list as Stoke fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of him donning their striped jersey. As mentioned above, the Spaniard has been carrying his bags full of potential all across Europe, and he’s now landed in the West Midlands hoping to settle down and unpack his suitcase of skills. If he makes an instant impact, he will be hailed as a potential signing of the season; on an optimistic note, Bojan is only 24 and has time on his side to flourish into the player we all hoped he’d become. Whether he can do at Stoke is something we will have to wait and see. Asmir Begovic is another one to watch after his heroics last season. The goalkeeper provides a solid base to Stoke’s backbone and he’s proven to be one of the best shot stoppers in the league. If Begovic has another successful year, I can see bigger clubs coming in with offers for him. Last but not least, Stoke City’s Young Player of the Year will be proud of his accolade after settling well in his first season in English football, but Hughes will be expecting bigger things from the Austrian. 2014/5 is looking very interesting for Stoke’s players to say the least.
Replicating last season’s achievement will be challenging, as teams who finished around Stoke have strengthened as much as they have. Mark Hughes will have already won most fans over with some of his stellar signings, but he needs to find a system that will accommodate the young stars he’s brought in along with the attacking philosophy he wants to instil. On the other hand, football fans are fickle and some will still have Hughes’ disastrous past in their mind. To remove all lingering doubts, he must work on obtaining more than the 50 points accumulated last season and effectively challenge for a Europa League spot. With their squad, Stoke City can be a formidable team to beat on the archetypal ‘rainy day’, and it will be interesting to see if Hughes can take them one step further especially after raising the bar so high early in his Stoke managerial career.
Predicted finish - 11th