A new season has arrived, as Stoke City approach their ninth season of top-flight football.
After the side were promoted in 2008, fans would have snapped your hand off to still be in the Premier League in 2017, but is that enough any more?
After three consecutive ninth-placed finishes for Mark Hughes, his side slipped to 13th as questions were raised about the Welshman’s future.
Stick or twist
Stoke’s hierarchy would have been very tempted to part ways with Hughes and attempt to appoint a more optimistic manager.
Stoke were never in any real danger of being relegated last season, but the stagnation and stability that Hughes provided seemed to have taken a knock.
The Potters made this move when they appointed Hughes. Tony Pulis could have kept Stoke in the league from then until the end of time, but appointing Hughes meant a reboot with new upgrades to the Stoke AI, with better football to watch and a chance of making it into Europe.
The football has gotten better, but it couldn’t have been worse then Pulisball and while they have been finishing in the top-half before last season, there isn’t much between ninth and 15th anymore.
Hughes hasn’t really been backed by the higher-ups at Stoke though. He has kept his job, but very little money has been put into the transfer kitty so far.
Stoke have made five signings at the time of writing. Darren Fletcher, Josh Tymon and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting were free transfers, Kurt Zouma signed only on loan and Tre Pemberton was signed for the Under-23 side.
These aren’t bad signings at all, but if Hughes was their man then you would imagine significant funds would have been used to improve the squad.
Marko Arnautovic sealed a £20 million, rising to £25 million move to West Ham last month. Arnautovic was inconsistent, but could always produce a moment of magic and contributed with six goals and five assists last season.
Stoke were lacking goal threats anyway, and losing Arnautovic is a significant blow to the side. It leaves the Potters’ attacking options consisting of Choupo-Moting, Saido Berahino, Joselu, Peter Crouch, Bojan, Xherdan Shaqiri and Ramadan Sobhi.
There’s certainly a lot of quality there, but probably not enough goals to take them out of mid-table and claim Everton’s Best of the Rest trophy.
Between all of the forward options aforementioned, they scored 23 goals last season. Just 14 of those were in the Premier League too.
The transfer window isn’t closed though, so there is every chance that Stoke do go out and make a big splash for a forward that they desperately need.
Hughes has experimented with a number of different formations and systems in pre-season, but seems to have landed on the recently popular 3-4-3.
Jack Butland will resume first-choice goalkeeping duties after an impressive season from Lee Grant in net.
The back three has consisted of Zouma, Ryan Shawcross and Geoff Cameron but the impending signing of Bruno Martins Indi will likely displace Cameron from that trio.
Erik Pieters will start in the left wing-back spot, a slightly different role from the one he has operated so well over the past four years. However it’s a very different role on the other flank for Mame Biram Diouf.
Diouf, a striker by trade, has been converted to a wing-back by Hughes. The Senegalese international has been used more on the right wing since joining the club and operated as part of the defence occasionally last season and has continued there during pre-season.
The midfield two will likely be Fletcher and Joe Allen. Glenn Whelan has left for Aston Villa, leaving a gap for Fletcher to fill while Allen will hope to continue on from a stellar first season at Stoke.
The front three should consist mainly of Shaqiri, Bojan and whichever striker is looking the best in training.
Berahino was signed for £12 million in January, but is still yet to score for Stoke. Crouch is always an option, Choupo-Moting will see a large portion of minutes and Joselu could even lead the line.
Joselu was set to be cast aside this summer, but has performed exceptionally well in pre-season and Hughes has been forced to keep him around for now.
Can Stoke push forward?
Without a significant push in the transfer market in the remaining weeks, it’s extremely unlikely that Stoke can even get back to ninth, let alone move forward.
Teams around them have improved, while many will claim that Stoke’s side looks weaker than the one that ended the season.
Zouma will be a welcome addition, and if kept fit can become a fans’ favourite at the bet365 Stadium, but more firepower going forward is surely necessary to make that leap.