Season Preview 13/14: STOKE CITY

Soccer - Mark Hughes Unveiling - Clayton Wood Training GroundIt’s all change at Stoke City this season; a new man at the helm, a new footballing ethos and a renewed sense of optimism for the Delilah singing faithful.

After flirting with the possibility of relegation towards the back end of last season and finishing as the lowest goal scorers in the league for the second consecutive year, the idea of attacking, aesthetically pleasing football has left many Stoke City fans purring at the thought.

But there’s an old phrase that pundits, fans and journalists may use when considering Stoke City’s chances this season, and it’s one that casts a dark cloud above the Britannia Stadium.

“Don’t fix what’s not broken”.

When Tony Pulis inevitably left the managerial hot seat in the Potteries, a like-minded manager, who knew the club and could lead a group of 6ft+ footballers to mid-table was, for most, the order of the day.  So when Welshman and relegation scrapper, Mark Hughes was chosen, it seemed a surprise announcement.

Although Pulis’ side was stuttering towards the end of his reign, it was still very much a fully functioning machine and there are fears that a new man with a new mantra could cause chaos in the City ranks.

There has been one fixture that no football fan fancied over the last few years and that was a trip to the Britannia Stadium, equipped with an icy breeze and ferocious atmosphere. On the pitch you knew you would be in for a battle; a Scrooge-like defence, an aggressive barrage of long balls and a will to fight (sometimes quite literally) for the red and white stripes. But you’ll be hard pushed to find a team under the guidance of Mark Hughes that play with that daunting style of football.

The Sentinel’s Stoke City reporter Martin Spink calmed any fears about the new regime: “There’s been an unmistakeable change in footballing philosophy.

“Given fair wind and support from the stands he [Hughes] should do fine in terms of keeping Stoke stable and largely out of trouble.”

Many people raised eyebrows at Hughes’ declaration of his desire to alter the style of the Stoke City juggernaut, and patience – he has vowed – is key. How long it will take for the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Peter Crouch to master the art of Tiki-taka football is anybody’s guess.

Football writer and Stoke City fan James Whittaker claimed: “Hughes’ biggest challenge is to retrain the players into footballers.” A challenge that may see the best, or the worst, brought out in Stoke City.

2ffevbwLast season: 13th
Odds: 3000/1
Erik Pieters (PSV Eindhoven, £3m), Marc Muniesa (Barcelona, free)
Out:  Michael Owen (retired), Rory Delap (Burton, free) Matthew  Lund (Rochdale, free), Carlo Nash (Norwich, free), Matthew Upson (Brighton, free),  Dean Whitehead, (Middlesbrough, free),  Mamady Sidibe (released)

What’s new?

It’s been a slow transfer window by Stoke terms, so far this summer and apart from the arrival of Mark Hughes, there’s not a lot that is new at The Brit – perhaps, following on from the “don’t fix what’s not broken” message, that’s a good thing.

The City owners parted way with £3m worth of cash in signing Dutch defender Erik Pieters from PSV. The acquisition of the 24 year-old left back (a much needed position to fill) shows Hughes’ determination to fill in the gaps and add some quality into the side where it’s most needed.

City also captured the signature of Barcelona youth graduate Marc Muniesa, and that may be the first hint of the “new Stoke City” Hughes is trying to create. A 5ft 11in defender, brought up in one of the world’s best academies where “pass, pass and pass again” is the moto – doesn’t necessarily scream out your typical Stoke City style.

Both men arrive in the Midlands having played very little first team football over the last 12 months. Pieters made just two league appearances for PSV last year after struggling with a string of injuries – most notably a three month absence due to slicing his arm after reacting angrily to being sent off.

A string of new faces are expected in the next couple of weeks with a couple of technically sound attackers required. “The lack of cutting edge in attack remains a festering sore on the evidence of pre-season thus far and that problem needs fixing with a genuine goalscorer.” Said Spinks, and with names such as Scott Sinclair, Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent being touted as potential recruits, they could be the additions to fire stoke into the top half of the table.

Tactics/starting XI

It will be interesting to see how Hughes sets his side out for the first few games of the season. For much of Pulis’ Premier League reign the tracksuit laden gaffer stuck to a rigid 4-4-2 formation with Jonathan Walters playing alongside Peter Crouch. An industrial, gritty and often brutal set up that could grind a result out against even the very best of teams.

When you think back to Hughes tenures in charge of Fulham, QPR and Manchester City, defence was neglected – flair, offence and a questionable “softness” were traits so often used to describe Hughes’ mentality to management. With an abundance of footballing talent in the squad it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hughes pack the midfield with three talented central midfielders that could flourish in the new system. Cameron Jerome, Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones are ready made to lead the line and, with the squad as it is, now it looks likely a 4-5-1 formation will be used.

Probable Starting XI: Begovic, Pieters, Huth, Shawcross, Cameron, Nzonzi, Adams, Kightly, Shea, Etherington, Crouch

Key player

When you look down the squad list of Stoke City you will contemplate who their key player is for some time; Brek Shea down the wing, Begovic in goal or Huth at the back. There’s not one player who can “make something out of nothing” and there’s very little indication that Peter Crouch will be the “20 goal a season man” and with a new focus on good football it’s unlikely the Potters defence will be as reliable as it has been over the past five years.

If Stoke were to rely on one man this year, one man who’ll give you everything and push the side on to grab all three points or to survive during this transitional year they would all turn to one man – the twelfth man; 25,000, Tom Jones singing, raucous, passionate and die-hard Stoke fans. A cauldron of noise, a gargantuan atmosphere and a frightening army are enough to break the spirit of the toughest of teams and motivate and spur on a Stoke side need the fans to be behind them more so than ever before.

Keep an eye on

If Tony Pulis stepping down and a change in footballing mantra was to bring the best out of anyone in the red stripes, then it will be sure to benefit Charlie Adam. Adam, the puppeteer of City, the creative midfielder with a goal up his sleeve, hasn’t quite flourished since his move away from Blackpool to join Liverpool before moving to the Britannia. If Hughes is looking for one man to be the linchpin and demonstrate an array of passing that can unlock defences then he doesn’t need to look much further than the Scottish midfielder.

Opening fixtures

With opening fixtures including trips to Anfield, The Emirates and Upton Park as well as playing hosts to newly promoted Crystal Palace and 2012 Champions Manchester City the Potters have a tough start to the season.  “Getting them out of the way early” is one way of looking at the fixture list and may ease the pressure on the new regime to get off to a good start. 

Where will they finish?

There’s no doubt that this could prove to be a tough season for Stoke City, fans and players alike will be relieved to turn their backs on the season with Premier League status in toe. Survival is the aim and providing there is signings on the horizon that should be secured and there is no reason why they can’t look to strive higher than tenth place.

BPF Prediction: 18th

The Author

Anthony Kendrick

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