After a turbulent campaign for the Potters, Stoke City have a big summer ahead of them if they are to get back-on-track with their potential.
Stoke City are a team lacking identity and Mark Hughes’ sweeping changes have begun to be reversed, the team are eking into the bottom half of the table for the first time in several seasons and the fan base is split in a way similar to the turmoil at Arsenal.
Hughes was met with scepticism by many upon his appointment after the mess he oversaw at Queen’s Park Rangers. Those who felt Tony Pulis was a club icon deserving of a longer tenure questioned the arrival of the former Manchester United striker, while others were appreciative of a club stuck in the mid-table mud pushing for greater things stylistically.
The Potters discarded players synonymous with the Pulis era in favour of glitzier names. Eventually they were the proud owners of multiple Champions League winners, while retaining the hardened core of the squad lead by Ryan Shawcross, Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan. While Whelan particularly needed replacing, the Potters were a team who could fight you in the car park and dazzle with charm in the form of Xherdan Shaqiri, Marko Arnatuovic, Bojan and others.
This came to a head during the first part of the 2015/16 campaign. Operating with a false nine – yes, that’s Stoke City with a false nine – the team was one of the best to watch around Europe. Bojan dropped into pockets of space, goals were easy to come by and the diagonal left footed pings from Shaqiri to Arnautovic were edging towards trademark status. Briefly, in fact, a European finish looked within range as Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United all vastly underachieved.
The January window saw the arrival of Giannelli Imbula for a club record transfer fee. Imbula was started 14 matches in the second half of the campaign and injected something new to the Potters’ midfield. A player once sought after by some European giants was doing it in the chilly early spring months at a windy Britannia.
The summer, however, saw another few months of bizarre transfer activity and the signing of Joe Allen. Allen and Imbula were unlikely to be able to function in a team with Bojan, Shaqiri and Arnatuovic. A problem was rife immediately and Imbula was the first to suffer. The Frenchman has started just nine Premier League games this season and is on course to leave the club, with a move to Roma being touted. He has played seven Premier League minutes since 2016.
A 4-3-3 may have worked had a defensive midfielder been signed to allow Allen and Imbula to play in box-to-box roles behind the magic triumvirate. The arrival of Wilfried Bony – and latterly Saido Berhaino – further muddied the waters and led to the departure of Bojan.
All of this was after the club’s style had regressed towards the making-do days of Pulis. Imbula was clearly deemed surplus despite seldom being given opportunity and a midfield of Allen, Geoff Cameron and Whelan became common. Imbula even vanished from the matchday squad after a while as his fate became clear. The club went from king killers of giants to a team incapable of upsetting the odds in 2016/17; winning when they should and losing when they should.
Imbula’s impending departure is a sign of a club accepting mediocrity at this juncture. The ambition and flair of Hughes’ appointment and 18 months ago are no longer felt amongst the fans or the club. The divide over the manager’s future is a debate for another time – as is their transfer shortcomings – but the Potters must be wary of their current status. This – unlike last season – has been a campaign of slumps outlasting hot streaks, which is a trend that will only edge towards unpleasantly warm waters.