Key man: Asmir Begovic
Predicted position: 17th
Perhaps the biggest surprise during Mark Hughes’ first months in charge of Stoke City has been the almost total lack of activity in the transfer market, a world away from the wheeling and dealing the Welshman had indulged in at QPR 12 months ago.
Having been appointed manager in May, Hughes has so far only completed the signing of Dutchman Erik Pieters from PSV Eindhoven for £3m and of 21-year-old Marc Muniesa, from Barcelona’s reserves, on a free.
While Pieters, a Dutchman international who should make the left-back spot his own, is an undoubtedly a good signing and Muniesa is a promising prospect, neither of them is the sort of name Stoke fans were hoping would kick off the post-Pulis era.
Pulis had abundantly run his course at Stoke, with even his staunchest advocates growing bored and disillusioned with the Welshman’s route one football, but despite the club’s desire to move on from the rough and tumble approach of the last couple of seasons, Hughes is still to land a significant signing.
That, in itself, wouldn’t necessarily be dramatic, but considering that Stoke’s goal return last season was the second worst in the Premier League and that the likes of Peter Crouch, Cameron Jerome, Jonathan Walters and Kenwyne Jones are unlikely to have become prolific strikers over the last few months, Hughes has some cause for concern.
Jermain Defoe and former Manchester United striker Mame Biram Diouf have both been linked with a move to the Potteries, but while the former seems unlikely to fancy a move away from the capital, the latter is considered to be too expensive.
The Senegalese striker had a far from impressive spell at Old Trafford, but found his feet at Hamburg last season, netting 17 goals in 36 matches in all competition. However, the Bundesliga club’s demand of £17m was understandably considered as exorbitant by Hughes.
The former QPR manager has been busy offloading players this summer, with the likes of Rory Delap, Dean Whitehead, Carlo Nash, Mamady Sidibé and Matthew Upson all leaving the club, while Michael Owen hung up his boots.
Despite the taunts of playing “anti-football” and of adopting a pre-historic approach to football, Stoke are undoubtedly a solid side, one that many consider too good to be relegated, despite last season’s dangerous flirt with the bottom three.
The Potters have done well to retain Asmir Begovic, one of the league’s finest custodian, and while over physical and unimaginative, their defence and midfield are both solid enough to guarantee the club a mid-table finish.
The problem, though, is that many Stoke fans seem to have grown bored of the solidity Pulis had brought to the club and would welcome a more open style of football, but Hughes himself was criticised for adopting an overly physical approach when he was in charge of Blackburn.
Furthermore, a change of attitude might easily achieved with words but the personnel at Hughes’ disposal is likely to make the transition incredibly more difficult. Stoke’s problems in front of goal are partly borne out of a midfield that has in Charlie Adam and Steven N’Zonzi its only players of real quality, making the prospect of passing football as realistic as an utopia.
Hughes, however, seems to be a lot more tactically flexible than Pulis ever was and with a solid base to build from and perhaps a couple of more signings over the next couple of weeks, Stoke could slowly begin to move forward again.
Rome, the saying goes, wasn’t built in a day and similarly Stoke’s first season under Hughes will be very much one of transition but, should the Welshman get his team to play football, then the first signs would undoubtedly be encouraging.