More often that not over the past number of seasons, if Premier League fans could choose one team that they thought played the worst football, Stoke City would be a common answer.
Physical, dirty, long balls and an ‘ugly’ style of football brought a somewhat negative reputation to the Britannia. Opposing players were believed to be targeted, numerous injuries were incurred on the pitch and goals were not something fans were treated to regularly.
That has changed over the past two seasons. Since Mark Hughes was appointed back in 2013, he has transformed Stoke into a more creative and football friendly club.
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Before Hughes was appointed, Stoke had scored on average 36 goals per season. For those that aren’t so mathematical, that averages less than a goal a game for the duration of the season.
However, since Hughes’ appointment, Stoke have scored 45 and 48 goals respectively, and it would be no surprise if they were to break the 50 goal barrier this coming season.
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The squad has changed quite drastically over the past number of years. The long throw of Rory Delap that terrorized goalkeepers and defenders has since moved on.
The likes of Dean Whitehead, Jonathan Woodgate, Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller are now a distant memory. A host of younger, more exciting players, now don the Red and White stripes of the Britannia.
Leading the way in terms of defense is an established central partnership between Ryan Shawcross and Phillip Wollscheid.
Shawcross may be one of the most hated players in the Premier League thanks to his regular injury inflicting tackles (none more so shocking than that on Aaron Ramsay).
However, there is no denying his talent as one of the leading centre backs the Premier League has on display, as proven by his regular possible transfer to a high profile club every summer.
Patrolling the defensive flanks are Phil Bardsley and Erik Pieters. Both may not have the stature of a certain Branislav Ivanovic or Pablo Zabaleta, but neither one is to be taken likely. Both like to get forward as seen by their ability to provide assists and crosses regularly.
However, new boy Glen Johnson is likely to slot in at right back. No doubt, one of the most talked about players in the league, Johnson has endured a tough few years of criticism.
Even I have had my fair share of horrible words for the England international, but I firmly believe he can still bring something valuable to Stoke.
Playing in an environment where the pressure won’t be as big (as that from the Kop), and almost with a forgotten presence, he may just turn out to be a very clever signing by Mark Hughes. Watch out for his performances in the coming year.
A number of central midfield hard men have been asked to keep tabs on opposition on a regular basis. Charlie Adam, Glen Whelan, Geoff Cameron and Steven N’Zonzi (now playing for Sevilla) have all been an integral part of Stoke’s resilience and defensive achievements.
Charlie Adam has the ability to score from anywhere on the pitch, literally anywhere, while the addition of Marko Van Ginkel may come in handy.
Premier League fans won’t know much about him as he has failed to break into the Chelsea team. At 22 years-of-age, he has a bright future ahead of him. Already making his debut for Holland, he enjoyed a very producitve spell at Vitesse and will be eager to help the Potters by fulfilling the so called “Yaya Toure role”.
Attacking players is where Stoke have improved the most over the last number of seasons. Jonathan Walters has proved consistency can be vital (scoring ten goals or more in four of the last five seasons).
The signings of Assaidi, Arnautovic, Odemwingie and new arrival Ibrahim Afellay has given Stoke a regular threat out wide, with the added ability to provide the strikers with quality ball.
We all know what Peter Crouch brings to the team, as he’s done it now for more than 12 years in the Premier League. Mame Biram Diouf proved to be a genius signing by Hughes as he notched up 12 goals in the last campaign.
The two key players that may end up swaying Stokes season towards a top eight finish will be that of Bojan Krkic and the goalkeeping slot. Bojan, a wonder-kid at Barcelona, has moved around Europe, failing to consistently show why he was so highly rated in Spain.
Having signed for just under two million Euros, Bojan was just beginning to find his feet in the Premier League until an injury in January ruled him out for the remainder of the season. If Bojan can regain full fitness and maintain that fitness throughout the campaign, there is no doubt in my mind he can be Stoke City’s superstar.
The goalkeeping vacancy that has been left with the departure of Asmir Begovic to Chelsea has been somewhat filled by Shay Given.
It remains to be seen whether Given can force his way into the starting eleven, after Mark Hughes confirmed in a recent interview that young Englishman, Jack Butland, will begin the season as the first choice goalkeeper.
Either way, Stoke City have two very good shot stoppers which they can call upon when needed.
In summary, Stoke City have shown improvement every single season, since 2012, finishing 14, 13th, 9th and 9th respectively.
With the new additions that Hughes has made so far, and a couple more exciting players to be brought in to the Potters, one would be foolish not to think Stoke will be a real contender in trying to gain a position in the Premier League top eight.