The season is coming to a climax with Leicester City attempting to hold off the fast finishing Tottenham Hotspur to be crowned champions of England in what would be the biggest shock in Premier League history. While Leicester have been superb this year, another unfancied team could so easily have been fighting for the top prize had things gone slightly differently for them. Stoke City currently sit 9th on the table with 47 points but undoubtedly could have been at least in the running for the Champions League spots let alone the title race, especially with the big absences of Chelsea and Everton occupying those top few positions.
So where have Stoke slipped up this season? Firstly, it’s apparent that their big name signings just haven’t lived up to both their reputations or their price tags. Swiss international, Xherdan Shaqiri signed on in the summer from Inter Milan for, at the time, a club record 12 million pounds in what appeared to be the transfer coup of the summer period. On top of this, French midfielder Giannelli Imbula was signed in the in the January transfer period for a club record 18.3 million pounds. Spanish midfielder Joselu was also brought in during the summer for 5.75 million pounds while top class players Ibrahim Afellay, Shay Given and Marco Van Ginkel were also added to the squad to provide depth.
While it all appears to be extremely successful business on paper, it just hasn’t translated into solid, consistent performances. To date, Shaqiri has only contributed 3 goals and 6 assists all season while Joselu has notched 4 goals to go with 3 assists. On top of this, Imbula, although not known to be a stat accumulating player, has a measly one assist to his name. While it has to be acknowledged that it takes time to adjust to a new country and new style of football, there just isn’t enough production to warrant both the money paid and the hope instilled in fans at the news of these signings. In contrast, both Riyad Mahrez (350,000 pounds) and Dimiti Payet (10.7 million) have dazzled this season and both play a similar position and style as Shaqiri. On the back of their form, both Leicester and West Ham respectively have had exceptional seasons, with Mahrez in particular mere games away from guiding his team to the title. Unfortunately for Stoke fans, this could so easily have been Shaqiri leading their team to the top, but the dynamic, explosive play so often associated with the Swiss has been few and far between this season.
Defence has also been a weak point for Stoke throughout this year and has been for some time. For a number of years Stoke were renowned for their bullish defence and boasted a towering backline lead by Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross. However, with the sale of Huth and Steven N’Zonzi in the summer and without adequate replacements, Stoke have struggled to prevent opposing teams from scoring regularly. Stoke have conceded 47 goals this all season, which is just far too high for a team of their quality. To put this in perspective, table-topping Leicester have only shipped 33 goals while Tottenham have only allowed an impressive 25 goals. The biggest loss for Stoke over the summer has arguably been Steven N’Zonzi, their robust, goal scoring holding midfielder. N’Zonzi was crucial in providing his back four with protection while also chipping in with some stunning goals in his time. His departure has meant that the defence has been exposed far too often, something on show in their their 4-0 defeat to Tottenham. For Stoke fans, the overall performance of the back four has been bitterly disappointing all season and is an area Mark Hughes will undoubtedly look to sure up over the summer.
What’s been the most impressive aspect of Leicester’s rise to the top of league has been their ability to beat the so called ‘big teams’. To become champions, you have to be able to beat the teams around you, as not only does it increase your own point tally, but it takes points of rivals. This is an area that Stoke have failed to capitalise upon this season. Although having impressive wins over both Manchester clubs and Chelsea, Stoke have failed to pick up three points against any of Leicester, Liverpool, West Ham, or Tottenham. If a team is to come any where near the Champions League positions, let alone top spot, it is crucial that points are gained against their competitors. It appears that, despite Mark Hughes banishing the much-condemned playing style embedded during the Tony Pulis era, the team just isn’t set up well enough to compete with the intricate play employed by the bigger teams. This is something that Hughes as a manager has constantly struggled to do and is something that must be considered in the future if Stoke want to take the next step to becoming an English powerhouse.
It is clear that in the years following their promotion to the Premier League, Stoke City have become a consistent performer, regularly finishing within the top half of the league and competing gallantly against the stronger teams. Now more than ever is a decisive time within the club, needing to decide whether they want to become the next Leicester and attempt to compete for the mantle of Champions, or are content merely maintaining their League status. It’s clear that the platform has been laid, they have the building blocks to compete with the best firmly in place. Whether they really want to take the next step as a playing group and a club really depends on how much drive and desire the manager, players and owners have to become the champions of the Premier League.