“Can they do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke?” became the archetypal question posed to new foreign players arriving into the Premier League and for any team with title aspirations. Thanks to Andy Gray’s inane comment about Lionel Messi, the industrial style of The Potters quickly became the epitome of the toughest game in the Premiership. If you could find a way to deal with the swirling winds of the Bet365 Stadium (then the Britannia), raucous support, a Shawcross cruncher, the Delap Launcher and the Warrior Walters, then everything else in the Premiership felt like a walk in the park.
Once built in Pulis’ granite like image, Stoke City have evolved over the past few years, achieving their highest finishes in the Premiership under the guidance of Mark Hughes. The fans have also been treated to the odd splash of flair with the very antithesis of a ‘traditional’ Stoke player – Bojan and Shaqiri – seen darting around the windswept pitch. So the question is, why have the club been marked down for relegation and their manager highlighted as the favourite to be sacked first this season?
A little perspective
The visit of Manchester United this weekend brings into focus the changes that have occurred in the post-Pulis era, with more 6ft plus giants likely to be seen in the away dressing room than in the home one. With Jonathan Walters and Glenn Whelan having also left in the past few months, Hughes has succeeded in moving on from the Pulis era while raising the club to three consecutive 9th place finishes. While last season saw them drop to 13th, it is worth remembering that they were only 2 points off Southampton and Bournemouth, who were placed in 8th and 9th respectively.
Perhaps it’s their modest activity in the transfer window that cast down on their ability to survive this season. While the signing of Darren Fletcher doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, he provides great experience and depth to their squad. The purchase of both Kevin Wimmer for £18 million and Kurt Zouma on loan are solid signings that negate the need for both players to acclimatise to the Premiership. Jese Rodríguez has made a strong start to life in the Potteries, scoring the goal that claimed their first three points of the season against Arsenal, while Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting could add some much needed assists and goals from midfield.
Five in a row?
There is even cause for optimism ahead of their clash with Manchester United this Saturday evening. You have to go back to April 2013 to find the last time Stoke lost at home in the Premiership to Mourinho’s men, picking up two wins and two draws in those four matches. Ironically, it is a man who many believe would fit hand-in-glove with the Stoke team that has proven to be Man United’s talisman so far this season. The one-man chaos theory of the football world that is Marouane Fellaini has made a post-70th minute appearance in each of their three games, a period in which 60% of United’s goals have been scored, including one by the big man himself.
Stoke face a tough game this weekend against a team in rampaging form and as with every season, avoiding a defeat will be a bonus. As we’ve all be made aware, there are five Champions League winners on their books – Shaqiri, Afellay, Fletcher, Jesé and Bojan (out on loan) – although they have only played a combined one minute of football in a Champions League final. Still, there is talent in their squad to pull off an upset and certainly more than enough to keep them safely mid-table late into the season.
With 4 points from the first three games, there appears to be no tangible reason for Stoke fans to worry about a relegation fight this season. One look down the table at the likes of Crystal Palace, West Ham and Brighton already shows there are at least three teams facing up to the prospect of long, arduous campaigns. While it’s hard to paint Stoke’s immediate future as rosy, equally, there is no reason to fear the onset of a long spell of doom and gloom.