Stoke City: halted progress

When you look at the squad list, there should be great optimism in North Staffordshire, Stoke City boast three UEFA Champions League winners and a FIFA World Cup third placer but as the Potters look at another lower mid table finish, should Mark Hughes’ team be doing more?

Make no bones about it, comfortable survival in the Premier League is no mean feat, look at the likes of Sunderland and Newcastle United, both clubs with greater fanbases and both North East clubs have been in the Premier League longer but both clubs have suffered relegation to the EFL in the last two seasons.

But within those teams’ descent lies the problems, they struggled to progress and by standing still you are going backwards and the Potters are in danger of falling behind.

Stoke’s squad over their near decade stay in the top flight has taken a drastic transformation, under Tony Pulis, Stoke came up with the likes of Rory Delap, James Beattie and Ricardo Fuller who by at this point in their careers were solid Championship players.

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By contrast, the hard-working battlers of Pulis have been displaced by the fancy foreign ball-players of Hughes, Sparky bringing in the likes of Bojan, Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Their recruitment deserves a lot of plaudits, signing talented players that were sought after by other top European and Premier League clubs but struggled to get considerable game time at their current teams.

Bojan never hit the heights as he had done in the FC Barcelona youth side, Arnautovic was often criticised for his attitude and Shaqiri couldn’t remove Arjen Robben or Frank Ribery from the Bayern Munich XI.

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With their new approach, you perhaps expect the Potters to be challenging for that next level, to be up there trying to push for Europe but despite three consecutive 9th place finishes that simply hasn’t been the case.

In their defence, the top six is as congested as ever, never before has there been this many clubs vying for just four UEFA Champions League places.

Ask Everton, West Ham or Southampton who have come agonisingly close to breaching the top six monopoly in recent seasons, the club’s at the top (last season’s Leicester City excluded) simply have more money, thicker squads and better resources and you’ll be hard pushed to match them.

But then, arguably the biggest disappointment is that for Stoke, unlike those other clubs named is that they haven’t ever looked like breaching that gap, for all their new approach they’re arguably no closer to Europe than they were under Pulis, who ironically led them to the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 in 2012 via the FA Cup.

This season has seen a distinct lack of cup runs, the 2011 FA Cup runners up have only once looked close to returning to Wembley in the six years since, losing last season’s League Cup semi final to Liverpool.

Third Round exits of both FA & EFL Cups to Championship Wolves and Premier League relegation-threatened Hull City, respectively.

If you are standing still, you are only going backwards.

With a lack of progression and success, you question how long this team can stay together? Bojan has spent 2017 with Mainz on loan, record signing Gianelli Imbula could be on his way out after a disappointing move to England and clubs around Europe will covet the likes of Shaqiri and Jack Butland should the latter retain his fitness.

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Mark Hughes may be faced with a 2017 rebuilding job but if he couldn’t go further than consolidation with these talents, will he ever be able to take Stoke to that next level?

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