At what point does exceeding expectations become meeting them? The question of where the trip-switch between these two points is a most curious one, and we might argue that there none so curious in the entirety of the Premier League than Stoke City Football Club. It has now been five years since Tony Pulis took the club into the top division and this intervening half-decade has always had a hint of gravity defiance about it, but survival in the Premier League should become more comfortable with each passing season of membership and that the club is being tipped by some to struggle this season is simultaneously – and, yes, completely contradictorily – both something of a surprise and considerably less than one. On the one hand, we might ordinarily look at the newly-promoted teams as being those that we might expect to struggle and we might also consider that those who only narrowly avoided relegation at the end of last season might not find things so easy this time around. So, why is there a sense of tetchiness hanging over The Britannia Stadium as the club’s sixth successive season of Premier League football begins?
The answer to this question seems to be three-fold. Firstly, there is the small matter of the departure of Tony Pulis at the start of the summer. Pulis was, of course, hardly a popular figure outside of The Britannia Stadium, and his style of play didn’t necessarily even unite Stoke supporters behind him unanimously. He did, however, at least meet what we might expect the minimum job requirement for a club with the profile of Stoke City in the Premier League – he kept them up, and he did so without the team ever seeming to get too closely dragged into a battle against relegation. This, however, will only get a manager so far these days, and Stoke’s final league positions in the Premier League – twelfth, eleventh, thirteenth, fourteenth, thirteenth – indicated a club that was treading water, and when we consider that the club was spending a reasonably large amount of money on new players, then merely matching, more or less, the achievements of the previous season starts to look a little less impressive. For all this, though, the departure of a long-time manager will inevitably breed a feeling of uncertainty. The Britannia Stadium will, for better or for worse, not be the same for the departure of Tony Pulis.
Secondly, there is the matter of the identity of Pulis’ replacement. Mark Hughes’ record as a manager has been patchy without ever being spectacularly dreadful – last year’s half a season in the Premier League with Queens Park Rangers excepted – but he hardly seems to be a name that has caught the imagination of supporters, and there are understandable reservations concerning whether he will be able to, as he has expressed more than once over the course of the summer, change the team’s playing style and keep it in the relative safety of the middle of the Premier League table. If this is the Premier League’s most transitional summer of all, it might be argued that Stoke City are having to make one of the biggest transitions of all, losing a manager who had built the personality of the team around a way of doing things that was very specific and replacing him with someone who wants to do things quite differently. It would be a challenge, even if it weren’t for the final factor which betrays why this season might be a little more difficult than previous seasons have been.
That final piece in this jigsaw is, of course, a relative lack of activity in the transfer market. So far, Stoke City have brought in just two new players this summer, Erik Pieters from PSV Eindhoven and Marc Muniesa from Barcelona (although excitement at the idea of bringing in a shiny new player from Catalunya might be somewhat tempered by the knowledge that Muniesa only played twice in four years for their first team) and, whilst they have cleared out quite a bit of the deadwood, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that Pulis built a squad to play a specific style of football and that Hughes could be led towards trying to fit square pegs into round holes if he attempts to change the way that the team plays without further investment in players that can deliver this. There are, of course, still three weeks left until the transfer window snaps shut, but the longer time passes, the less likely it becomes that there will be bargains to be had – selling clubs can usually see hints of panic in the whites of their rivals’ eyes on transfer deadline day – and the trickier it may be to integrate them into Hughes’ much-vaunted new system. It’s a gamble, but is it one that Stoke City can afford to take at this moment in time?
None of this is to say that Stoke City will definitely be relegated come the end of this season, of course. It’s entirely possible that Hughes may spot a couple of players that slot into his intended system like a charm, that the two players already signed exceed expectations and that the rest of the squad finds itself liberated by the removal of the straitjacket that Pulis placed over his teams. On the other hand, though, none of the above causes for concern are groundless and, in a division in which there is a tendency for clubs that have previously coasted along in mid-table to get unexpectedly dragged towards the choppier waters of the foot of the table, it’s difficult to make a case for saying that Stoke City will enjoy a better season, in terms of mere number-crunching, than the previous five that they have witnessed in the Premier League. It’s likely to be a bumpy ride, but Stoke City should have enough about them to avoid relegation this season. The problem with this, of course, is the word which indicates the uncertainty of the club’s position as the season looms large in the near distance. Should. It rather feels as if there are no guarantees for Stoke City Football Club this season, and that is a most unfamiliar feeling for supporters when we consider their final league placings under the man who cast aside by the club at the start of the summer.
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