Stoke City continued to demonstrate steady growth and progression in their second season under Mark Hughes, setting club records for points (54, four better than last year) and number of wins (15) in a Premier League season. They may be slightly disappointed with their performances in cup competitions, as they were knocked out of both the FA Cup and League Cup at the last 16 stage; but overall they continued to improve, moving closer to potentially challenging for European football.
While Stoke spent almost nothing over the summer, they manipulated the market expertly, targeting unwanted players from bigger clubs as well as a few solid, dependable rotational players with Premier League experience (Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell). In addition, they signed Mame Biram Diouf on a free transfer from Hannover, with the Senegalese striker top scoring for the side with 12 league goals, outperforming many other strikers signed last summer for significant fees.
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Since his arrival, Hughes has tried to integrate more attacking flair into Stoke’s play; demonstrated most obviously this summer by the purchase of Bojan Krkic, who represents a potentially more attractive, cultured future for the club, as well as increased potential for success. However, at the time it seemed somewhat of a gamble for someone who has consistently failed to replicate the play that saw him lauded as just a 16 year-old; but at £1.56m it was both calculated and risk averse, and has proven to be a steal as long as he can stay healthy.
After an uneven start to the season for both Bojan and the rest of the team, the La Masia graduate settled in. Allowed to express himself while being fully protected by giants both in front and behind him, he produced the moments of magic people have been waiting to see for seven long years, inspiring Stoke to a strong mid-season run of just 3 losses in 14 games.
Along with the ever-present Steven N’Zonzi (probably Stoke’s player of the season), he was able to form an impressive midfield axis for the likes of Diouf, Marko Arnautovic and Jonathan Walters could operate more freely until the Spaniard’s season ending knee injury in late January (by which point they were sitting comfortably in tenth). Alongside N’Zonzi, Glen Whelan had another good season, helping to balance his teammates box-to-box, energetic work with a more measured approach, anchoring the midfield with his smart positioning and precise long range passing.
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While the form of Bojan and the increased confidence and freedom with which Stoke played in the middle of the season may have been the highlight of their campaign, this was an effort underpinned by a typically reliable and resolute defensive effort. Both Ryan Shawcross and Asmir Begovic were once again unerringly consistent while January loanee Philipp Wollscheid helped add an air of quality and authority to the back line, leading to Stoke activating a £3.5m option to buy; keeping him at the club next season and beyond. That laid the foundation for Stoke’s eventual ninth place finish over the second half of the season, while both Walters and Peter Crouch again made solid contributions, scoring eight goals apiece.
Grade: B+, an inconsistent start of the season, as well as somewhat patchy home form (which included home defeats to Burnley and Leicester) and no significant cup run keep this grade below an A, however, this was another very good season under Mark Hughes, as the club continues to add to the solid foundation Tony Pulis left behind.