Stoke City: How close are they to “cracking it”?

in Opinion

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Mark Hughes ambitious project to turn Stoke from notorious bully-boy cloggers into slick easy on the eye technicians looks close to completion. Long throws, longer punts and aerial onslaughts have been replaced by one-twos, incisive passing and individual dynamism. The Britannia has become a haven for talented misfits and wayward wonderkids. The conversion from Pullisology to Hughesism has been embraced by Stoke fans and neutrals alike. They are a great side to watch. Who’d have thought we’d ever be saying that?

Even more remarkable is the fact that Stoke’s transformation has been financed by peanuts. Over the past 3 seasons, their net spend stands around the £6m mark. It’s a miserly outlay and an apparent consistent unwillingness to spend, which must be a source of blood boiling frustration for Stoke fans and Mark Hughes – especially now.

On the face of it, Stoke look like a team that’s close to breaking into that elite top 6 or so teams in the Premier League, but there are still glaring points of weakness in their team. With the way the Premier League has developed this season, European football should be an achievable target for Stoke, so why haven’t they used the January transfer window to build on the talent Hughes has assembled?

Stoke now have some of the league’s most gifted attacking players in Afellay, Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri – but their abilities lie in chance creation rather than actual goal getting. Stoke have scored less goals than 4 of the bottom 5 sides in the Premier League. With Diouf out of favour and Crouch and Walters offering endeavour without end product, Stoke are crying out for extra fire power.

It makes you wonder why they weren’t head of the queue when Charlie Austin was available at QPR for as little as £4m. Why aren’t Stoke one of the names being bandied about as a possible destination for Graziano Pelle who looks set to leave Southampton? Why hasn’t there been attempt to supplement their options in central midfield and identify a possible upgrade on Glenn Whelan…you know….someone who might actually pass the ball forwards?

Why are the Stoke board sitting on their hands when a little more investment could allow Hughes to build on the exciting foundations he has already laid? It baffles me that those in control of the finances at Stoke cannot recognise the potential for a top 6 finish this season and then spend to reinforce that push accordingly.

A top 6 finish would mean European football and a further incentive for better players to join the club. They look a pretty attractive prospect for potential signees as it is – enjoyable, exciting football in front of a packed and passionate stadium. Stoke tick plenty of boxes already. If you could throw European football in on top of that, then the Britannia moves ever closer to the top of favoured Premier League destinations.

It’s hard to fully understand why the Stoke City board have pulled the purse strings so tight. Hughes predecessor Tony Pullis was funded enthusiastically as he filled their squad with feckless carthorses like Wilson Palacios, Kenwyne Jones, Camerone Jerome and Maurice Edu. Pullis highest league finish was 11th with a sizeable spend – Hughes has beaten that already with two 9th placed finishes in his last couple of seasons, achieved at a fraction of Pullis outlay and in a style of football infinitely more enjoyable to watch.

With increased money from stratospheric TV deals, Stoke’s spending power has never been so high, which makes their tightfisted approach all the more perplexing.

It’s conceivable that Stoke could run of out of gas to go along with their lack of goals by the time May comes around. They could find themselves looking up at the European places from mid-table wondering what might have been. A mid-table finish might also see some of their more talented players leave.

Over the coming summer and longer term, you would expect all of the league’s underperforming sides to invest heavily to remedy their shortcomings so where would that leave Stoke and their financial anaemia? Most probably, it would leave them back down in Premier League limbo, hovering between 12th and 17th, the “Pullis-Zone”.

What a kick in the oatcakes that would be. Stoke supporters have been shown a glimpse of what their club could be this season and to let this team’s potential go unfulfilled through underinvestment would be absolutely criminal.

by Simon Winter

Twitter: @simonjwinter

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