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Nine, nine, nine: rather than denoting an emergency, Stoke’s league finishes under Mark Hughes are an indication of consistency.
They have been turned into annual top-half finishers on a budget and with an injection of flair. It is no mean feat. But there are signs that ambitions have been raised and the shackles loosened: January’s club-record signing of Giannelli Imbula has been followed by the £13 million (Dh62.9m) acquisition of Joe Allen to complete an expensive new-look midfield.
Their pursuit of Saido Berahino is a sign a front-line striker is also on the agenda, perhaps meaning the use of Bojan Krkic as a false nine, which worked so well in last season’s wins over the Manchester clubs, will be relegated to Plan B.
Marko Arnautovic at least provided a regular source of goals last season, contributing 11 from the left flank, and has signed a new deal.
His excellence was a reason why a slow start did not lead to a season of struggle. The Austria winger and goalkeeper Jack Butland were Stoke’s outstanding players then and their defensive record deteriorated dramatically when an ankle injury ended his campaign.
But with Butland back, Stoke will look to ally solidity with style again. It may even produce a fourth ninth-place finish.
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Key Man: Ryan Shawcross
When their captain was injured in January, Stoke’s captain was in his 14th appearance of the league campaign and Stoke had only conceded 11 goals. It is a sign of the difference he makes.
Pivotal Signing: Joe Allen
Named in the team of Euro 2016, which was a sign of his quality, the Welshman slipped down the pecking order at Liverpool, but he and Imbula have the potential to be an excellent partnership in the midfield.
Point to Prove: Xherdan Shaqiri
A brilliant overhead kick at Euro 2016 indicated his quality. There were flashes of quality from the Swiss last year, but a total of three goals was an inadequate reflection of his talent. He can do better.
Crucial Factor: Restoring fortress Britannia
Opponents have been intimidated at Stoke’s windy ground before, but while some big names were beaten in the Potteries, the concern for Hughes should be that his side suffered seven home defeats.
Predicted finish: 11th
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