THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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Having been accused of a lack of ambition the Potters hope signing Jesé Rodríguez will turn the tide, with Arsenal first up in their expanded stadium

19 August ~ Stoke City’s match with Arsenal this evening is certain to attract a record crowd to the Bet365 Stadium. This summer has seen the first major changes in its 20-year history. One of the corners has been – finally – filled in to increase capacity alongside a raft of other improvements too. It was needed. The ground looked tired, not quite up to standard for the modern Premier League.

The same, in the last 18 months, has been levelled at the team. Last season mostly was a morass of dullness punctuated by the odd hammering at the hands of the bigger clubs, while we merrily went around picking up points by beating the teams below us.

It was enough to keep the Potters up, and maybe that should be enough for a club of Stoke’s size. It felt, though, like the team were going backwards. A first bottom-half finish under Mark Hughes, defeats in the early rounds of both the cup competitions and a chronic lack of goals led a number of Stoke fans to question whether Hughes had reached the end of his time.

Last week, while we were losing 1-0 to Everton, looking OK but never likely to come back from going a goal down (this has been a recurring theme throughout Hughes’ time – last term Stoke managed to recover just three points from losing positions), Robbie Savage apparently used his platform on BT Sport to urge Hughes to quit. He too thought the 53-year-old had taken the club as far as he can, but not for the same reasons a lot of fans do.

Instead Savage blamed the board for not backing him. Rather like the ground they play in, Stoke’s team has had a freshen up. Longstanding stalwarts Jonathan Walters and Glenn Whelan left, squad players such as Marc Muniesa and Phil Bardsley were shipped out and, with a lot more rancour, so was Marko Arnautovic, who walked out of the door with typical controversy questioning the “ambition” of the club.

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To back up Savage’s assertions their places have been filled by the arrival of a free transfer or two, and a couple of exciting loan signings – Kurt Zouma (from Chelsea) looked superb last week and Paris Saint-Germain’s Jesé Rodríguez is the typical Stoke buy: he’s been good, fell away and is looking to recapture some form. His arrival drew an incredibly bullish “welcome” video from a club clearly stung by the criticism they’ve received.

It is inescapable, though, that a couple of Hughes’s recent forays into the transfer market have been poor. Saido Berahino seems uninterested and they’ve spent the summer trying to sell their record signing, Giannelli Imbula, which perhaps explains why money hasn’t been quite so forthcoming for permanent signings.

All of which leaves more questions than answers ahead of a game that always gets Stoke fans fired up. Arsenal are a team that have been disliked in the Potteries for nearly 50 years since an FA Cup semi went down in folklore for an offside goal, not to mention bad blood of more recent vintage. Late last season Wenger’s men turned up and embarrassed Stoke 4-1. It will do nothing for the mood in the spruced up ground if that happens again. Andy Thorley

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