Despite poor results Mark Hughes’ side have shown flashes of how good they could be
25 September ~ When, just a couple of days into the season, Stoke City announced the signing of Xherdan Shaqiri it marked more than the end of a seven-month pursuit for the player. It seemed to symbolise the end of what we might call "old" Stoke. The Stoke City of the long throws, longer balls and everyone-hates-us-paranoia was over (it never actually existed to the extent the cliche said anyway) but these days we were the Stoke City of good football, of Bojan, Ibrahim Afellay and now a Champions League winner who, at 23, palpably had his best days in front of him.
The signing sent expectations through the roof. People were talking about that mythical "next level" and tilts for Europe. This was fuelled by an end to the previous season when we managed to overcome the loss of Bojan in January, a ridiculous defeat to Blackburn in the FA Cup in February and still finish ninth and play some marvellous football along the way.
The 6-1 defeat of Liverpool in Steven Gerrard's last match grabbed the headlines (and was funny in the extreme) but we'd actually arguably played better against Spurs a fortnight before and that dismissal of Liverpool was no fluke. So why then do Stoke go into tomorrow's game with Bournemouth winless in six league games and in the bottom three?
Conventional wisdom says we lost our two best players in the summer and signed too many new boys to gel into a team. That's partly true and certainly the sale – and subsequent failure to properly replace – Steven N'zonzi has been a real issue, but Asmir Begovic's departure to Chelsea was not really a factor. Jack Butland has proved himself to be an able deputy (and will end up being better than Begovic) and of the 12 players Sky reckon we signed, two were goalkeepers, half were kids for the under-21s and one was made permanent as part of his loan agreement.
Rather, the stuttering opening is best explained by first saying we are missing Ryan Shawcross and can't defend, but also by looking at Shaqiri himself. In flashes he's been superb (the free-kick he put on a plate for Mame Diouf to score at Norwich for example), but he's struggled for consistency.
In microcosm that's the team too. For half an hour we were excellent at Tottenham, similar at home to West Brom, and for 45 minutes last week at home to Leicester we were a joy to watch. The trouble is we were 2-0 down at Spurs when we started to play, in the West Brom game we managed to get ourselves down to nine men before the clock ticked to 3.30pm and we contrived to give a stupid penalty away and not to defend a long ball against the Foxes.
So yes, we might only have three points, but even after the abysmal surrender at the Emirates the alarm bells aren't ringing too loud. There's pundits in local media – and yes, Danny Higginbotham that means you – who tell you Stoke's "identity" has gone and the phrase "Mark Hughes' tenure at QPR" is being whispered. However if you actually watch us, that seems like knee-jerk filled hysteria at this stage. It would be handy to start proving it tomorrow, mind you. New Stoke could do with some points to match the optimism. Andy Thorley