The player of the season contest was only ever a two-horse race, and if the identity of the contenders couldn’t quite be described as a surprise, it’s also fair to say you wouldn’t necessarily have called it this way at the start of the season. Both Jack Butland and Marko Arnautovic began 2015/16 with something to prove.
Butland had impressed at the tail end of last season, but his Premier League experience when we kicked off at home to Liverpool amounted to five-and-a-half games. Arnie meanwhile, had finished each of his two seasons in The Potteries strongly, but had still to demonstrate he could perform consistently over a season.
In the case of our young goalkeeper, the ascent has been nothing short of remarkable. We knew we had a bright prospect on our hands – he’d been tipped for greatness for years, he’d worked with the best goalkeeping coaches the country has to offer, he’d been given the seal of approval from our club president, the greatest number 1 of them all. But it’s incredible how quickly he’s settled into the first team. You might argue that Asmir Begovic’s disappointing final season eased some of the pressure off Butland, but the Bosnian’s were still sizeable gloves to fill, and life as a Premier League goalkeeper is a pressured one. Butland has made it look easy.
He caught the eye with a series of point blank one-one-one saves in our first two away games of the season at Spurs and Norwich, ensuring contests that could have been one-sided hammerings instead earned us a valuable point in each. He never looked back. Our defence has afforded him plenty of action this season (he was the first goalkeeper in the Premier League to make 100 saves this term) but he has risen to that challenge. At the start of the season the debate in the media was how many points Petr Cech would be worth to Arsenal, with the old Brian Clough ’12-15’ figure bandied about. Butland has been worth at least that many if not more, his saves as pivotal as they are breathtaking. Remember the save from Fellaini that maintained a clean sheet at a crucial stage of the game on Boxing Day? How about the brilliant goal-line funnelling away of Giroud’s header in the draw with Arsenal? The close-range claw away from Seydou Doumbia to protect the win at the death against Newcastle?
Confident, commanding, decisive, and not even the finished article yet, it’s only those imperfections (like his kicking) that are keeping him here. Iron those out and he’ll be the total package, destined for bigger things.
It’s hard to overstate his influence. With him we were European contenders. Without him we resembled relegation fodder. I think I’m right in saying he’s Stoke’s first-ever PFA Young Player of the Year nominee (feel free to pull me up on that), and with the club having a fine heritage of England goalkeepers and great ‘keepers in general, Butland is a welcome addition to both pantheons.
For Arnautovic, meanwhile, this was always going to be a big season. We knew what he was capable of. We’d seen him at his best, the strength, the deftest of first touches, the bursts of acceleration. We’d seen the glimpses and the runs of form that had once made him one of Europe’s most coveted footballers. Yet we hadn’t seen him put it all together for long enough. He needed to show he didn’t just need “the sun on his back” as Mark Bowen had suggested, didn’t just “need to be loved” or all the other luxury player-apologist clichés directed at him by critics and well-meaning well-wishers alike. And he did. This was the campaign in which Arnautovic rose to the challenge and finally became the talisman we’d hoped for since his arrival, a man worthy of the number 10 shirt.
From the get-go, Arnie was up for it. Challenged to add more goals to his game. he scored Stoke’s first goal of the season and was hungry for more. Belters like the powerful, graceful, arcing 25-yarder against Manchester United and athletic volley that beat Chelsea were accompanied by tap-ins earned by last-gasp bursts to the near post and nervelessly despatched penalties. That combination of strength and skill was constantly to the fore, as he tortured lesser mortals like Alan Hutton and Ritchie de Laet, dropping a shoulder and losing them, bouncing them off him, bewitching them with a fleet-footed shimmy.
With 11 goals and six assists, the Viennese virtuoso contributed to 42% of our total goals scored in the league. Rather than being threatened by the signing of Shaqiri and return of Bojan, he eclipsed them, making himself the undisputed star of our famed BMX golden triangle.
That contribution is why he, for me, just pips Butland to POTY honours. He carried our attacking threat on his shoulders like Atlas for the duration. At £2.5m, he is by an embarrassing margin Mark Hughes’ best signing, and it’s devastating to think he might have kicked his last ball for the club, but the reality is he’s 27-years-old, in the form of his career and if he’s going to play at the level he craves, it’s pretty much now or never. If we can’t persuade him to stay, all there is to do is wish him well and say thanks for the memories Arnie. We’ll be talking about you for years.