One of the manager’s best qualities thus far has been his ability to work with a relatively low budget and still take the club to its best league finishes since the 1970s. Before July, the highest fee Hughes had paid as Stoke manager was £3m for Erik Pieters, and if you discount that as a deal already in the offing before he arrived, the biggest deal becomes the £2.5m for Arnie.
Last summer, he was finally rewarded with the long-awaited re-opening of the Bet 365 warchest, further boosted by the £16m or so received for Begovic and Nzonzi. £5.75m Joselu became the fourth-most expensive Stoke player in history, before the onset of Shaqiri-mania for a club record £12m pushed him down to fifth. The record was smashed to smithereens just five months later with the arrival of £18.3m Giannelli Imbula.
In all, eight new senior players were added over the course of the season – the most since 2012-13. Few could be called unqualified successes, but there weren’t many definitive disasters either. Most fall into the ‘wait and see’ camp, and a clear picture won’t really form until 6-12 months’ time.
The two bona fide success stories were free transfers. Few tears were shed by Liverpool fans at Glen Johnson’s departure, and he’d had notable problems with injuries for the best part of 18 months, but he swiftly set about showing us exactly what we’d needed at right back for years. He was quick, always eager to get forward, and his passing and delivery put his rivals for the role in the shade. His defending was, generally, better than his reputation suggested as well.
Ibrahim Afellay was perhaps the big surprise. One of the biggest names in Europe five years ago, injuries had taken a terrible toll on him, to the extent that he couldn’t even find any form in the Greek league.
However, after an adjustment process, a silly red card and a little time to figure out his best role, Afellay shone. An intelligent, nuanced player of great technique, energy and vision, it was a joy to see him get on the ball, turn in an instant and set off up the pitch. Our latest ACL victim, please God let him return the same player.
The biggest failure was a loanee. Marco van Ginkel might have been tipped to be the next Frank Lampard at Chelsea, but asking a player who’d not played much in 18 months to replace Nzonzi was a big shout, and he simply didn’t have enough influence on games to be worth persevering with. He’s done brilliantly since going back to PSV, but it’s hard to look at the decision to send him back in January as anything but the correct one.
Things couldn’t have gone much worse for £600,000 goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard either. His chance came a season or two ahead of schedule, and he wasn’t so much raw as completely unhatched. Fingers were pointed as we let a two-goal lead slip at home to Swansea, then came the mother of all nightmares at Anfield, before another howler against Crystal Palace – shots from any distance seemed to just go through him, like Casper the Friendly Ghost. As I said in my Palace Conclusions, there is mitigation for Haugaard – it was never the plan for him to be so involved so quickly, and he may yet turn out to be a decent custodian – but he’ll need to rebuild his fractured confidence.
Falling into the ‘mixed bag’ category are Philipp Wollscheid and Joselu. The big German’s rise from fifth-choice, ‘what did we sign him for?’ punchline to valued squad player has, in its own way, been one of the stories of our season. He has put in a series of classy showings, and at his best he reads the game superbly. However, he does, like every other central defender at the club not named Ryan Shawcross, have a penchant for calamity. He has Marc Wilson-itis, an affliction that sees 85 minutes of fine defensive play undermined by one costly lapse. Consequently, though he’s decent cover for £3m, he is not the long-term partner for Shawcross we’re desperate for.
Joselu is difficult to judge. He’s taken time to adapt to a new league and a new country, and stability has eluded him for a long time – we are his fourth club in as many seasons. I’m convinced there is a good centre forward in there somewhere. He has scored some very well-taken goals – his spinning half volley at Goodison was glorious, his lob at Watford sublime, his finish from outside the box at Norwich similarly strong. Four goals from 10 starts isn’t a terrible record by any means, and he’s demonstrated some good hold up play and provided some great assists as well.
However, the central striking role has been up for grabs this season and he has singularly failed to make it his own when afforded the opportunity. When he’s started, he’s generally looked lethargic, uninterested even, not getting into dangerous positions, not chasing, not closing down from the front, not making himself available, generally fading from view. For the thick end of six million quid, that is really the least you should expect. There’s time for him to iron out those flaws, but he’s 26 and they’ve followed him throughout his career. If he doesn’t make it here, he’ll only have himself to blame.
What to make of Xherdan Shaqiri? His signing was hailed, accurately, as the biggest transfer coup in our history. It appeared the can’t-miss signing of all can’t-miss signings, and I was ridiculously excited at the prospect of having him here, a bona fide superstar.
But for various reasons, Shaqiri has underwhelmed. His impact hasn’t told with any regularity. We’ve seen bursts of ability, like the tormenting of Aleksandar Kolarov, the goals at Everton, fine deliveries at Norwich, Bournemouth and Chelsea. However, of the golden triangle he’s been the least influential. The electric pace we were told about has been scarce. The delivery not consistent enough. The bag of tricks appears to comprise of one elastico repeated ad nauseum. He has been no help whatsoever to his right back, and his hammer of a left foot has produced just three goals to date.
So why have we yet to see the best of him? Is it purely a question of fitness, given his lack of pre-season and dodgy hamstrings? Is it just Arnie-syndrome, where he’ll take a while to find his feet in England before exploding? Is he not suited to English football? Is he not suited to playing wide right, which forces him to constantly check back onto his favoured left peg and marginalises him, where freedom to roam behind the striker might be a better use of his gifts?
Either way, there has to be a whole lot more to come from the ‘Alpine Messi’.
And so onto our record signing. Gianelli Imbula has had the reverse impact of your standard Premier League import, his impact lessening since his arrival. Announcing himself with a bang with a super volley just nine minutes into his second game for the club, he bossed several away games, most notably at Chelsea, steamrollering his way through defenders as he charged forward with the ball at his feet. A number of our goals in these games started with him near his own box and went from there, and it appeared that we had found not just a replacement for Nzonzi but a monstrous upgrade. What’s that coming over the hill, is it Imbula?
That may yet prove to be the case, however, Imbula’s form tailed off after that initial flurry. He held onto the ball for too long, as potential counter opportunities slipped away. The defensive aspect of his game was non-existent, as teams sliced through us at will. So problematic was this that he was moved into the advanced midfield role behind the striker, a position for which he was assuredly not signed at great expense.
Pleasingly, he returned to form against West Ham, scoring another corker and, in the second half at least, coming close to matching the impact of his first few showings. The potential is there for him to dominate this league. Yet he’ll have to make the effort to learn the language, and he’ll have to sort out the tracking back and marking and realise that five yard passes to team mates in space are not beneath him.
Nevertheless, there is every reason to be excited about a man we are poised to build the team around.
Overall, the squad and the season suffered more from the business that wasn’t done, rather than the deals completed. As soon as it became apparent that Shawcross would be out for any length of time, a commanding central defender should have been a priority. An heir to Glenn Whelan has been required since before last season. Competition for the wings has been needed since January 2015. None of these issues were addressed. Other teams bought shrewdly and turned their season around, while our promising push for the top six fizzled after January.
Something else to keep an eye on is whether or not we have a plan for these ‘marquee’ signings we’re keen to bring in. If we look at the manager’s top transfer targets since we arrived, it’s not clear exactly what he intended to do with them. He pursued Diouf for months, was rewarded with an 11-goal debut season, but the man couldn’t buy a start up front even when available for selection this term. Joselu was declared one of his top targets but it’s not clear how he fits in with any supposed counter-attacking plan. The jury is out on whether Shaqiri is suited to the wing at all, while Imbula has already featured in all three central midfield positions. Are we sure we know what we’re doing here?
The manager has spoken of ‘tweaks’ needed ahead of next season, but it’s hard to look at the squad and not think we need an absolute minimum of four signings at least just to stand still. He’ll need to get it right. His future hinges on it.