Stoke City enjoyed another very good season in the league under Mark Hughes. ThisÂ massively underrated Stoke side snuck unnoticed into the top half of the table, playing some good football along the way. Renowned from the Tony Pulis days as a strong, physical side who played very direct football, Hughes has worked tirelessly to change this image of the clubÂ and the signings over the two years heâ€™s been in charge exemplify this. Arguably the biggest shock of the summer window was when Stoke convinced former-Barcelona wonder kid Bojan Krkic to move to the Britannia, once again posing the age old question, â€ścan he do it on a Tuesday night in Stoke?â€ť Thatâ€™s not funny anymore? Oh sorry.
One thing that has remained in this Stoke side is their home form. It was always strong under Pulis and itâ€™s remained like that under Hughes, where they managed to beat fiveÂ of the eight sides above them at the Britannia Stadium. Losing just six of their 19 home league games shows just how strong they are at home. If they hadÂ improved their away form, withÂ StokeÂ picking up just fiveÂ away wins all season in the league,Â they couldâ€™ve finished even higher, which is remarkable for a side in theirÂ position.
The run that saw them drive into the top half of the table came from December to March when they won sevenÂ of their 11 games in the league. This run coincided with summer signing Bojan finally adapting to the Premier League and beginning to use his class to influence games in Stokeâ€™s way. The run ending also coincided with Bojanâ€™s injury which saw him miss the rest of the season and potentially the start of the next in August. Stoke will be hoping he can return to fitness as quickly as possible and start to drive Stoke forward once more.
One of the highlights of Stokeâ€™s season came on the final day, at home against Liverpool, when they raced into a 5-0 lead before the break.Â The eventual 6-1 scoreline becameÂ Stokeâ€™sÂ biggest ever Premier League win and saw Peter Crouch score with his head to become the highest ever Premier League headed-goalscorer. Itâ€™ll be a real challenge now for Hughes and Stoke to see if they can replicate this seasonâ€™s performances. If they can, they could surprise people even further by pushing themselves into the Europa League spots.
Key Player - Ryan Shawcross
Ryan Shawcross has been one of Stokeâ€™s leading performers for five years now. The centre-back has seemingly been on the verge of an England call-up for the same amount of time but hasnâ€™t been given a second chance after his debut. I am one of many who believe Shawcross has done more than enough to deserve a second chance to play for his country, and with other English centre-backs not playing to their best this season and last, itâ€™s a real surprise Hodgson hasnâ€™t put any more faith in the 27-year-old.
With some new faces coming into the Stoke defence, Shawcross has been the perfect man having toÂ mould these players into a system that works. His experience has been invaluable for these players, and it shows on the pitch as they look like a strong unit, conceding just 45 goals all season. All thatâ€™s left for Shawcross is to continue to improve his game with regular minutes at Stoke and he should really be forcing Roy Hodgson to pick him in the next England squads. Itâ€™s when you compare Shawcross with the central defenders currently in the England squad which make it remarkable he isnâ€™t in the squad at all. Obviously, stats arenâ€™t everything, but they go a fair way to showing someoneâ€™s influence on the game.
Although Shawcross doesnâ€™t lead any of these areas, he comes very close to the top in all fiveÂ criteriaÂ shown above, and is arguably more consistent across all of them than any of the other defenders here. Just something to ponder.
Most Improved Player - Steven Nâ€™Zonzi
In a midfield that was strong this season, including Charlie Adam and Glenn Whelan, the real stand out in the middle of the park, for me, was Steven Nâ€™Zonzi. Since moving to Stoke from Blackburn, heâ€™s become a real driving force from the midfield, linking up well with the strikers. At 6â€™3″, the Frenchman provides a real presence both in defence and attack, pitching in with four league goals to provide Stoke with over 15 goals from midfield positions.
Over the course of this season, Nâ€™Zonzi has improved massively. In my eyes, before this season, I saw him as a physical midfielder with a strong build but very little ability with the ball at his feet, but Nâ€™Zonzi has gone a long way to change my opinion of him. In a midfield with the threeÂ mentioned above, Stoke have seemed to grasp the perfect balance of pace, strength and physical presence,Â alongÂ with Bojan lurking in front of them to provide the playmaking role in their attack.
Fansâ€™ View - Mike HancockÂ (Stoke City Season Ticket Holder)
Can it get any better for Stoke City? Another top ten finish (back to back for the first time since the 70â€™s), record Premier League points total, first Premier League season with a positive goal difference, six of the eight teams above us beaten, Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool all beaten very well at the Britannia and reigning champions Man City beaten in the seasonâ€™s first real shock at the Etihad.
Following virtually no summer spend, Mark Hughes managed to integrate new faces to his very settled squad thatÂ finished 2013/2014 on a high. Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea, free transfer Mame Diouf and 400k super bargain Bojan from Barcelona all excelled (when not injured). They chipped in with 17 goals, adding to 28 from the ever dependable Crouch, Walters and Adam as we continued to evolve our style of play to a more positive and expansive game and still retaining the core solidity so typical of Tony Pulis.
If Bojan hadnâ€™t so cruelly been ruled out by a lengthy injury in January he would have romped home as our player of the season and surely the leagueâ€™s signing of the season too. In the end it was the majestic Steven Nâ€™Zonzi who won the accolade as the young Frenchman finally started to show the promise that has kept a number of champions league teams watching carefully.
It hasnâ€™t all been wonderful, poor showings in both cups were a disappointment and while those clubs above us often failed to beat us too many below gathered maximum points, with Burnley, Leicester, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace all claiming 3 points at the Britannia.
Overall the season was probably as good as we could have hoped for;Â the positives significantly outweighed the negatives, and the if next season brings more of the same then there will continue to be a lot of smiling faces in The Potteries.