Michael O’Neill will only be looking to tweak his Stoke City squad this summer – on the proviso, of course, that he finishes the job he has started so well and cements the club’s place in the Championship.
It will be a marked change in policy.
Stoke made 10 signings, including three on loan, last summer under Nathan Jones, having made nine the previous summer under Gary Rowett.
That all meant O’Neill inherited a squad that was bloated as well as lacking in confidence and form when he arrived in November. There were only three starts for Saturday’s 5-1 win over Hull who had been with the club for more than a season-and-a-half.
But he has transformed that same group, even if to a neutral observer they might have only risen seven places up the table – and still only three points clear of the relegation zone.
Stoke have picked up 34 points in his 22 games. To put that into context, it had taken 41 games to pick up that many points prior to his arrival.
Stoke have scored three or more goals in six of his 22 league games. They had not scored more than two in 88 before his arrival.
Stoke have won seven and drawn two of O’Neill’s 11 home games. They had won one of the previous 13.
And so on.
As he said back in his very first interview four months ago: “We have to look to put a bit of structure in the team, find the right system of play for the players we have.
“We have a lot of players with international and Premier League experience but the Championship is a different animal, a different challenge and players have to adapt to that as well. It’s about building togetherness. This squad is very big actually and sometimes that can be a bit more difficult because players are disappointed when they don’t play.
“But we have to try to maximise the talent we have in the building here, get everyone hopefully playing to the level they are capable and if we do that the club can only go in one direction.”
If Stoke’s form since O’Neill arrived would be good enough to at least challenge for the play-offs, how many changes in personnel does he need to make to extend or improve that over a whole season?
LONG-TERM PLANNING FRONT AND CENTRAL
Don’t expect any sudden turn away from that evolution not revolution mantra.
Two – Jordan Thompson, aged 23, and Tashan Oakley-Boothe, aged 20 – of the three signings in January were with the long term in mind. Even James Chester, who is out of contract at Aston Villa in the summer, arrived with half-an-eye on next term.
There was the determination to secure new long-term deals too, not just for Tyrese Campbell but Josef Bursik, the free-kick taking England youth keeper currently on loan at Accrington Stanley.
That might set the tone for the summer business.
O’Neill said this week: “It’s not about numbers, it’s about the right types of player, and they should see this as a big opportunity, a big club and a forward step in their career and think `I’m going to go into the Premier League with this club.’
“So we are trying to create in the building a real hunger, which we have, but we want to increase that to create the right culture, which we tried to do in this window with the two youngsters and James Chester.
“There’s a lot of work to be done between now and the summer. I don’t think we need loads of players. We possibly need three or four in key areas that will help us improve.”
And let’s not beat around the bush – the Premier League is the goal
O’Neill said at the fans’ forum: “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t believe the club and John Coates and his family didn’t have that ambition.
“With relegation comes a lot of complications and where we find ourselves now is testament to that.
“Of course you want to be back sooner rather than later, but the key is a stability and then you’re in a position to try and get back and we are on our way to doing that.
“Any conversations I’ve had with John and Tony (Scholes) are about stabilising in the Championship and then pushing on to the Premier League. I know John doesn’t want to be here for 20 years watching Championship football.”
BRINGING DOWN THE AVERAGE AGE
It has also been pointed out this morning about the age of Stoke’s squad come August.
Two thirds of the players most regularly used by O’Neill will be 28 or over. The manager has stressed a few times that he wants to bring the average age down.
He said back in January: “We possibly have a gap in our squad in the 21 to 25 age bracket.
“We don’t have enough players in that age bracket and possibly too many in the 25-29 age bracket. Not too many senior players. The senior boys we have at the club are all excellent.
“We want to create an environment here that’s competitive, intense. We don’t want it to be comfortable for players. We want players to force their way into the team, not have players who are comfortable and not hungry to play. That’s the type of environment we certainly want to avoid.”
THE SIZE OF THE SQUAD
Josh Tymon and Thibaud Verlinden were recalled from loans in January but, even with the three other additions, the size of the overall squad was knocked down by one.
Cameron Carter-Vickers, Mark Duffy and Scott Hogan were sent back to their parent clubs while Giannelli Imbula left for good.
Hopefully pre-season will kick-off with only players who have a chance of being a part of what happens going forward.
Goalkeepers: Jack Butland, Adam Davies, Adam Federici.
Defenders: Danny Batth, Moritz Bauer**, James Chester*, Nathan Collins, Tom Edwards, Liam Lindsay, Bruno Martins Indi, Ryan Shawcross, Tommy Smith, Harry Souttar**, Josh Tymon, Stephen Ward, Kevin Wimmer**.
Midfielders: Joe Allen, Sam Clucas, Jordan Cousins, Peter Etebo**, James McClean, Badou Ndiaye**, Nick Powell, Ollie Shenton**, Lasse Sorensen, Ryan Woods**.
Forwards: Benik Afobe**, Tyrese Campbell, Mame Diouf, Lee Gregory, Tom Ince, Julien Ngoy, Thibaud Verlinden, Sam Vokes.
**out on loan
A PATHWAY FOR YOUNG PLAYERS
Tyrese Campbell has already been promoted while Nathan Collins has been around the first team squad waiting to seize his moment.
Lasse Sorensen could get a chance now in the absence of Joe Allen.
But how soon will Harry Souttar and Joe Bursik be expected to challenge for starting shirts? Can Tom Edwards re-claim the right-back spot?
It is coming up to now or never for several of the under-23s to deliver – and there are real prospects emerging in the under-18s, not least captain Adam Porter, strike pair Mo Sankoh and Andre Godfrinne and right-back Kieran Coates.
Even if there time is not quite yet, their progress will be kept in mind.
PLAYERS ON THEIR WAY OUT
There are three players whose contracts are up at the end of the season.
Adam Federici has been linked with a move back to Australia and Mame Diouf back to Norway. Stephen Ward, aged 35, is back training but hasn’t played in 2020.
James Chester’s loan will come to an end too.
Jack Butland and Ryan Shawcross will only have 12 months remaining on their current deals.
Where will Stoke City finish this season?
2000+ VOTES SO FAR
LOAN PLAYERS RETURNING
What to do with all the senior players who have no future at Stoke?
Giannelli Imbula was recalled and released last month, which is the drastic option – even if, the consensus would suggest, a moment to celebrate.
There is the nice question of what to do with 21-year-old Harry Souttar, the newly-crowned EFL young player of the month thanks to his performances in defence at promotion-chasing Fleetwood, and Joe Bursik.
Will Benik Afobe complete a permanent switch to Bristol City?
“He’s not a done deal,” said Tony Scholes at Monday’s fans’ forum. “Obviously he picked up his injury, which was a great shame for him, a shame for Bristol City and a shame for Stoke City as well.
“But no, it’s not a done deal. Obviously Benik is back in training and the loan to Bristol City is still in place. If he gets back fit and gets back match fit, then he’s an option for them, not for us.
“The loan expires at the end of June and as things stand at the moment he returns to us.”
Badou Ndiaye has been a hit at Trabzonspor, who he is helping to challenge for the Turkish title.
But questions hang over Peter Etebo (Getafe), Moritz Bauer (Celtic), Kevin Wimmer (Royal Excel Mouscron) and Ryan Woods (Millwall).
FINANCIAL FAIR PLAY
Billionaire’s pockets might be deep and they may be very eager to be generous, but as the rules stand, Stoke’s spending is limited and haunted by rules of Financial Fair Play.
That is of particular importance when the club has one of the highest wage bills in the division – and will enter the third and final year of parachute payments, which will fall from about £45m this season to £20m next before disappearing completely.
Football finance expert Dean Rudge explained: “Teams must limit losses to £13m per season over a three-year monitoring period (cut to £5m per season if the remaining £8m will not be made up by a ‘related party’ i.e. the club’s owner).
“Losses include spending on wages and transfers (which are spread out equally over the length of their contract, or amortised, so a £20m signing on a five-year deal is a £4m a year cost on the club’s books) but excludes costs like youth development.
“Booking profits on player sales are included in the P&S (profitability and sustainability) calculation, as are those on physical assets, which is why certain clubs have sold their stadiums.”