The transfer window opens again next week and Stoke City are well poised and well placed in the top half of the Championship.
In a division as tight as it is this season when one or two points can count a lot, it could give Michael O’Neill the vital extra push in the fight for a top six spot.
So what will be on his agenda in the New Year?
What positions could Stoke look to strengthen?
Stoke are well stocked in certain areas of their squad – but even then they have been stretched.
There have been injuries to four goalkeepers, leading to the emergency arrival of free agent Andy Lonergan this week.
There have been injuries to Steven Fletcher and Lee Gregory at the other end – and it has been a massive blow to lose Tyrese Campbell for the season.
There have been injuries to Joe Allen, Sam Clucas, Jordan Thompson, Jordan Cousins and John Obi Mikel in central midfield.
But, even if everyone is fit, there are a couple of positions that look like they have more room to manoeuvre than others.
It seems like a policy of striking if the right opportunity at the right price presents itself.
Morgan Fox was brought in to fill the senior left-back vacancy in the summer but, following the exit of Bruno Martins Indi. Fox is still the only senior left-back – and that fragility was highlighted when he was forced off against Spurs in mid-week.
James McClean and Josh Tymon have been used at wing-back.
Tommy Smith has been replaced as regular right-back by Nathan Collins. There is one eye on Tom Edwards’ progress on Fleetwood Town too.
O’Neill has hinted that a spell here could be good for Collins’s development but in the long-term, he’s a centre-half. There are a handful of regular Championship right-backs who are out of contract next summer but there is no point in adding any who wouldn’t really improve the starting XI.
Is it even possible to replace Tyrese Campbell?
Here are five that could come up for discussion, including one Delap.
The two biggest new faces in the Championship?
Stoke have two of the Championship’s biggest names coming back from long-term injuries.
Ryan Shawcross is now back in the first team squad while Joe Allen is expected to make the same step over the next few days.
As Charlie Adam said: “Great club, hopefully they can win promotion. Michael and his staff have come in and not complicated it. Joe and Ryan to come back…”
And he finished off with a couple of hand-clapping emojis.
Who will decide on ins and outs in January?
Michael O’Neill has re-shaped the backroom team since arriving in November 2019.
Alex Aldridge has joined as head of recruitment from Millwall
O’Neill said back in August: “It’s a big appointment for us and an important appointment for us. We’ve essentially had to go through two transfer windows with, I don’t think, a real structure in the recruitment department.
“With Alex coming in we have a blank page now to be able to build something which we believe will be good enough not only for the short-term but also for the longer term as well.
“He’s got really good qualities, he’s very ambitious and he wants to do well.”
The challenge for Stoke is to make sure they have the best of the new transfer model – data analysis to help to highlight strengths, weaknesses, potential and availability – with the best of the old – a good old-fashioned eye for talent.
It’s part way between the traditional system where a manager would be left to sort everything out for himself and the continental model of a sporting director and head coach, where the former is in complete control of who comes and goes.
O’Neill said: “We’re looking at a different kind of profile than we previously were in the Premier League and in the first possibly two seasons in the Championship, which is natural given the financial implications.
“It’s very important that we do the work properly – and ultimately, the manager signs the players but it’s part of a process. It’s up to the recruitment team to bring me the options that I want.
“We discuss it thoroughly with all the coaching staff, with Alex obviously having a key role in that and a lead role in that and then it’s the powers that be above us that make the deal happen or not happen financially.
“That’s the way it should work and that’s the way it will work going forward.
“I can’t comment on how it’s worked in the past and I don’t have a huge interest in that. I’m only interested in how we do it and how we do it going forward.”
How much money will Stoke have to spend?
It is pretty clear that under the EFL’s profit and sustainability rules, there is not much room for a splurge.
“We’re restricted in the transfer market because of Financial Fair Play,” said O’Neill in the summer.
“Young players who would come in and automatically affect our starting XI would cost quite a lot of money so we’re not in a position to buy those players at this minute in time.
“We have to be mindful of that and find the best players available to us. I think we’ve done that with the signings we’ve made to date.”
There is always the loan market and O’Neill tried for Rhian Brewster and Conor Gallagher last season, beaten by Swansea because of their respective positions in the table. They would have a much better sell on that score this time around.
Who could leave in the January window?
It is clear that Moritz Bauer and Kevin Wimmer could do with finding new homes, having trained with and played for the under-23s since failing to seal moves away in October.
There have been whispers of deals that got close to find them new clubs in Austria, Germany and Russia but they are on long-term contracts and Stoke are not in a great bargaining position.
There are other senior players who have been with the first team party but rarely figured, including Liam Lindsay, while Tom Ince’s status in the absence of Tyrese Campbell will be interesting to watch.
Could anyone go out on loan?
Thibaud Verlinden has been playing for the under-23s as he returns to fitness following a knee injury and was on the bench for the first time at Wycombe.
Under-23s teammates who are waiting for their first real taste of senior football include Will Forrester, Kieran Coates, Lewis Macari and Ethon Varian, who enjoyed a spell at Nantwich Town last season and scored a hat-trick on Monday.
It has been difficult for young players to step up and train with the first team this season, partly because of a hectic fixture list and partly because of separations caused by Covid.
Injuries and unavailability will play a big part in what happens next and who knows when a door might open with a surprise.