With the surprise sacking of Tony Pulis and subsequent hiring of Mark Hughes this summer, the evolution of Stoke City this season will be intriguing to follow. Hughes' hiring supposedly marks a shift from Pulis' defensive long-ball style to a more expansive approach, with the chairman Peter Coates having grown impatient at the lack of improvement on constant mid-table finishes.
However, the Potters have been quiet on the transfer front so far. With the exception of a couple of defensive arrivals and the departure of several declining backups, there's not much that would indicate there's been a radical managerial change -- and not much to get too excited about. Finishing comfortably above the relegation zone again will probably be Stoke's target again this season.
Last year: 13th
Key player: Asmir Begović
Goalkeeper Asmir Begović has proven himself to be one of the most reliable in the Premier League over recent seasons, playing a big part in helping the Potters maintain their miserly defensive record. Despite being subject to interest from Liverpool earlier this transfer window, the Bosnian international now looks set to stay at the Britannia Stadium for a fifth season, possibly forcing a loan move for young England goalkeeper Jack Butland.
Potential breakout star: Marc Muniesa
Stoke are a pretty elderly team, leaving little room for breakout stars to emerge. Having said that, 21-year-old centre-back/auxiliary left-back Marc Muniesa definitely could. He arrived on a four-year contract from Barcelona this summer, having played regularly for Barça's B team and five times at under-21 level for Spain. It'll be hard for him to break into the central defensive duo right away, though if he lives up to his potential, he should be a great long-term signing.
Additions: Marc Muniesa, Erik Pieters
Stoke have been quiet on the arrivals so far, with only PSV Eindhoven defender Erik Pieters arriving aside from Muniesa. The Dutch international should be a solid addition, given that Stoke didn't have a natural left-back prior to his arrival. Elsewhere, midfielder Maurice Edu -- who made only one appearance for Stoke before being shipped out on loan last season -- has returned from Turkish side Bursaspor, though there remain doubts about his role in the team.
There has been quite a clear-out at the Britannia this summer, with several familiar veterans released on free transfers. Of all those released, only midfielder Dean Whitehead was a regular face last season -- and even he only made 12 starts in the Premier League -- meaning Stoke will be relieved to reduce their wage bill and let them go.
Midfielder Wilson Palacios is currently being chased by promoted Hull City, while strike duo Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones have both been linked with moves away. Crouch could reunited with Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers, while West Brom and Cardiff have been linked with Jones. Elsewhere, midfielder Steven Nzonzi handed in a transfer request earlier this summer, though Stoke seem determined to hang on to him.
Taking a look at some of Stoke's recent rumoured targets, it's obvious that Hughes is looking to strengthen the attack. It's hardly surprising, with their top scorer last season, Jonathan Walters, scoring just 11 goals in all competitions, while Crouch and Jones netted just 13 between them. Hughes has confirmed talks with New England Revolution's young Colombian forward Juan Agudelo, who will join in January if no agreement is reached, are ongoing, while Hannover's Mame Biram Diouf and Tottenham's Jermaine Defoe have also been linked. Manchester City's bit-part winger Scott Sinclair could also arrive, after Brek Shea picked up a knee injury in preseason.
Projected opening weekend starting XI: Asmir Begović; Erik Pieters, Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron; Marc Wilson, Glenn Whelan, Steven Nzonzi; Matthew Etherington, Kenwyne Jones, Jonathan Walters
With Brek Shea likely to be injured and Cameron Jerome probably suspended after breaching FA betting regulations, Etherington and Jones could start in a 4-3-3 against Liverpool in the curtain-raiser, with the attack looking the weakest part of the starting 11. New signing Pieters should be guaranteed a starting spot at left-back in a sturdy defence.
Season prediction: 15th
Stoke seem to have taken a risk by changing their manager for the first time since they won promotion to the Premier League in 2008, in a move that will apparently see a revolutionary reversal to their notoriously direct style. However, it's unrealistic to expect Hughes, who's not the antithesis to Pulis anyway, to radically change the team's approach immediately, especially given he's hardly had the chance to bring in his own players yet. That means we shouldn't expect too great a leap from last season, with a lower mid-table finish likely again.