There has been much scepticism and cynicism focused in the direction of Stoke City in recent years, their tough-tackling and long ball style derided by lovers of the “beautiful game." But since taking their place in the Premier League back in 2008, the Staffordshire-based club recorded wins over many of the division’s biggest sides, and earned a place in the 2011 FA Cup Final that subsequently saw them enter the Europa League for the first time.
Stoke have slowly but surely begun to move beyond merely being a team capable of pulling off a shock win, establishing themselves as a genuine force in the top flight as their playing style has evolved under Mark Hughes. Last summer they impressed many by signing former Barcelona forward Bojan Krkić, and now another player with experience at some of European football’s giant clubs has arrived at the Britannia Stadium.
As Stoke took on Liverpool this past weekend, TV cameras caught sight of Switzerland international Xherdan Shaqiri, a one-time target of the Anfield club but now confirmed as the newest arrival in the Midlands.
Sat alongside his brother and agent Erdin on Sunday, the 23-year-old has struggled for regular football since leaving FC Basel back in 2012.
Shaqiri’s time at Bayern Munich saw him serve as a back up to wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, but that role limited him to just 81 appearances in two-and-a-half seasons, almost half of which came as a substitute. In January he moved to Inter looking to reignite his career under Roberto Mancini, the Italian club similarly looking to bounce back after their own recent struggles saw them slump down the Serie A table.
Initially it seemed that would be the case, Shaqiri creating a goal for Fredy Guarin in a win over Palermo before netting himself in a 4-1 mauling of Atalanta a week later.
He also notched another assist in that second encounter only to fall out of favour with Mancini, and by mid-March found himself once again on the outside looking in. The deal with Bayern was initially a loan, but one Inter were forced to make permanent this summer, handing the Bundesliga giants the previously agreed fee of €16 million.
Inter made it clear he was surplus to requirements and even agreed a £12 million deal with Stoke last month, but the English club failed to make any real progress in talks with the player. It was the second time they had come close to signing the Swiss star, with assistant manager Mark Bowen admitting in an interview that they had attempted to sign Shaqiri before his decision to join the Nerazzurri.
“There is genuine interest because he is a fantastic player who wants to play regular first-team football,” Bowen told BBC Radio Stoke back in January. “Without any detriment to Stoke City, to get a player like him on board would be fantastic, but he has got many choices of what he wants to do, but we don't rule ourselves out.“
Now they have finally got their man, and if he can rediscover his best form, the club’s passionate fanbase could be set for an entertaining campaign. Best deployed as an orthodox winger, Shaqiri has impressed when fielded in a central role, turning in some excellent displays there at the 2014 World Cup. Quick, strong and happiest when running at defenders with the ball at his feet, he is also accurate in front of goal and a delivers a consistent threat from free-kicks.
His skillset appears to mesh neatly with the 4-2-3-1 formation deployed by Hughes this past weekend, able to play anywhere in the attacking trident behind the lone striker. The manager was not ready to say the deal was done however, telling reporters at his post-match press conference that “we’ve been close in the past and haven’t been able to conclude deals.”
“Until you see the player holding a shirt you never know,” Hughes continued, although even if a deal is finally concluded, some questions will remain about the player’s time in Italy.
“Why do Inter want to sell Shaqiri so quickly?” Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said when asked about the situation last week. “They did tell me, but I cannot reveal that information. No comment.”
There have been reports in the Italian press of disagreements between the Switzerland star and coach Roberto Mancini, who is believed to have expressed criticism his work rate, but a man with experience at both Inter and Bayern remains unimpressed. “Mancini didn't give Shaqiri any support, he didn't give him any confidence,” remarked German legend Lothar Matthäus recently. “He signed him, and then didn't want him.”
Hughes and Stoke have shown on a number of occasions that they most certainly do, and will hope to see that faith repaid when Shaqiri finally takes to the field at the Britannia Stadium.
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