Club-record £18m star Giannelli Imbula holds the key to a successful Stoke City season
Given that Stoke City have recorded just one opening day victory during since reaching the Premier League in 2008, a point at a newly-promoted Middlesbrough side won’t be seen as a bad result in North Staffordshire.
It would have been a different story had The Potters repeated their first-half performance after the break. Stoke looked sluggish and off the pace right from the start, and were dealt an early blow as a series of defensive mistakes brought Alvaro Negredo his first goal at The Riverside Stadium.
In fact, the visiting side were fortunate not to concede a second, as Gaston Ramirez found the post with Shay Given beaten.
In the second-half, Stoke were much improved and began to take the game to their opposition. Although scoring opportunities were few and far between, they found the goal they were looking for via a superb Xherdan Shaqiri free-kick.
The Swiss star will be hoping this is the first of many as he looks to really establish himself as a leading light in the Premier League.
However, it was not Shaqiri that really caught the eye for Stoke. The all-action performance of club-record signing Giannelli Imbula made him far and away the man of the match for Mark Hughes’ side.
Imbula, who joined in January, was at the heart of every Stoke attack, driving the ball up the pitch and finding the forward players with calm, intelligent passing.
On a day where Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic and Bojan couldn’t conjure up enough magic dust to give Stoke all three points, it was the former FC Porto man who ran the midfield. His six successful take-ons were the joint-highest in the Premier League on Saturday, matching the tally of Raheem Sterling against Sunderland.
In no small part due to his £18m price tag, Imbula found himself under pressure to hit the ground running in the final months of the 2015/16 season. While many performances were excellent, certain sections of the Stoke support were crying out for more consistency from the Frenchman.
There were concerns that, like at Porto, the 23-year-old would struggle to adapt to a new league and new culture. The fact that he had difficulties with English also raised questions about whether he was worth the exorbitant fee the Potters paid on deadline day.
Now, with a full season under his belt, Imbula could be the key behind a successful season for Stoke, who are desperate to improve on three consecutive ninth-place finishes, and perhaps reach a cup final.
While, naturally, more attention falls on the attacking midfield triumvirate of Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri, if Stoke are to be a successful side going forward they must work out how best to accommodate Imbula.
With his driving runs from midfield and penchant for precision passing, Imbula should be a gift to Stoke’s flair forwards. At Middlesbrough, Imbula turned defence into attack almost in an instant, playing alongside Glenn Whelan in a 4-2-3-1.
As with last season, Imbula looked forward, while Whelan attempted to do the muck-and-nettles work in front of the back four.
With the arrival of Joe Allen from Liverpool, it will be interesting to see what this means for Imbula’s role in the Stoke City starting XI. With The Potters content with a point during the final stages of the Middlesbrough draw, Allen was introduced and partnered Whelan, with Imbula moving further up the pitch behind the centre forward.
It will be interesting to see if manager Mark Hughes deploys his record purchase further up the pitch against Manchester City on Saturday, with the Allen-Whelan partnership in theory offering more protection to a backline that has come under serious scrutiny.
There may well be a future of Imbula in this role, because he also possesses a firecracker of a left foot, his two goals last season both being sweetly-struck efforts from outside the penalty area.
Eighteen million pounds for a relatively unknown Frenchman who struggled in Portugal seemed like quite an audacious gamble when the deal was sealed seven months ago, but it may well prove to be one of the shrewdest acquisitions of Hughes’ career.
Stoke have plenty of issues to address if they want to be challenging for a spot in the top eight, chief among these being converting possession into clear-cut chances. Yet if they are going to take the top-flight by the scruff of the neck this season, Imbula may very well play a starring role.