Among the more welcome news for Stoke City fans on transfer deadline day was captain Ryan Shawcross’ signing of a new contract, a shade over 10 years since his debut for the club.
The centre-back’s stock has waned amid indifferent form since his recovery from a recurring back injury in 2015-16. Stoke’s defence has sprung some alarming leaks in the previous two seasons, and manager Mark Hughes recently clarified that investment in the defence this transfer window was of paramount concern.
Stoke experimented with a back three in pre-season – then backed up that tactical switch with significant summer outlays. Kurt Zouma was drafted in from Chelsea on a season-long loan, for a reported £7million; last year’s loanee centre-back Bruno Martins Indi was finally secured full-time for another £7million from Porto; Kevin Wimmer, late in the day, cost most of all – £15million-plus from Tottenham.
Those three central-defensive signings appeared to signal the beginning of the end for Shawcross. It is difficult to believe that Stoke spent all that money on Martins Indi, Zouma, or Wimmer for them to sit on the bench. Meanwhile, the club captain’s contract had less than a year left to run.
Four more years
So it was something of a surprise on deadline day to see Shawcross, Hughes and chief executive Tony Scholes huddled in classic new-contract pose. A new four-year deal to take the centre-back well into his second decade with the team.
Few fans would dispute that Shawcross is less of a commanding presence in the backline than in previous seasons. What’s more, the cupped-ears celebration that followed his one league goal last term, at home to Watford, speaks to the player’s own frustration as he approaches his 30th birthday. And it remains a small but stark blemish on his record at Stoke.
Shawcross hasn’t been named on the bench in the Premier League since the 2009-10 season, but that run could soon come to an end. In what is supposed to be the prime of a defender’s career, it’s poor timing. The situation also coincides with Stoke's acquisition of former West Brom captain Darren Fletcher – a ready-made replacement as on-pitch leader.
Strength in depth
Each of the new centre-halves, of course, has their own question-mark hanging over them. Zouma is a quality player, but he signed a new six-year deal with Chelsea in the summer; he’s at Stoke for one season and that’s it.
Martins Indi is a safe bet – steady if unspectacular in his first season in the Premier League. But given the interest in him from elsewhere this summer, a strong showing in 2017-18 could well put him in the shopping plans of bigger clubs.
Wimmer holds the greatest mystery; he arrives at the bet365 Stadium with the pressure of a sizeable transfer fee, having featured only 15 times in the league during two years at Spurs.
So there is plenty of scope for Shawcross to regain his regular starting place, if not now then next season. The Potters don’t have to look far to see how expensive season-long loans (Wilfried Bony) and eight-figure transfer fees (Giannelli Imbula) can fail to pay dividends on the pitch. Shawcross is a good known-quantity to have in the squad.
The minor-injury merry-go-round will also surely continue, having gripped Hughes’ squad for the past few years, and is as likely to strike in defence as it is in attack and midfield. Rotation will provide opportunities for all the defensive options, particularly if Stoke persist with a back three.
All the same, the teamsheet for Saturday evening’s match against Manchester United will set the tone – for the season and, perhaps, for the remainder of Shawcross’ Stoke career.