Stoke have had many misfits in the past two campaigns as the club’s recruitment team have made a mess of transfer dealings. Some have been more high-profile like the misfiring Saido Berahino, some less so, like the haphazard youngster Josh Tymon.
The point is Stoke could almost field an entire team of players who have been frozen out recently and (on paper at least) it would be a pretty great team.
With that in mind, there must be a pick amongst the troubled bunch who could still have a future at the club and what better candidate than club record signing Giannelli Imbula.
Imbula arrived with Stoke still on their upswing and was expected to finally replace the departed Steven Nzonzi. Early signs were promising from the midfielder who was robust, quick into a tackle and skilled with his feet. Stoke appeared to have a great signing on their hands as a rocket of a shot sailed into the top of the net against Bournemouth, just three games into his Stoke career.
Imbula, unfortunately, arrived at a tumultuous time for the club, which would ultimately prove to be his and their downfall. Stoke were just seven points behind fourth place with seven games remaining, with four or their immediate rivals still to play Stoke’s hopes were high but it wasn’t to be for the club.
An injury to Jack Butland saw the Stoke defence fall apart, twelve goals conceded in three games and a run of six matches without a win derailed a European charge for the Potters. The bad patch brought disappointment and some horrendous form from several of the first team players.
One of those players was Imbula who sadly hadn’t been at the club long, leading to him taking more than his fair share of the blame. The poor end to the season led to a Mark Hughes trademark slow start to the following season as Stoke didn’t win for their first seven games.
Despite having a poor start the season before, blame did not rest with the manager but instead with several of the players. After a great start in his first five games, Imbula had now only been on the winning side twice in the following seventeen matches.
Imbula was promptly dropped and found it hard to regain a first-team spot. Although he didn’t cover himself in glory during his run in the side, very few players around him managed to either, in an overall poor performance from the team.
Imbula made the mistake of falling out with Hughes after being unable to regain a starting spot and the writing was on the wall. Imbula was planned to be offloaded in summer but Stoke couldn’t find a suitable bid for the £18m man.
Instead Imbula went out on loan to Toulouse, whilst Stoke endured a third consecutive poor start. Embarrassing patches of form marred the team all season under Hughes as the club plummeted towards relegation. There were plenty of regular starters for the Potters this season whose form was worse than what Imbula showed but who continued to play.
The problems evidently ran much deeper and a scapegoat had been made of players like Imbula, whose career had now been set back. Short on first team fitness, Imbula had to be patient at Toulouse but has managed to work his way into a crucial role for the club.
In fact, Imbula has outperformed Stoke’s midfield this season on the majority of key stats. He has been better in almost every department than Darren Fletcher, Charlie Adam, Ibrahim Afellay and Stephen Ireland all of whom have featured for Stoke this season.
He has also outperformed Stoke’s star player Joe Allen in terms of successful passes, chances created, assists, shots on target and successful take ons. He has been by far Stoke’s best attacking-midfield option this season and hasn’t even been available for selection when the club has needed him most.
Stoke ended this season with a solid midfield pair of Allen and Badou Ndiaye who expect to attract many offers in the summer. If either of them does secure a move away, Stoke already have an arguably superior replacement on the books.
Damage has been done behind scenes but that’s why pencils have erasers, with Stoke plotting for promotion next year they’d be mad to get rid of Imbula. The figures suggest he will offer more support to the attack next season than any of the current squad and goals win games.
With Hughes also gone and now identified as a key cause of Stoke’s problems, the club should be looking to repair the damage and build a working relationship with Imbula. The former French Under-21 international once showed a lot of great potential and is still only 25-years-old.
With the right management Imbula could be one flop that yet proves his worth for Stoke, if he helps guide the Potters back to the top flight, he’ll repay a lot more of that £18m price tag than Stoke could hope to recoup from a summer sale.