Arguably Stoke's strongest piece of summer business came in tying down Marko Arnautovic to a new four-year contract. The often-volatile Austrian forward scored 12 goals in 2015-16 during his best Premier League campaign to date and his impressive season attracted interest from new Everton boss Ronald Koeman.

Aside from that, Joe Allen has arrived from Liverpool in a £13m ($16.8m) deal that followed hot on the heels of the accomplished pass master deservedly being named in Uefa's official team of Euro 2016 for his part in Wales's fairytale run to the semi-finals. Highly rated 19-year-old Egyptian winger Ramadan Sobhi also joins from Al Ahly, whose manager Martin Jol has already instructed Manchester United counterpart Jose Mourinho to keep a close eye on his progress.

AFC Wimbledon defender Ryan Sweeney is Mark Hughes's only other summer transfer to date, while Peter Odemwingie and Steve Sidwell were the two first-team players released. Stoke seemingly remain front-runners in the race to sign Saido Berahino, although the late collapse of Diafra Sakho's switch to West Brom means he will remain in limbo for a little while longer.

Last season

Premier League: 9th

FA Cup: Fourth round

League Cup: Semi-final

Top scorer: Marko Arnautovic (12)

Manager - Mark Hughes

Mark Hughes
Mark Hughes will hope to see Stoke take the next step after three straight ninth-place finishes Clint Hughes/Getty Images

The Welshman's managerial stock was hardly at an all-time high when he was appointed as successor to the long-serving Tony Pulis just six months after seeing his 10-month reign with rock-bottom Queens Park Rangers unceremoniously ended in November 2012. However, the former Wales, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City and Fulham boss has done a fine job at the Britannia Stadium, guiding Stoke to three consecutive ninth-place finishes in the Premier League.

In establishing the Potters as a top-half force, the stern Hughes has also successfully dismantled the reputation for uncouth, highly physical long-ball tactics earned under Pulis. This has chiefly been achieved through the transfer market, with skilled technical players such as Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan all becoming key members of the squad. A club record £18.3m January swoop for defensive midfielder Giannelli Imbula underlined the fact that Stoke are shopping in a much classier market these days.

Key player - Jack Butland

Players' Player of the Year Arnautovic's 12 strikes in a breakout season were crucial for Stoke in the absence of another regular source of goals, but it was their towering goalkeeper who earned fan honours. There were initial fears that Butland might never reach his full potential shown as an exciting talent at Birmingham City, and for Great Britain as a 19-year-old at the London 2012 Olympics, with loan spells at Barnsley, Leeds United and Derby County following his move from St Andrew's in January 2013.

Jack Butland
Jack Butland is now back in action following a fractured ankle suffered on England duty Dave Thompson/Getty Images

However, with Asmir Begovic having left for Chelsea last summer, Butland established himself as the undisputed number one and earned rave plaudits for a number of outstanding performances. One of the Premier League's very best shot-stoppers, his significant progress was sadly curtailed by a fractured ankle sustained while playing for England in the 3-2 friendly win against Germany in March. That injury, and a subsequent operation, devastated his hopes of travelling to Euro 2016 alongside Fraser Forster as an understudy to Joe Hart, although he is now back to full fitness.

Expectations

Stoke have consistently shown over the past three years that they are worthy of a place in the top half of the table, but to date European qualification via the league has proven a bridge too far. With West Ham now looking to take another step forward following their move to the Olympic Stadium, Everton flush with cash courtesy of Farhad Moshiri's takeover and Southampton hoping to show yet more regenerative powers under Claude Puel, the battle to creep into that fight-to-seventh range will be tougher than ever this term. Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and perhaps even Leicester City will probably be among their main competitors in that regard.

IBT prediction - 10th

Hughes will continue to make gradual developments, yet there are legitimate concerns as to how Stoke can take that next step and avoid plateauing. Another comfortable mid-table finish likely beckons.