Mark Hughes will start the season without one of his most prolific forwards, having seen the Stoke hierarchy reluctantly agree to the club-record £20 million sale of want-away winger Marko Arnautovic to West Ham.
It's a hammer blow (no pun intended) to a manager who has found himself leaning heavily on the maverick talent who cost him under £3m when he signed from Werder Bremen in 2013. Sadly, in the end there was little he could do to change the mind of a player who had firmly signalled his intention to leave with a transfer request, having learned of the club rejecting an initial £15m bid from West Ham for his services.
It is a move that has not gone down well among the Potteries faithful, either, who are angry and disappointed at the way the player himself has pushed for an exit. Just 12 months ago, when nearing the end of his contract and having enjoyed his best season to date they were far more understanding of him questioning his future.
He spent much of that summer waiting for potential suitors to make their move but when push came to shove it was only Everton who showed serious interest and while they were happy to meet his then release fee of £12.5m they were unwilling to meet the player's own demands. The new season was fast approaching and on learning how limited his options actually were a contrite Arnautovic penned a new four-year deal with the Potters.
As recently as Nov. 2016 he was again asked about his future but was quick to assure the fans of his loyalties by saying: "I'm always on the pitch with the goal of giving my best and helping my team. I have only just extended my contract so a transfer is not an issue for the time being. But the usual rumours will probably still exist.
It therefore comes as somewhat of a surprise that what can only be described as a sideways move to West Ham was enough to tempt him away; especially when he had already turned down what would have been a step-up at Everton just a year earlier to sign a long-term extension at Stoke.
He initially arrived in the Potteries an unwanted wild-child but soon found a father figure in the shape of Hughes who saw beyond his bad-boy persona. It was a relationship that benefitted both parties; the player got the opportunity of a regular starting berth as a leading light in a good mid-sized Premier League club and the manager reaped the benefits that stability and continuity seemingly encouraged.
It wasn't an easy ride, though, and much of his early time on the pitch was accompanied by moans from those in the stands who questioned his work rate and temperament. His reluctance to track back having lost possession and his petulant outbursts were enough to split the fans on his worth to the side but they were parts of his game he would go on to markedly improve.
More recently his influence has been such that without him the side would have almost certainly dropped out of the league. The form of others and some questionable management saw the once-unreliable Arnautovic assume a crucial and talismanic role over the last two seasons with his impact in terms of goals and assists something that quite simply needs to be found elsewhere. The question for the manager is whether that need can be met by anyone within the current group?
Many have pointed to the exciting Ramadan Sobhi as a tailor-made replacement but for all his undoubted promise it is not unfair to suggest that he would struggle to make the kind of impact needed to cover the deficit left by the Austrian. All eyes then switch to an already-under-pressure Hughes to work the kind of magic he did by signing Arnautovic in the first place but he will have his work cut out, much as he has in trying to replace another of the mainstays he has lost in the past -- Steven N'Zonzi.
There's many parallels to be made between the two but in the end the difference is that N'Zonzi left to further his career; taking a pay cut in the process. Unfortunately, it's difficult to conclude anything other than the exact opposite for Arnautovic who, when he rolls into town with his new side on Dec. 16, will be left in no doubt whatsoever of his former fans' feelings on the subject.