The football calendar’s first international break has concluded, meaning league play throughout Europe picks up again this weekend. In England, the Premier League is throwing up some mouthwatering fixtures, with the Manchester derby and a Liverpool-Leicester tie both on the docket for Saturday. But being a Spurs writer, I’m here to focus on Tottenham’s tricky away trip to Stoke. So let’s dive in.
Stoke are among the leakiest defenses in the league, having shipped 6 goals in their opening 3 matches. Granted, 4 of them came against a very impressive Manchester City side, it will still be a point of concern for manager Mark Hughes. They aren’t particularly great in attack either, having only managed 2 goals in the league so far this season.
Spurs are similarly goal shy, having scored only 1 more goal over their first 3 games. Their defense, however, is considerably more effective. The Lilywhites have conceded just two goals in the league this season, owing largely to an experienced back four led by key man Toby Alderweireld. Still, boss Pochettino will demand more success in front of goal, and needs things to start clicking if he hopes to equal or better last year’s 3rd place finish.
FORM & FITNESS
Hosts Stoke will be without long-term absentee Jack Butland, as the young English goalkeeper requires additional surgery to correct the ankle injury that has prevented him from making an appearance this season. That leaves Irishman Shay Given, whose own goal handed Everton all 3 points in their last match, to mind the posts. New signings Wilfried Bony (loan), Bruno Martins-Indi (loan), and Philipp Wollscheid (loan) should all be fit and available for selection, providing Hughes with an alternative to Crouch up front and some steel for his backline.
Spurs are still missing Moussa Dembele, who is serving the final game of the suspension he carried over from last year for eye-gouging Chelsea’s Diego Costa. Fullback Danny Rose, who scored the equalizer against Liverpool in their last match, is also a doubt after picking up a hamstring problem on international duty with England. He is unlikely to be back before September 17, which means Ben Davies will get the nod at fullback for this game. New signings Moussa Sissoko and Georges N’Koudou are fit and available for selection, with the former potentially set to make his debut in a starting role. Hugo Lloris is back in contention as well following his injury lay-off.
Stoke manager Hughes has preferred a 4-3-3 so far this season, setting up Allen, Imbula, and Whelan across midfield and deploying Diouf, Crouch, and Arnautovic as the attacking trio in his side’s previous match against Everton. I’d expect more of the same on Sunday, with Bony potentially snagging the starting central striker role from Crouch. Hughes’ 4-3-3 allows for a good amount of width in attack, but is vulnerable to being overrun in midfield, asking a lot of offensive players like Diouf and Arnautovic to track back when opponents push numbers forward. The central midfield battle will also be key on Saturday, as Spurs’ midfield has looked sluggish of late and the chance is there for the home side to boss this area of the pitch with Imbula’s physicality and Allen’s technique.
For Spurs boss Pochettino, it’s less about changing the system, and more about trouble-shooting it. His formation will be no surprise; even if he plays two strikers in Kane and Janssen, he’ll likely line his side up in the 4-2-3-1 they’ve been playing for most of his tenure. In such a scenario, Kane would drop the deeper of the two forwards, occupying a second striker/attacking midfield role. It’s not the Englishman’s best position, and is more suited to a player like Eriksen, but the Dane’s poor form so far this year has seen him deployed more often in a wide role. This, however, is where Sissoko can potentially make a difference. The Frenchman brings a drive and physicality that has been lacking in Spurs midfield play so far this season, and could very well re-ignite the pressing style Pochettino prizes.
JOE ALLEN, STOKE
The days where Joe Allen was the mere victim of a terrible Brendan Rodgers quote may be well and truly behind us. Unfortunately nicknamed “Welsh Xavi” by his misguided former boss, Allen seems to have turned a corner in his career in the last six months or so. He was one of the standouts in the Welsh squad that almost took their fairy tale Euro 2016 run to the final, and scored in their most recent international as well. In an interview earlier this week, he spoke of how his summer move to Stoke had “refreshed” him, and if he starts to translate his form for country to his club team he could be a real asset to the Potters. Allen’s eye for a pass will be crucial against Spurs’ stingy defense, and if he can provide service to players like Bony and Diouf they can be a real threat.
MOUSSA SISSOKO, SPURS
Whether it’s as a starter or off the bench, Sissoko is almost certain to make his debut on Saturday. Pochettino desperately needs some punch in his midfield, and on his day Sissoko can certainly provide just that. He could be deployed centrally as an attacking midfielder behind Kane/Janssen, or on the wing to allow Eriksen the central role. Either way, if he brings the form he showed at the Euros to his club game, he could prove a great deadline day deal for Pochettino.
Honestly, this is a tough one to call. The Britannia is never an easy place to play, or the phrase “can he do it on a rainy night in Stoke?” would never have been invented. And Hughes has done a lot to shed the direct, simple football of the Pulis days and replace it with a more refined on-field product. Couple this with the fact that Spurs are hardly firing on all cylinders lately, and the chances for a draw or home win certainly don’t seem too low.
I do, however, expect Spurs to shake their 2015-16 hangover eventually, and this weekend seems a likely time for them to do it. Some new signings have come in, which not only provides alternative options for the manager, but also galvanizes those who may be underperforming into putting their best foot forward. Spurs’ midfield in particular has quite a few guilty parties on that score, and the arrival of Sissoko and N’Koudou may just be the kick up the arse those players need to start performing again.
It’ll be close, but I’ll go with 2-1 Spurs. Debutant Sissoko to bag a goal, with Bony and Kane also on the scoresheet.