When the official line-ups are announced for Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton’s Premier League clash on Sunday, a collective feeling of envy should wash over the White Hart Lane faithful – not to mention manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Whilst the Lilywhites’ hopes of finding the net will fall on either a cumbersome front-man who has scored just one goal from open play this season – against League One’s Millwall in the FA Cup – or a winger played out of position, the spearhead of Southampton’s attack will boast arguably the biggest success story of the January transfer window, Manolo Gabbiadini.
Of course, it’s still early days for the Italian, who arrived at St. Mary’s from Napoli on January 31st. But if his initial Saints displays are anything to go by, Tottenham have missed out on the perfect understudy to the Premier League’s injured top scorer Harry Kane, having also once been keen on the £15million signing according to Gianluca Di Marzio – albeit several months prior to him turning up in the Premier League.
Indeed, since touching down in England, Gabbiadini has bagged four goals in three Premier League appearances and taken Southampton to within three minutes of extra time against Manchester United in the EFL Cup final, putting his side back on level terms with a heroic brace at Wembley. Ironically, it was his withdrawal in the 83rd minute that saw Claude Puel’s side start to unravel, before Zlatan Ibrahimovic netted the winner in the 87th.
That performance demonstrated Gabbiadini’s willingness and capability to make a difference on the biggest stage against top-quality opposition. The Red Devils weren’t at their best at Wembley but are still a typically well-organised Jose Mourinho side with the third-best defensive record in the Premier League, so for any striker to score twice against them is certainly noteworthy. Doing it for a side who were the underdogs by some distance pre-kickoff, even more so.
Whether Gabbiadini would have been willing to play second fiddle to Kane in north London remains open to debate. He spent the best part of two years serving as Gonzalo Higuain’s understudy at Napoli and that’s inevitably impacted his career – which is why he’s now plying his trade at Southampton, without meaning to sound disrespectful, rather than with another Champions League club.
But the 25-year-old’s qualities are by no means limited to simply scoring goals, even if he has been painted as a fox-in-the-box type since moving to England, largely due to the sheer quality and consistency of his finishing. Indeed, Gabbiadini’s often played behind the front-man throughout his career and his buildup play is effective if somewhat minimal, averaging 1.3 created chances per match and drawing 1.7 fouls per game for the Saints in the Premier League this term. Perhaps he could have taken a duel role in Tottenham’s squad – part stand-in front-man and part support act.
Nonetheless, the former Serie A star’s explosive start on the south coast highlights Tottenham’s repeated failing in the transfer market for the last decade – signing a dependable goalscorer. Darren Bent, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Peter Crouch, Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado all struggled to meet expectations at White Hart Lane, so excepting the returns of Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe, Spurs’ last undisputed hit striker signing was Dimitar Berbatov, way back in summer 2006.
That issue has been exacerbated over the last few seasons due Tottenham’s over-reliance on Harry Kane, during which the club’s recruitment once again has underwhelmed. Spurs paid £2million more than Gabbiadini’s transfer fee to sign Vincent Janssen last summer and the Dutchman has looked painfully off the pace in a Lilywhites jersey, to the extent Mauricio Pochettino has utilised winger Heung-Min Son as Kane’s replacement in recent weeks despite Janssen’s clean bill of health.
Likewise, Paul Mitchell quit the club over Tottenham’s refusal to match Chelsea’s bid for Michy Batshuayi last summer. Some will argue the decision has been vindicated by the Belgium international’s limited progress in west London, but the saga nonetheless brings Spurs’ age-old striker issue to the surface once again.
Kane’s latest injury isn’t as bad as initially feared according to recent reports, but his absence could still severely impact Tottenham during the business end of the campaign, and an uneasy run of fixtures against Burnley, Swansea, Watford and Bournemouth in the coming weeks. By no means heavyweight opponents, but the kind of matches where strikers are usually the men who get the wins over the line, often across cagey and unspectacular 90-minute bouts.
Rather than having a Champions League quality front-man, costing just £15million, to fill the void, Pochettino will have to place his faith in either Son or Janssen. An envious glare at Claude Puel this Sunday, especially if Gabbiadini finds the net in his fifth consecutive Southampton outing, seems inevitable – as do more question marks over Tottenham’s striker strategy in the transfer market.