Stoke have started this season tentatively. Poor results have seen pressure grow on Mark Hughes already after they finished the previous campaign in a slump to end all slumps.
The Potters once looked set to become top six challengers last season but ended up settling for the mediocrity of mid-table once again.
Progress is there for all to see, yet it doesn’t seem to be a consistent path towards the European utopia.
This weekend they face a Tottenham side who have yet to find their rhythm this season. Like Stoke, Spurs suffered a dismal end to the previous campaign. The club crumbled under the pressure of Arsenal to relinquish fourth spot and quickly lost their initiative in the battle for North London supremacy. It’s a tired outcome, and the Gunners look favourites to succeed in that minor battle once again.
In the form of Harry Kane, Mauricio Pochettino has one of the best strikers in Europe. Unfortunately for Pochettino, Kane has looked out of sorts and there is a chasm between the striker we are seeing this season and the one that looked so magnificent last time around.
With both sides looking kind of shaky, you’d think this would be a relatively even contest. And it may well be just that.
Stoke are searching for a tactical identity, although they should be reinvigorated by the addition of Wilfried Bony, and Tottenham are looking for a spark to brighten up their play. That could be provided by the recently signed Moussa Sissoko. However, it is Dele Alli that should prove the key man in this clash.
Amid Stoke’s midfield quality, there is a shortage of a natural screening player. Glenn Whelan is in there to fulfil this role, but his forays up the field combined with the odd mistake can leave the Stoke defence exposed. His natural instinct is often not to protect the defence and he will face a swarm in central midfield, as Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela accompany Dele Alli in overloading the space between the lines.
Alli, who was far and away England’s best player from the bench against Slovakia, could prove to be the difference in this encounter. His ability to create with adventurous passes, supported by his goal record, will make him a tough prospect for this Stoke side.
He will attack areas they are vulnerable and might give Harry Kane the opportunity to return to his former self.