It is time for the best 5 words in sports. Champions League Finals, Premier League Champions, and World Cups, all of them pale in comparison to a cold, rainy night in Stoke.
For the uninitiated — Stoke City away has become a true measuring stick for opposition sides. Sure teams can perform in the biggest fixtures under the brightest lights, but can they do it on a rainy night in Stoke? The lights don’t shine bright, the weather is brutal, it’s cold, and the opposition is intent on kicking the fight out of you from minute one. Here’s a list of players who have never won at the Bet365 Stadium: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo (who played there once and lost), Pele, Zinedine Zidane, and a host of other truly rarefied company.
Who has done it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke? Russell Martin. As a Norwich City player, he faced up against Stoke 7 times, winning once at the then-Brittania Stadium.
The Saints are riding high but can Russell Martin get it done?
The Southampton gaffer knows as well as anyone, that this is a trap game. The Saints are riding high after a comfortable 3-1 win against relegation bedfellows Leeds. Martin especially has cause to pat himself on the back, as his tactical shuffling was instrumental in the Saints ending their 4 game-losing streak. Martin inserted Carlos Alcaraz and Stuart Armstrong into the starting 11, displacing the phonetically same-named Che Adams and Shea Charles. He also changed formation, asking Alcaraz to drop deep as a false 9, instead of playing as an out-and-out striker like Adams prefers.
The gambit worked wonders, Alcaraz was instrumental in the buildup for two of the Saints’ three goals, and the defensive issues that have kept him from the starting 11 were easily covered for in his more advanced role. For a wonderful analysis of Alcaraz’s (and to a lesser extent Armstrong’s) contributions to the game, I’d recommend checking out Alfie House’s piece in the Daily Echo, as well as an excellent thread by @saints_analysis.
This was an important step for Martin and Southampton. There have been rumblings from fans (and opposition coaches) that Saints are too predictable and that other sides know exactly how Southampton wants to play and can devise appropriate plans to stop it. Having tactical tweaks in the arsenal will keep other teams guessing, and will be key for the rest of the season.
But one good win does not a season make. After their soul-crushing 4 game losing streak, Southampton needs to build some momentum. On paper, a midweek visit to 16th place Stoke City should do just that. But in practice — it’s going to be a tricky game. The positivity of the victory against Leeds could very easily slip away in the Stoke-on-Trent rain.
And Russell Martin still has a myriad of issues to fix. Southampton still cannot defend set pieces, having conceded another against Leeds on the weekend. They have played 9 games in the Championship, and still have not kept a clean sheet. In fact, you have to go back to March 12th to find their last clean sheet (against 10-man Manchester United). They still do not have a settled team, although the starting 11 against Leeds made a great argument they should be the first choice going forward.
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That is all to say — we will see whether the Leeds performance was an anomaly or a step in the right direction Tuesday night. Can Southampton continue to build, or will the same mistakes which have plagued them continue? A cold, rainy night in Stoke will start to give us answers.