Tottenham have been badly hit over the past couple of weeks by two defensive injuries, with Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose both out.
Kieran Trippier is fit again, which increases the options at the back and perhaps opens up the possibility of using a back three again. Erik Lamela is still missing with his hip injury but George-Kevin Nkoudou could be back after his knee problem. The likelihood is for a number of fringe players to be given their chance, with Harry Winks a probable starter in midfielder. Cameron Carter-Vickers could come in at centre-back with Vincent Janssen possibly being given another start at centre-forward. Pochettino’s policy so far in the competition has been to play weakened sides with a strong bench in case things go wrong – as they did in the last round against Wycombe Wanderers.
With Ryan Fredericks serving the final game of his three-match ban, Denis Odoi will probably start at right-back for Fulham. The centre-back Tomas Kalas, on loan from Chelsea, remains doubtful with a hip injury.
Other than a dismal September, Fulham have played with reasonable consistency this season. They’ve lost too many games to mount a serious challenge at the top and they are defensively unpredictable, but there have been signs since December of a gradual improvement. They’ve lost only three of their last fifteen matches and have won four of their last five, although the fact that their last two games have finished in 3-2 victories suggests the lack of control that has been an issue all season.
Tottenham have slipped from the high they reached in January when they beat Chelsea and looked the most likely side to mount a challenge to the league leaders. The defeat to Liverpool on Saturday, when they were oddly lethargic, was their first in 12 games, but they were poor in losing 1-0 in the Europa League to Gent on Thursday.
Fulham have won only one of their last 11 league games against Spurs, but their last FA Cup meeting, in 2011, should inspire optimism: Fulham were 4-0 winners that day, all the goals coming in the first half. Danny Murphy scored two penalties in the first 15 minutes, the second of which led to a red card for Michael Dawson for a foul on Mousa Dembele, who is of course now at Spurs. Brede Hangeland got the third before Dembele added a fourth.
It’s very hard to be sure to predict Tottenham’s line-up with any degree of certainty, but it seems likely that this will be a battle of two 4-2-3-1s. The version preferred by Pochettino tends to be slightly skewed, a halfway house to a 4-3-3. The probability here is that Eric Dier will sit deepest, with Harry Winks ahead of him and to the left, with ahead of him and slightly right of centre Son Heung-Min. Slavisa Jokanovic, meanwhile, prefers a more orthodox system with two holders in Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald with Tom Cairney creating ahead of them.
The probability is that Fulham will have little of the ball and will be largely forced to resist and counter. In that sense their 4-2-3-1 may end up looking more like a 4-4-1-1, which makes Jokanovic’s choice of wide men intriguing. The inconsistent Sone Aluko probably gets the nod on the right, with Floyd Ayite probably deemed more defensively reliable on the left than Lucas Piazon, the second of Fulham’s Chelsea loanees. Given how attacking Tottenham’s full-backs are, even the back-up pairing of Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies, they have a vital defensive role.
IMPORTANCE OF MARTIN
Chris Martin is not the most popular figure at Fulham following his attempts to engineer a return to his parent club Derby during the January transfer window, but he has a critical role to play here.
Assuming Tottenham dominate possession, which they surely must, Martin is likely to spend much of the game isolated. His function then, is to hold the ball up until Aluko and Ayite can get forward to join him.
Martin wins on average 2.4 aerials per game. Assuming Toby Alderweireld is rested, he may have the opportunity to impose himself on an inexperienced Tottenham central defensive pairing.
The fifth-round draw has been an excellent one for potential shocks, but this perhaps represents the best opportunity of all – assuming Pochettino rests key players. That, of course, is the risk, but past policy suggests he will and if he does Fulham to win at 4.60 looks very attractive. Or they could be backed +0.5 at 2.14.