As far as the 2015/16 season was concerned, Southampton fans had labelled the campaign a write off by late December. The club had seen their French sweetheart depart for Manchester United, had crushed their own dreams of success in the Europa League in the most unattractive fashion possible, and were sitting in 12th place as they entered the new year. But, just five months later, those troubles seem a world away, and maybe as Southampton fans, we should have known better. 2016 is proving to be quite the year for Southampton Football Club.
And it all began with the luck of the Irish(man) – Shane Long. As 2015 was coming to a close, Southampton fans were growing tired of the turgid football, low intensity and predictable play that had oddly, become a recurring issue under Koeman in the winter months. But with just one change, those issues were no more. With Shane Long’s introduction to the side on December 26th – Southampton’s 4-0 win over Arsenal – Southampton put into practice the hardest thing to do in the simple game that we all love; play simple football. Since then, Long has surpassed 10 goals in a Premier League season for the first time in his career, Southampton have a newfound fluidity up top, and they have returned to defending with the first line of defence; the attack. In just six months, Shane Long has transformed his title from super-sub, into one of the first names on Koeman’s team-sheet.
But whilst fans enjoyed the free-flowing football on offer, there stood one more problem, and that problem was standing between the sticks. To me, the goalkeeper is the most important player on the pitch, and Southampton’s early-season shot-stopping predicaments illustrated that perfectly. A strong goalkeeper is the root of the defences confidence, so when a weak link is placed under such pressure, don’t be surprised if it all comes crashing down. In contrast, when you place a strong keeper behind the back-line – such as Fraser Forster – the defence flourishes. Prior to the big man returning, Stekelenburg averaged 1.42 saves per goal and claimed just 35 catches in 17 appearances. In Forster’s 17 appearances over 2016, he has recorded an average rate of 2.75 saves per goal and claimed 61 catches. Fraser Forster’s statistics are vastly superior to Stekelenburg’s, and consequently, results have been prominent too. Without Forster’s return to the starting XI, I firmly believe that we wouldn’t be in such a promising position.
Soon after Forster’s return, Southampton’s attack was about to receive yet another injection of firepower in the January transfer window. With the £4 Million signing of Charlie Austin, fans of all clubs were labelling the deal the bargain of the window. And whilst the forward has only scored one goal since joining the club (what a goal it was at that) Austin has the perfect opportunity to prepare both physically and mentally over pre-season. Simply look to Shane Long as hope for what Austin could achieve with Southampton after a strong pre-season, continual hard work and remaining patient for his chance to arise. There is no doubting Austin’s ability, and at such a price, he is yet another positive for Southampton’s prosperous year so far.
Squad depth is a facet needed in any succesful side, providing the opportunity for players to rest, suspensions to be covered and competition for positions. Four years since Southampton’s return to the Premier League, this has been acheieved. After Jay Rodriguez’s hard fought battle with injury, I remember looking down at our team sheet in complete awe of the progress made as a squad. There sat on our bench on April 9th, 2016, was Jay Rodriguez, Cedric Soares, Oriol Romeu, Charlie Austin, Maya Yoshida and Maarten Stekelenburg. In previous years, Southampton have tailed off at the end of the season due to jaded physical conditions in the squad. But in 2016, Southampton have been able to take up the unprecedented act of injecting first-team quality players into the game from the bench – it’s no coincidence that with this wide array of options to change the game and keep players fresh, Southampton have beaten both Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur’s in their final run-in. It’s hard to see Ronald Koeman accepting anything other than making this squad bigger, better and stronger this summer.
Finally, we come to an act that shows all Premier League Clubs that Southampton Football Club means business. On the 7th of March, Southampton tied down players player and fans player of the season, Virgil Van Dijk, on a new six-year contract. Not only was this an astute piece of business due to the Dutchman’s clear talent, but it’s also a statement. A statement of intent and ambition. A statement that tells Mane and Wanyama, that Southampton is the place to be if you want to further your career. In seasons gone by, the clubs ripest and rawest talents have been prized away by the League’s “Big boys”, causing stalled development of the club. Yet still, we manage to progress each year through the incredible planning and management of the club; by no means can this be labelled fortuitous. But as a fan who wants to see his team be the best they can possibly be, I have to wonder, what would have been if we held onto our finest talents? After this statement from the club, we may well find out this summer.
But just how good of a year has this been for Southampton? Well, second only to the Premier League Champions Leicester City to be exact. Over 2016, only Leicester City (41) have recorded more Premier League points than Southampton (36). Given our results in the latter stages of 2015 this season, Southampton being on the cusp of achieving back-to-back Europa League qualification isn’t half bad. In fact, it’s an incredible story that without Leicester City’s dream season occurring, would most likely be filling the back pages. However, whilst this would be a fully deserved achievement for the club, we want to keep growing, and therefore, this should only be seen as the beginning of something special. As Claudio Ranieri would say “Let’s dream”.