Despite the fact that Southampton FC have only been back in the Premier League for four years, we as fans have seen a number of “exoduses” – as the media would label them – and an influx of new players every Summer. We have lost players in every position and consequently, we have been forced into rebuilding in every position; in some cases we have recruited younger, more talented players at a cheaper price, but there have also been some players who have not lived up to expectation, despite the club’s continued progress and development.
However, I would like to focus on the role of the attacking midfielder at Southampton Football Club. In the last month, Saints have broken their record club transfer fee with the signing of Sofiane Boufal for a reported £16million from LOSC Lille, a player who entices the St Mary’s faithful greatly. We have also this week been linked with Hatem Ben Arfa, who has just signed for Paris Saint-Germain. In my opinion, however, this is simply lazy journalism from several media outlets; Puel was praised with saving HBA’s career and HBA has fallen out with Unai Emery, so putting those two together makes for an easy story. Finally this week, young Jake Hesketh put in a stellar performance against Crystal Palace in the EFL cup, coming in for Tadić in the number 10 role, he made some fantastic passes and even scored a well-taken goal. Now with all of these players, rumours, performances and most importantly, our emphasis on a narrow system with the number 10 being the main creative outlet, I wanted to discuss the role of the attacking midfielder at Southampton FC since our return to the Premier League.
The first and probably most controversial of these players would be Adam Lallana; a fan favourite for many years whose reputation was tarnished after leaving to Liverpool. Despite the fact that many Saints fans will still despise Lallana for the way he left, none can deny his quality and malleability. He can play on both wings, behind the striker and can play in almost any tactical system.
Jurgen Klopp seems to have him down as one of the first names on his Liverpool team-sheet every weekend too; Lallana always creates chances and even scores a few goals, despite the fact that he is competing with other brilliant players in Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mané. The way in which Lallana dribbles with the ball makes up for his lack of pace that so many other wingers/attacking midfielders rely on, and the way he can pick out a pass means he is far more reliable than other players with whom he has had to compete against. However, whether Lallana would work in Saints’ current system is not 100% certain; Puel forces the strikers out wide, with the false-9 pressing centrally when Southampton lose the ball, therefore pressing the fullbacks and centre-backs simultaneously. In addition, Lallana has a tendency to push out wide to look for space rather than play more narrowly, which is where Puel wants his attacking midfielder. I have no doubts over Lallana’s quality, but he is very different to other players who would fit in more comfortably under Puel, and others who would have been the focal point of Koeman’s system.
Secondly, we have Dušan Tadić; a player of great quality who was brought in to replace Lallana himself. His crossing and passing are second to none, with the third most assists by any player in the past two Premier League seasons combined. His ability to beat a man with his dribbling and skill is fantastic to watch, despite his lack of pace that, again, most wingers and attacking midfielders rely on. Tadić has become a fan favourite due to his ability to flourish in every system he has played in; this includes the 4-3-3 under Koeman, the 5-2-1-2 which Koeman used during a slump in his reign as Saints manager, the 442 diamond, and finally, in Puel’s new system, where he plays a very similar role to that which he played in the short-lived wing-backs formation under Koeman. However, Tadić does have the tendency to drift out wide instead of staying in the centre. He doesn’t seem to be as comfortable pressing up the pitch, as he only wants to attack and create, but he still has great ability to drop into pockets of space between the lines, which many players would miss. His vision and footballing brain are what separates him from other stereotypical wingers or attacking midfielders, and it is also the reason that I think he is a better player than Lallana, with his stunning deliveries from set-pieces allowing more threats from free-kicks and corners. I, as a Saints fan, am very excited to see how Tadić grows this season as the main outlet of creativity, as I hope his fluid style and flair shine through, whilst also learning how to move into that pressing false-9 role when on the defence. This could be a career-defining season for Tadić, as he looks to become the complete trequartista that can bring deeper-lying players into the game, score goals and make fantastic runs, rather than just being another Premier League playmaker.
Thirdly, we have one of the brightest young talents in European football at the moment; Sadio Mané. Despite only playing for Southampton for two seasons, Mané proved himself time and time again as an explosive threat, who can provide pace down the wing, yet still play down the middle as a second striker.
He has all the makings of a brilliant premier league player; his dribbling is incredible and he is one of the quickest players in the league, but under a manager such as Jurgen Klopp, I believe that he can fine tune the things that are holding him back from reaching the same level as the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard; his finishing and his passing.
His movement, however, is up there with the best in the Premier League and I am intrigued to see how he develops in the coming seasons, as Mané could provide the injection of pace and the spark that Liverpool have been missing – this could potentially allow them to truly challenge for the Champions League. However, it almost seemed as though he needed the team to revolve around him, rather than every player fluidly working and communicating together to ensure that the team’s system became the priority. This is what Puel, and many other managers want in from their players, which is why the loss of Mané may not be as hard-felt as many Saints fans want to believe. However, with that said, Puel is credited with bringing Hatem Ben Arfa’s career back from the dead; a man who believed that he was bigger than every team he played for, who wanted the system to play for him rather than vice-versa. In this regard, I would have loved to see Mané play under Puel, to see how the aforementioned Senegalese winger developed even further at St. Mary’s.
Finally, we have Sofiane Boufal – Southampton’s brand new £16million club record signing, who has come into the club off the back of a fantastic season with LOSC Lille. Of which he scored 11 goals in 29 league games in Ligue 1 from left wing. He has already been likened to Eden Hazard, Riyad Mahrez and Dimitri Payet, comparisons which are going to make Saints fans believe that he can be the “new Sadio Mané”. But with regards to Boufal’s qualities and nuances; I would never claim to be a connoisseur of French league football, as it is a league that has not interested me as much as the likes of La Liga or the Premier League. With that said, I have read about Boufal since his arrival at Southampton; he seems to be a left winger who loves to cut inside onto his favoured right foot, constantly wanting to shoot or create chances for his team. It seems that he possesses the dribbling, skills and pace that can fill the gap that Mané has left. He will look to play directly on the left wing with the intention to dictate play in the way that Hazard so often does, whilst also holding the skill set to cut inside and score.
Although, I am very intrigued to see how he fits into Puel’s narrow system; Redmond has made the conversion to a striker, Tadić has become our star central attacking midfielder and all of the strikers are learning to drift wide without the ball, so as to suffocate the possibilities of the opposition playing out from the back. Yet Boufal has been known to play as a left winger, so, in this case I am really interested to see if Puel decides to play him as our main Number 10 (even with Tadić playing well and Hesketh wanting to breakthrough) or if he is one of the two strikers who drifts out wide during the game, as he is already used to.
Quite simply, “Attacking midfielder” is far too broad of a term nowadays, as there are so many intricacies when it comes to each player. Some are strictly wingers who look to break away and win games with their crosses, and some are inside forwards who wish to cut inside and win a game all on their own by scoring after a fantastic run into the box.
Dušan Tadić will be extremely important for Southampton FC this season as they look to use the narrow system to penetrate teams under Claude Puel; I’m hoping that Tadić himself becomes a complete trequartista, who is able to dictate the tempo of a game, make passes that others would not even see, and to even make runs and score solo goals – something that his game is currently lacking. I firmly believe that Tadić will be able to take the bull by the horns and fine tune his game to become the style of player that Saints need him to be, in the puppet-master role as Kevin De Bruyne has done for Manchester City.
I am also very confident that Sofiane Boufal will hit the ground running, as Sadio Mané did before him, due to the fact that the club place a lot of emphasis on flourishing talents from not just England, but from all over the world. We as Saints fans hope that he can be the new Riyad Mahrez or Dimitri Payet, pulling defences apart on both flanks whilst allowing his central teammates to make shadowing runs and also to create from the centre too. Should these players live up to expectation, Southampton again are in for another fantastic season. to implement our brilliant academy graduates too.
Once again though, Southampton FC have a good mix of quality and depth allowing for competition in all of the attacking midfield positions. There is pace and power, skill and dribbling, and also distinct passing and crossing ability, in addition, Southampton also have the possibility to turn to their brilliant academy. Bear in mind that others in the U23s and U18s will be looking to push on under a manager who favours young players too. Saints fans will be more than pleased come May, as I expect attractive, fluid and dominant football with lots of ball possession – which is what fans truly want to see at their football club.