Author Archives: Aidan Small

Maya Yoshida: from bench-warmer to first-team baller

Since signing for Southampton Football Club in 2012, Maya Yoshida has faced exceptional competition, brutal criticism, and countless hurdles to worm his way back into the side. But in this very moment, the Japanese International is in the finest form of his career, and one by one, is stealing the hearts of each and every Southampton fan.

The January transfer window was a hard pill to swallow. Whilst the club managed to solve it’s goalscoring woes with the acquisition of Manolo Gabbiadini, Southampton finished the January transfer window having failed to find a replacement for club captain, Jose Fonte.

But when one door closes, another door is opened.

Following the departure of Jose Fonte to West Ham and a season ending injury to Virgil Van Dijk, someone had to step up. Southampton’s defensive options had been stripped down to the bare bones, and they were left with no other option but to find a leader from within. That someone has been Maya Yoshida.

Since being handed the responsibility of leading the backline, Yoshida has well and truly flourished into a player that few Southampton fans would have ever anticipated. I’m sure I won’t be alone in thinking that Yoshida’s recent performances have surpassed all initial expectations.

In seasons gone by, Yoshida has been the first port of call when injuries strike the first team, but truth be told, this was a situation that many fans would ultimately dread. He’s certainly not quick off the line, is no man mountain, is hasty in one v one’s, and when it comes to promoting an attractive brand of football, there are many players better for doing so in the Premier League.

This season however, Yoshida has a new-found confidence and is playing with more intelligence than ever before. In terms of his physicality and technical ability, little has changed from previous years, but the difference now is that Yoshida’s decision making and anticipation is that of an experienced Premier League defender.

When Yoshida would previously panic with the ball in tight and tricky situations, he would now remain composed and maintain possession in an effective manner. And in those moments when he used to gain a rush of blood and step too high out of the defence, he now holds the line and time’s his tackle.

Yoshida is a limited defender, but with staggering dedication and countless hours on the training ground, he has risen to the challenge of starting regular Premier League fixtures.

It’s also worth noting that whilst Yoshida has had to focus on proving his own worth, he’s had to take England U21 International, Jack Stephens, under his wing too. It’s hard enough trying to effectively make your own mark in a top flight side, let alone having to ensure that a youngster does so too.

And whilst yes, I do still believe that defensive reinforcements were required in January, that mistake from the club is now in the past. From February 1st, we could only work with what we have, and given those circumstances, Puel, Yoshida, and Stephens have done a fantastic job.

Let’s not get carried away, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and this current partnership is obviously levels below the Fonte/Van Dijk duo of last season. However, how can’t you be delighted that we are showing defensive solidarity with what would have been our third and fourth choice centre backs at the start of this season.

Yoshida’s development has been thrilling, and not least because we now boast an extremely dependable third choice centre back for next season. For such a role, a player of Yoshida’s current qualities are incredibly useful; he never struggles with fitness, is a valuable member within the squad, is understanding with squad rotation, and as proven in recent months, can be trusted over the course of 90 minutes.

When this summer comes around, Southampton Football Club’s main priority in the transfer market should still be finding a partner for Virgil Van Dijk. But through Fonte’s departure and Van Dijk’s injury, Yoshida has been presented the opportunity to earn himself a new contract and an important role within the squad, and my god has he grabbed it with both hands.

Southampton youngster Gallagher in high demand

According to the express, Sam Gallagher will prove to be a wanted man this summer, with Aston Villa reportedly interested in lodging a £3m bid.

Steve Bruce won’t be short of competition for Gallagher’s signature however, with Sunderland, Sheffield United, and Cardiff also rumoured to be in the race to sign the 21-year-old.

Gallagher has been in fine form so far this season, netting 10 goals in 35 Championship appearances, placing a number of experienced players out of the the Rovers starting XI.

This goal record is made all the more impressive when you consider that this is only Gallagher’s second pop at the Championship, and he’s doing so in a relegation dog fight. Many would suggest that in such a situation, experienced players are the ones you should turn to, but Gallagher is certainly proving to be an exception.

During a recent interview with Rovers playerHD, Rovers boss Tony Mowbray heaped praise upon the young talisman’s performances in blue and white. 

“The supporters won’t necessarily know his personality but he looks you right in the eye and he wants to work hard, he wants to be a better footballer, he wants to listen and try and improve every day.

“They are fantastic qualities for a young guy to have really, he knows he’s not the finished article, he’s not sure about when to play deep away from defenders, when to use his physicality up against them, and when to use his speed.

He’s got some fantastic attributes that are going to make him a hell of a footballer in a few years time. A guy who can do everything, out-strength you, out-run you. Hopefully he can become cleverer with his movement, he is going to be some player.”

Mowbray even went on to praise Southampton’s handling of the youngster, stating “I think his club have done right in letting him go and play games, otherwise the development is not as fast in the Under-23 league. So we are delighted we’ve got him.”

The bottom line however, is that Gallagher is obviously still a Southampton player, and therefore, there is a big decision to be made this summer.

Southampton Football Club prides itself on it’s youth development, and if they had their own way, then Gallagher would of course be successfully eased into the first team. But Gallagher can only be as good as the opportunities handed to him, and with a current frontline of Manolo Gabbiadini, Shane Long, Jay Rodriguez, and Charlie Austin, opportunities would certainly be arriving at a premium.

It’s also worth considering the fact that Gallagher has thrived upon regular competitive football, which is something that he is highly unlikely to receive at Southampton. Returning to his parent club may in fact stunt his development.

On top of this, with Claude Puel’s need for a more technically able striker in the side, Ryan Seager may well be the preferred option in Southampton’s current system.

When this summer arrives, I simply hope that Southampton can find the greatest path for Gallagher to continue his recent development – something I know that our club will whole heartedly be behind.

Analysis: James Ward-Prowse’s latest role under Claude Puel

An England call up, a goal at the weekend, and arguably in the finest form of his Southampton career so far – like so many other academy graduates before him, James Ward-Prowse is truly starting to turn potential into performance.

Following a 3-1 defeat to West Ham on the 4th of February, Claude Puel opted for a 4231 system ahead of his side’s visit to the Stadium of Light – a decision that would see Southampton play with organisation, bravery, and attacking flair, in a promising 4-0 win away from home. It was clear for all to see that Southampton now had a platform to build upon with this change in system, and consequently, this formation carried over into the League Cup final against Manchester United.

Southampton ensured to play their own style for large quantities of the game, having the confidence to effectively dominate possession and counter against a robust Jose Mourinho set up. Southampton had proven that they weren’t phased by the occasion, and left each and every fan proud at the final whistle, despite going on to lose 3-2. Just six days later however, a spirited Southampton side once again returned against Watford, removing any doubt of cup final heartbreak with a 4-3 victory.

As for last weekend, Southampton tasted defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur, but not for the want of trying. Puel’s side put in a stellar second half performance and asked all kinds of questions from a team that hasn’t lost at home since May 2016; any guesses for who that defeat came against?

But whilst Manolo Gabbiadini’s goals have obviously taken the headlines, the balance and creativity that Ward-Prowse currently offers has been vital to this season changing form.

Quite simply, Claude Puel has identified Ward-Prowse’s greatest strengths on the field, and is aiming to utilise them as much as physically possible.

Operating as the right-sided midfielder in a 4231 system (right), Puel is able to make the most of Ward-Prowse’s greatest skill sets; his wide passing range, his crossing ability, and his reading of the game.

When playing as a central midfielder in the Premier League, Ward-Prowse would often lack the physicality and intensity required to string together a number of consistently strong performances. But in this particular role as a right midfielder, Ward-Prowse’s need for physicality and a high intensity is greatly reduced, allowing him to play in a system that is better suited to his natural strengths.

Within the frontline, each player has their own tailor-made responsibilities. Gabbiadini’s role is to find space in the box, Tadic is the sides main creative outlet, Redmond is there to ask questions of the defence with his pace, whilst Ward-Prowse is there to distribute and create effectively.

Puel doesn’t want Ward-Prowse to try any fancy tricks, or even aim to beat his man. Instead, he wants Ward-Prowse to receive the ball in high and wide areas that are ideal for his immense deliveries. Simply take a look at the image below from Southampton’s Cup Final clash against Manchester United – Ward-Prowse hunted for space in a wide area and is now setting himself up to play a first time cross into the feet of Gabbiadini.

This is a series of play that I expect to become a regular feature in Puel’s Southampton side, especially with Gabbiadini’s illusive movement.

Using pass maps from the excellent 11tegen11, we are able to see Ward-Prowse’s average position on the ball, number of touches in comparison to teammates, and the number of passes to fellow teammates.

As shown on the right, Ward-Prowse’s average position on the ball in the game against Sunderland is extremely advanced. In fact, he is level with our centre forward, Gabbiadini. This reinforces my assumption of Puel’s demands from Ward-Prowse, as clearly he is being instructed to initially receive the ball in dangerous advanced areas.

If we once again look to the pass map, we can also see that Ward-prowse and Cedric Soares are exchanging passes and connecting on a regular basis (as illustrated by the larger arrows between one another). Given that the full backs are a vital attacking component in Puel’s system, this is extremely encouraging.

Cedric has received plenty of praise in recent weeks, and perhaps Ward-Prowse’s availability off the ball has helped him to attack so effectively. Ward-prowse has the option to either send Cedric down the line to deliver a cross, or to whip the ball in himself from a Cedric cut back – both of which have proven to be consistently threatening in recent fixtures.

This pass map isn’t an anomaly either, as my analysis also fits into the narrative of the Tottenham Hotspur and Watford pass maps too.

When needed, the 22-year-old is even able to slot into the midfield with Oriol Romeu and Steven Davis, for those particularly tough periods in a game when midfield dominance is key.

And of course, with Ward-Prowse now starting most games, there is also the added benefit of being able to utilise his sensational set-piece deliveries. Within the Premier League, only Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen spring to mind as being superior in that department.

For the first time in his Southampton career, it appears that Ward-Prowse is having the system altered to his game, rather than altering his game to the system. It’s a promising change that with continual support and guidance from Claude Puel, can hopefully take one of England’s brightest young talents to the next level.

Q&A: Tottenham Hotspur vs Southampton

The introduction of Manolo Gabbiadini has sparked Claude Puel’s side into life, placing confidence into each and every Southampton fan. Having spent much of the season ruing their missed chances, Southampton now find themselves in free-scoring form – striking the back of the net 10 times in their last three fixtures. But when your upcoming opponents are sitting 2nd in the League and have scored an impressive 13 goals from their last three clashes, Southampton sure do have one hell of a challenge on their hands.

To find out more about this weekend’s opponents, we spoke with Nikhil Saglani – a Tottenham Hotspur fan and writer for Yahoo Sport.

Firstly, what are your thoughts on Tottenham’s season so far?

It’s been very mixed! Both European competitions were a disaster – and whilst many use Wembley as an excuse, it can’t take the full brunt of the blame. However, the league campaign has been markedly better. We’ve only lost three times in the league – all away at top six sides – but are unbeaten at White Hart Lane, which will give the squad and fans a lot of confidence going to the game, even without Harry Kane!

Who has been your player of the season?

It’s a toss up between Kyle Walker and Victor Wanyama. I’m going to say the former purely because he’s been a tad more consistent. Walker has put in numerous outstanding performances from right back and right wing-back, a position in which he’s taken his game to another level going forwards, but defensively too.

As an outsider looking in, what is your perception of Southampton this season?

It seems like it’s been a really disappointing season in the Premier League and Europa League, but I’m sure the cup final and the day at Wembley will be a great memory – despite the result! I can’t say I’ve watched you incredibly closely but I know Claude Puel’s not had the immediate impact that Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman had when they first joined, but it seems like things have improved recently, especially after the signing of Manolo Gabbiadini.

If you could take any Southampton player, who would it be and why?

This is a tough one as I’d say Virgil Van Dijk is most probably your best player, but our biggest problem position is up front – where I’d like another striker. Having said that, I’ll go for Van Dijk as he’d slot into our back three seamlessly, adding an extra bit of experience and depth to the side.

What have you made of former Saint, Victor Wanyama, during his first season?

When he joined us in the summer, many thought he’d be a strong squad player behind Eric Dier but he’s forced his way into the side and been incredibly solid – improving our incredible defence from last season and taking it to the next level. He’s also been a key reason in why we’ve transitioned so well into the 3-4-3 formation, putting in excellent shifts next to both Mousa Dembele and Harry Winks. And he’s also chipped in with three goals; without getting sent off!

How does a team typically need to play in order to beat Spurs?

Stop us playing. Manchester United and Manchester City did it perfectly at their own grounds. If you get in our faces and stop the likes of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Dembele and the full backs from getting on the ball, you will enjoy some success. However, that’s far easier said than done. With Kane out, I’d expect Heung-min Son to step in in a ‘false nine’ role and he’s arguably more lively than Kane, always moving between the lines and out wide too. His footwork is incredible and, more often than not, he has a lethal strike on him. Kane being out is a huge blow, but with the goalscoring form of Alli and Son, we may be able to cope okay.

What would make for a successful end to the season?

We have to finish in the top four, because we need to keep achieving Champions League to attract a better level of player to White Hart Lane. We’d all love to win the FA Cup too, but it won’t be an easy task with Chelsea in the semi-final and Arsenal/Manchester City in the final! If we get both, it’ll be an incredible season. But even just one of them will be impressive. This side, and Pochettino, need a trophy – but it’d be a shame to miss out on the top four now.

And finally, what do you think the score will be this Sunday?

If we had Kane, I’d have said a very comfortable Spurs win. We’ve been on fire at home in 2017, scoring 26 goals in eight games at the Lane since the turn of the year. In the two games he didn’t play, albeit, against Wycombe Wanderers and Millwall (where he played five minutes), we scored 10. Despite our main man not being there, I’m going to say 2-0 to Spurs.

One lion in and one lion out?

We may have over three months until the summer transfer window officially opens, but rumours are already circulating regarding two England Internationals – one reportedly coming to St Mary’s, and the other departing.

According to numerous sources – including the Sun – Southampton are plotting a move for England’s number one, Joe Hart, in the event of Fraser Forster leaving the club this summer. And whilst this is a report that lacks little substance at the minute *cough* The Sun *cough*, It’s certainly an interesting topic to debate.

It goes without saying that over the course of the season so far, Forster has been far from impressive. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he’s been our most disappointing player over the 2016/17 campaign.

On multiple occasions this season Southampton have dominated the match, finally snatched their reward, and then just moments later, witnessed it crumble before their very eyes. Time and time again, Forster has failed to step up in those all important game-changing moments, and quite frankly, it’s cost us dearly this season.

With the acquisition of Hart however, I strongly believe that those problems would be no more. Since 2006, Hart has made 266 top flight appearances for Manchester City, proving himself to be one of the Premier League’s top keepers in recent years. He’s received two Premier League winners medals, has won the golden glove on four occasions, and has been voted into the PFA team of the season twice over. 

Admittedly, Hart has shown from time to time he is prone to a howler, and he did have a horror show during the Euros of 2016, but his countless game saving performances of the past can’t simply be forgotten. The 29-year-old has certainly bounced back to form with his loan move at Torino, too. 

On top of this, Hart has shown great professionalism during his saga with Pep Guardiola, and a quality such as this would certainly be welcome at Southampton.

It’s also worth noting that Dave Watson, Southampton’s goalkeeper coach, was part of the England staff from 2012 to 2016, so has personally worked with Hart over each International break. Such a figure could be helpful in recommending Hart to Claude Puel, whilst also recommending Southampton to Hart.  

At this moment in time, Forster boasts the lowest save percentage for any goalkeeper in the Premier League, and if this form continues, then we will be left with few other options than to sign a replacement this summer.

Between now and the end of the season, I would love nothing more than to see Forster once again strike confidence into the Southampton defence. But if this isn’t the case, how can we possibly be expected to not swoop for a player of Hart’s pedigree?

Gabbiadini on his start to life in the Premier League

It’s fairly safe to say that since arriving on the South Coast on January 31st, Manolo Gabbiadini has flipped Southampton’s season right on it’s head.

Having scored six goals in just four appearances, the Italian International’s influence on the side is clear for all to see, but he’s done far more than just put the ball in the back of the net. With thanks to his attacking intelligence, Gabbiadini has removed the previous lethargic and lacklustre style, and replaced it with a fluid and expressive front-line.

At this moment in time each and every Southampton fan is in cloud nine with their clubs new talisman, and judging by his latest interview with Sky Italia, it seems that Gabbiadini is rather happy too…

“I didn’t expect (to start this well) either!” said Gabbiadini.

“I’ve completely changed brand of football. Everything is completely different here – the city, my teammates… I didn’t think I’d start like this. I have to thank all of my teammates and the coach, who are fantastic, and they’ve all gone out of their way to help. The difference with Italy is it’s all fun here both for us and the fans whether you win or lose. What matters is giving 100%, that’s the only way you can make the supporters happy.

“I couldn’t go on living that life and constantly being on the bench. Come full time, I’d go home and I was always down because I didn’t feel a part of it – I felt horrible. When I left, I told myself that I had to make a fresh start and prove to myself that I could still play football. It would have become really hard had I waited another six months.”

Well, Manolo, I can assure you that you wont be returning to the bench anytime soon.

 

In defence of Sofiane Boufal

Sofiane Boufal has only been with Southampton since late August of 2016, and unsurprisingly (as I anticipated), a number of our fans don’t seem to be his greatest admirer.

Boufal’s career in red and white stripes got off to a flyer. Having joined the club already nursing an injury, Boufal had to wait until the 26th of October to make his first start for the club, but boy was it worth the wait…  

Following his sensational strike against Sunderland in the League Cup, Boufal then proceeded to pick up a number of appearances, sometimes operating as a number ten, and other times as a left winger. Over these showings he was able to show us glimpses of his fine footwork and unpredictable nature on the ball.

via GIPHY

By this point Boufal had already pulled out enough trickery to build a compilation video, but fans were still asking for more of a final product, and that’s exactly what they received during Southampton’s clash against Middlesbrough.

But since this scintillating run of form, Boufal has struggled to maintain those same performance levels, and with that, there has been plenty of criticism. Criticism that I personally believe, is unjust and irrational.

Ever since our return to the Premier League, fans have been screaming out year on year for creativity and flair, but now that it’s here in the form of Boufal, these same fans don’t have the patience to let him find his feet.

Despite still being inside his first season as a Premier League and Southampton player, fans are expecting instant and consistent results from a player that is currently facing all types of new challenges. He’s playing in a new League, with new demands, having to overcome a language barrier, and this is all whilst he’s having to find his new role in the Southampton side.

On top of this, he’s also been expected to find a level of consistency in the team, despite Puel’s weekly weekly squad rotation – a policy that can sometimes be cruel on new arrivals, who require regular game time to be at their best.

It’s difficult as a creative player to truly cement your place in the team when each and every week, you’re having to adapt to a new frontline – especially when you’re a new arrival. One week Boufal is having to play direct to Charlie Austin, a forward who struggles to play quick one-two’s, and the next he’s expected to find Shane Long through the channels. This is whilst Boufal himself is also having to adjust to playing as either a number ten or as a left winger.

Perhaps now that Puel has halted his rotation policy with the introduction of Manolo Gabbiadini, Boufal will soon be able to find his most natural position and style of play. 

Right before our very eyes we have a player that is capable of humiliating defenders, whilst also being able to find the back of the net from the most acute of angles, yet still, I am already witnessing fans jump on his back and rule him out of being a success at Southampton.

Quite simply, Sofiane Boufal is a player who loves to take risks, and it seems that some fans just can’t quite grasp that fact. Whilst I see a player that is wanting to change the game, make an impression and play positive, others see this as irreversible greed and selfishness. Granted, he has certainly shown his tendency to overplay and rush his decisions, but to see this as something that can’t be channeled and worked upon is mindless.

Boufal is an exceptional talent – in terms of raw ability, I’ve seen few better in a Southampton shirt over recent years – but in order to truly reach his thrilling potential, he needs an abundance of patience and support from us Southampton fans. Something that I know we are more than capable of providing.

A lesson learnt from our trip to Wembley

After facing the initial disappointment and pain from being dumped out of the League Cup final just three days ago, I imagine the players are now analysing the game in hunt for any valuable lessons. How did they cope under pressure? What would they carry out again? And what decisions would they change?

Reflection is a valuable tool for any footballer if they want to progress, but in my view, they shouldn’t be the only ones doing so after last Sunday; If we as fans can take anything away from that monumental day, it’s to recognise the influence that our support can have on the team.

Having started the game with an attractive yet direct approach, Claude Puel’s side looked to have found the game’s opener inside the 12th minute, but Manolo Gabbiadini’s goal was wrongly waved offside.

Just five minutes later, half of Wembley was stunned into silence as Zlatan Ibrahimovic found the back of the net with a 30-yard free-kick. This failed to dishearten either one of the fans or the players however, as Southampton chants filled the stadium and the positive play continued.

Southampton we’re looking dangerous in attack and looking to play the positive pass at all times, but just as luck had it, Jesse Lingard doubled United’s lead in the 37th minute, with a sweet curling effort into the bottom right corner – their second chance of the game.

In the moment, it was gutting. Truly gutting. Watching on over the Wembley turf I had witnessed my team play with confidence, bravery, and style, yet still, we found ourselves 2-0 down at the hands of the officials and United’s clinical finishing.

But what happened next was a moment that will never leave me as a Southampton fan. With all hope of Cup glory seemingly gone following Lingard’s fine finish, Gabbiadini stepped up to provide the touch of class that Southampton have desired so many times this season; there was once again hope. Timed to perfection in the 45th minute, Gabbiadini’s goal gave Southampton new life before the break, with over 32,000 fans screaming for more as the teams marched in at half time.

The referee then blew his whistle to get the second half underway, and instantly, there was this venomous momentum behind Southampton with the support of their travelling fans. In the opening stages of that second half there wasn’t a single moment where the Southampton fans stopped chanting, and late into the 46th minute, they were handed their reward.

With remarkable awareness and instinct, Gabbiadini watched the ball fall to his feet with his back to goal, before swivelling on his heel and lacing the ball past a rooted David De Gea. It was simply beautiful. Deemed to be down and out, little old Southampton had clawed back from a two-goal deficit, and now, our fans truly believed that we could take this trophy home with us. Nothing quite proves that like half of Wembley stadium swinging their scarves to the sound of our Italian hero’s name.

For the next 15 minutes, the chanting was endless. Manchester United’s half of Wembley had been reduced to silence, and given their well renowned away support, that is quite some achievement.

The incredible Southampton support was still far from over though. As the game reached the 62nd minute, out came 30,000+ shining lights from the Southampton fans, as a loving tribute to their former Chairman and club saviour, Markus Liebherr. The very man that allowed us to experience such a thrilling occasion.

Sadly however, we know the remainder of this story. Despite pushing on with bravery and the willingness to express ourselves right up until the closing moments of the game, Ibrahimovic was the difference in the 86th minute.

A moment of true quality from an undisputed world class footballer settled the tie, but all in all, I couldn’t be any prouder of my football club and our fans. Right from the first whistle to the very last, we stood strong by our team and ensured that when they needed that extra push, we made our voices heard.

It’s understandable for fans of a football club to brag about the quality of their support, but in all honesty – minus the Northam stand – St Mary’s has been lacking for a long while. Our fans are superb, there is no doubting that, but having witnessed for myself what 32,000+ chanting fans in red and white can do to a game, I’m left with just one question; can we now transfer that same overpowering atmosphere to St Mary’s Stadium?

Preview: Southampton vs Manchester United

In less than four days, I will have the joy of watching my beloved Southampton FC march out onto the field of Wembley. But sadly, standing strong in our way of cup glory is Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United; a team that are unbeaten in their last 16 Premier League fixtures, having scored 24 goals, with just six goals conceded. In terms of form, there are few better in the Premier League than the Red Devils at this moment in time, but as we all know, football is a funny old sport and over 90 minutes, anything is possible. 

So, to find out more about what we can expect from our upcoming opponents, I spoke with Elliott from United Report.

How does this seasons performances compare to the showings under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal?

Our performances under Mourinho have been the complete polar-opposite to Moyes and Van Gaal’s. We’re still somewhat building from the back but we’re doing it with a lot more intent and pace, something we lacked majorly under the previous managers. We’re now creating a lot more chances than before but are sometimes lacking that end product. Finishing seems to be one of our only weaknesses at the moment and that can be worked on.

As an outsider looking in, what is your perception of Southampton this season?

I’m a huge admirer of Southampton. The fact that the club are constantly selling their best players (unfortunately) and somehow managing to replace them with equal talent is very impressive. Saints have a nice looking spine now – players of note are Van Dijk, Romeu, Redmond and Gabbiadini. I am however surprised at Saints’ position in the league. The current crop of players have a lot of potential and it’s a shame they’re not fulfilling that. However, I do think Southampton will climb the table towards the end of the season.

What do you make of Luke Shaw’s current situation at Manchester United?

Luke Shaw’s current situation at Manchester United – it’s nothing more than tough love from Mourinho. It worked with Mkhitaryan and seems to be working with Martial, and I’m 100% sure it will work with Shaw. The difference is that Shaw is still recovering from a career-threatening injury. Mourinho has already confirmed that he has no intention to sell Shaw and that he is very fond of the player and his potential. It’s all paper talk.

If you could take any Southampton player, who would it be and why?

It’s got to be Virgil van Dijk. The guy’s been one of the best defenders in the league this season and he has definitely changed my opinion of him. I use to have the image of Martial helping Van Dijk with cramp at St Mary’s lodged in my head after the Frenchman put two past Southampton last season and that set my negative view of the player. In a defence that is lacking solidarity at the moment, I’m taking Van Dijk all day.

Who has been your player of the season?

It’s between a few players. My shortlist is Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Valencia is arguably the best right-back in the league at the moment – he’s unbeatable in a 1v1 and is an absolute monster going forward. As for Pogba, the world’s most expensive player, everything good goes through him. On his day, he’s unmatchable and he could have had a lot more goals and assists this season if it weren’t for the woodwork and our poor finishing. Ibrahimovic has to be included due to the pure amount of goals the Swede has scored. He’s already got 24 in all competitions and we’re only in February! The scary thing is, he could have had a lot more…

What area of the Southampton side do you feel that United should exploit this Sunday?

The absence of Van Dijk is huge for United. He’s probably one of the only players that could’ve dealt with Ibrahimovic’s physicality meaning this factor could be decisive at Wembley.

Who do you expect to be your key man this Sunday, and which Southampton player scares you most going into the game?

If Pogba shows up then we’ll play well and have a good chance of winning, it’s as simple as that. Not only will he need to be pin point attacking wise, he will need to deal with Romeu – who does not lack fight in the middle of the park. In the form he’s in, Gabbiadini is frightening. We can’t afford to give him an inch of space otherwise he’ll showcase his favourite ‘spin & shoot’, which he recently showed vs Sunderland.

And finally, what do you think the score will be this Sunday?

Full-time score: United 3-1 Southampton. I think our amount of quality will shine through and pinch the win. It will be a good game nonetheless!

The ultimate 2012-17 Southampton XI

The good news is that the League Cup final is now less than two weeks away. The bad news however, is that Southampton don’t have another fixture until that season defining day. But with all this spare time until we travel to Wembley, it got me thinking about just how fortunate I’ve been to experience such a remarkable journey. From the dark depths of League One in 2009, up to the Premier League in 2012, qualification for the Europa League in 2015, and now, a League Cup final in 2017. When you take a step back and look at how far our club has come, it’s really quite remarkable.

So, in the spirit of enjoying the next chapter that Southampton FC holds for us, I decided to pick my ultimate Southampton XI since our return to the Premier League.

GK: Despite his recent slump in form, there is still no doubt in my mind that Fraser Forster deserves to stand between the sticks in my ultimate XI. Since signing in the summer of 2014, Forster has produced some sensational goalkeeping displays (much to the annoyance of every Arsenal fan), whilst also writing his name into the Southampton history books – totalling 708 Premier League minutes without conceding a goal. The 6ft 7in shot stopper has helped Southampton to better their highest ever PL finish twice over, and is it any wonder when he’s recorded 28 clean sheets in 73 Premier League appearances?

RB: Signed for just £2.15M ahead of our return to the Premier League in 2012, Nathaniel Clyne went on to not only help us steer clear of relegation, but also become a fully fledged England International. Blisteringly quick, dangerous on the overlap, and surprisingly strong in one-on-one defensive situations, Clyne takes the right back spot with ease.

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CB: Given that Virgil Van Dijk is arguably one of the most sought after defenders in European football at the minute, it will come as no surprise to you that he’s placed in this side. Not only is he an incredibly intelligent tackler, but he’s also capable of spraying 40-yard diagonals with ease, whilst possessing the strength to make Christian Benteke look like Nathan Dyer – as aerial threats go, there are few better in football than Van Dijk. If Southampton can retain the Dutchman this summer, he’s as big as any signing we could possibly ship in.

CB: We may have only been able to enjoy the services of Toby Alderweireld for a single season, but my god, what a player we had on our hands. Within just three performances in the red and white shirt, I remember turning to my Dad and simply asking, “How on earth have we got this man?”. Alderweireld boasts many similar qualities to Van Dijk, but perhaps what he loses in natural physical strength, he makes up for with his exceptional reading of the game. It’s for all to see that the Belgian International has received a footballing education at Ajax.

LB: When Southampton first signed Ryan Bertrand, it’s fair to say that there were doubters. Not only had Southampton just waved goodbye to Luke Shaw, but their replacement was a loan player who had failed to shine for Aston Villa in the season before. But over two and a half years later, Bertrand has arguably become one of Southampton’s most reliable performers, proving to be a true professional along the way too. He’s shown himself to be a capable player in all areas of the pitch, allowing us to play the positive and fluid football that us fans so desire. His fine form has even helped him regain a place in the National team.

DM: Ah, the one that got away. It may sound odd to others, but I’ve never known a player to grab the hearts of so many fans in the same way that Morgan Schneiderlin did. With the combination of his crunching tackles, the fact that he rose through the divisions with us, and never left the field without giving 100%, we all truly saw him as one of us. Over countless occasions we would witness Schneiderlin single handedly dominate the midfield, and still to this day, I’m gutted for him that his big move didn’t pay off. It would take one hell of a search to find a defensive midfielder as effective as Schneiderlin during his time at Southampton.  

DM: And here we have Schneiderlin’s partner in crime: Victor Wanyama. The Kenyan midfielder slotted in alongside Schneiderlin at the start of the 2013/14 season, and right from the off, we all knew what he was about. Wanyama may not be the most technical or aesthetically pleasing player, but over his three seasons at Southampton, he proved himself to be one of the Premier League’s finest in protecting the backline. How many other players can you name that have knocked Yaya Toure, Kouyate and Fellaini to the floor in a single season?

LW: When Adam Lallana departed for Liverpool, any football fan could see that Southampton had a colossal job of acquiring a suitable replacement; and in the form Dusan Tadic, Les Reed and co found just that. The Serbian International has been the creative Spark behind Southampton’s progression over the past two seasons, recording 21 assists in 81 Premier League appearances. Tadic’s greatest form for Southampton came with Graziano Pelle in the side, but with a new Italian in town – Manolo Gabbiadini – Tadic looks to have formed a new on the field bromance. When deployed as the main creative outlet for the side, Tadic is capable of tormenting any side with his defence splitting vision and deft execution.

AM: Given the manner of which he left the club, I was debating whether to select this man for my starting XI. However, I just can’t deny plain and simple talent once I’ve seen it with my eyes. Regardless of how you view Lallana for his actions, It’s undeniable that he was a sensational player for Southampton. He could play with either foot, was capable of leading the team as a captain, and had the ability to switch a game on it’s head with just a single touch. Not to forget the many Cruyff turns too…

RW: Southampton have had the joy of possessing some pacy players over the years to work the channels and overlap, but not a single player can match Sadio Mane for pace. When he first joined the club, he was used by Ronald Koeman to solely hunt for space and ask questions of the defence. But once he found his feet in the Premier League, he soon adapted into a controlled dribbler that was capable of finding the back of the net from the tightest of angles.  Since entering English football in late 2014, Mane has scored 32 times in just 89 Premier League appearances. Further testament to his talent is that Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool simply aren’t the same side without him, as their poor form in 2017 shows.

ST: To not place this man in my ultimate XI would be wrong on almost every account possible. Rickie Lambert is, and forever will be loved by each and every Southampton fan. From that first Premier League goal against Manchester City, right through to scoring in his last ever game in red and white against Manchester United, Lambert never once let us down. The man was a natural born goalscorer who certainly wasn’t short of technical ability for a big man, and his penalties weren’t half bad either. It’s fairly safe to say that Rickie Lambert will never have to buy another pint in Southampton again.