Author Archives: Aidan Small

The recent restoration of Southampton’s identity

When we as fans think of Southampton Football Club, we think of the hero’s that have worn the red and white stripes, our rise from League One, and the joy handed to us as a result of supporting this remarkable club. But to the rest of the world and the average football fan, we are best known for our conveyer belt of young talent, better known as the academy; a part of our club that with thanks to the appointment of Claude Puel, has been brought back to life.

Looking back on the 2012/13 season – the year of Southampton’s return to the Premier League – Nigel Adkins placed an unprecedented amount of faith in Southampton’s youth. He was not only responsible for giving James Ward-Prowse his Premier League debut on the opening game of the season against Manchester City, but he also handed a then 17-year-old Luke Shaw his Premier League debut soon after too.

Then along came Mauricio Pochettino in January 2013, and with him, came the rapid development of our finest young assets. Over the next season and a half, Luke Shaw transformed from a raw talent, into one of the Premier League’s most in-form and sought after fullbacks – earning him a £30m transfer to the Theatre of Dreams later that summer.

This was all whilst Pochettino helped James Ward-Prowse to become a key asset to the first team, Harrison Reed was finding opportunities during the absence of first team players, and of course, Calum Chambers was battling with Nathaniel Clyne for a starting place in the side. This was an achievement that Arsene Wenger deemed so impressive, that at the end of the 2013/14 season, the 19-year-old transferred to Arsenal in a deal worth £16M.

But on the 27th of May 2014, Southampton had to handle two gut wrenching departures; firstly, there was Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to leave for Tottenham Hotspur, and unknowingly at the time, there was also the destruction of the pathway between the academy and the first team.

With the appointment of Ronald Koeman, Southampton went on to record back-to-back record breaking seasons, with qualification to the Europa League also achieved over both years. However, there was a price to pay for this undeniable success; whilst dreams of European football were being achieved, Koeman was continuing to completely disregard the young talent available in the academy.

During Koeman’s two year reign at Southampton, the Dutchman failed to even significantly develop one academy talent, turning to experience over youth at any possible opportunity.

In fact, Koeman not only avoided promoting young talents, but also opted to slander them in the press, once stating how he wasn’t impressed with the standard after watching an U21 match.

Koeman stated “I look to the development of young players and they still have a lot to learn and they are still not on the level that is needed for the Premier League.

“For some of them it is a long way, maybe too long. Only Matt Targett is ready for the the first team. Harry Reed is also close, but the rest not so much.”

Koeman was adamant that the talent in our academy simply wasn’t good enough, but with Southampton Football Club now under the control of Claude Puel, Koeman’s comments have been made to look rather foolish.

Since the start of the season, Southampton fans have been treated to the attacking talent of Josh Sims, the bite of Harrison Reed, and even the creativity of Jake Hesketh. Not to mention that James Ward-Prowse has also shown improvement in his awareness on the field too, but perhaps the most impressive integration of an academy star has been the introduction of Sam McQueen.

The 21-year-old spent his years in the academy as a direct winger, but under Puel, McQueen has been transformed into an expressive and attack minded wing back.

Many at this point may say that such a decision by Puel was only made due to Bertrand’s injury, but I would heavily disagree. At the time of Bertrand’s absence, left back Matt Targett and versatile centre half Maya Yoshida were still available for selection, yet still, Puel wanted to analyse the entirety of his squad to see what was at his disposal.

To me, finding a first team left back in the form of an academy winger shows just how willing Puel is to provide opportunities to our young talents. Best of all, these young players haven’t been handed such opportunities out of desperation either. These academy players have been given opportunities ahead of established first team players, and it shows on the field just how much faith and confidence Puel has given these youngsters.

In short, Puel respects what Southampton Football Club is all about. He understands that to us fans, we of course expect attractive football, but that we also love to see products of our own academy out there in the red and white stripes.

We are still in the early days of Puel’s tenure at Southampton Football Club, and therefore, there are still questions to be answered as to whether he can meet the clubs demands of annual progress. However, in just his five months at the club so far, Puel has without a doubt proven his burning desire to create attractive football and develop young talent; two components that fit perfectly with the ideologies of Southampton Football Club.

Academy watch: Sam Gallagher at Blackburn Rovers

Whilst academy prospects James Ward-Prowse, Josh Sims and Sam McQueen have been shining in the first team, the fine goalscoring form of Sam Gallagher at Blackburn Rovers has been going under the radar of many Southampton fans. So, we spoke to Richard Sharpe – Blackburn Rovers writer at the Lancashire Telegraph – and  Oscar Jepson – owner of Talk of Ewood – to find out more about Gallagher’s rise in form. 

What were your initial thoughts when Blackburn Rovers signed Sam Gallagher on loan?

Sharpe: He came at a time when Rovers were struggling for forward options, but as he joined, aided by arrivals of Danny Graham, Anthony Stokes and Marvin Emnes, the forward line suddenly had some promise.

Highly-rated, on loan from a Premier League club, and with both top flight and Championship experience, his arrival seemed like a good fit, and that is how it has played out so far.

Jepson: In complete honesty, I was pessimistic about the signing of young Sam. I didn’t see a real reason behind it, so shortly after we had just bought two other strikers. Also, after doing research I began to become a bit wary over Gallagher after finding out about his time at MK Dons. With family trouble and a lack of goals, his time down in London wouldn’t be one to savour for him and a move to Blackburn Rovers – who had just signed a couple of experienced, first team goal-scorers – wouldn’t help him. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that Sam would be a good third choice for us and that he could only get better. Therefore I was content with the signing in the grand scheme of things.

What are your personal views regarding Sam Gallagher’s performances this season?

Sharpe: There has been something of a burden on Gallagher for goals, given the unavailability of Rovers’ other three senior strikers at various stages of the season.  That has been eased somewhat, particularly since the return of Danny Graham, but they have struck up something of a good partnership in their few outings together.

He has scored seven of Rovers’ 20 goals this season so he could have done very little else to aid their campaign.

Jepson: Sam Gallagher has been absolutely sublime this season. He hasn’t set a foot wrong in his displays and puts 110% in week after week. His pace, power, determination, finesse and desire can take him very far. I personally feel that Blackburn’s recent turnaround in form wouldn’t have been accomplished without him, his ability to dig us out of a hole when the going got tough kept us afloat and the morale reasonably high. Honestly I think we have relied far too heavily on Sam at times this season yet he has brushed that aside like it was no ones problem!

How have Rovers fans taken to Gallagher?

Sharpe: They have – but that has certainly been helped by his goal return.  He’s not afraid to put himself about, and has also shown he has a discipline to play different roles away from home when needed, not least against Newcastle last weekend where he often found himself in more of a number 10 role.

Jepson: Unquestionably. Gallagher is a fans favorite. We even resurrected a Blackburn classic song of ‘Ooh Aah Gallagher’ previously used for Kevin Gallacher. A lot of fans have noticed his importance to the side and with him getting on the score sheet as often as he has, he wasn’t going to go un-noticed! Now, i’m 100% sure if you asked for a Rovers fans opinions on Sam, not a single one would be negative.

What weaknesses has Gallagher shown?

Jepson: I feel like I am being a bit bias here but, none! He was raw towards the beginning of his loan spell – offside too often – but now he has everything; Pace, skill, defensive work-rate, attacking work-rate, strength, headers, finesse, you name it, Gallagher has it. There isn’t much I can say other than: No! He has it all!

Would you want to keep Gallagher beyond the current loan spell if possible?

Sharpe: Owen Coyle has already made it clear that he would like to keep Gallagher beyond his loan spell, but unless he is reclalled, or Southampton look to move him to another club, then having him signed up until the end of the season already gives Rovers some security.

Gallagher has always been tipped for bright things, so whether he feels now is the right time to leave Saints I’m not sure, particularly given his comments here

But if he did, he wouldn’t be short of suitors.

Jepson: Of course! I was thinking about this the other day, if he goes back to Saints and isn’t close to the first team, in my opinion he needs another loan. He has only had one good season of senior level and more goals and confidence will do him the world of good. Again, I might be being bias but, Rovers is the best option for him. If we stay up, which i’m pretty confident we will, coming back to Blackburn where he has good memories, he is comfortable and knows well enough is a lot better to a whole new start. So yes, i’d do anything to get him at Rovers permanently.

And finally, do you feel believe that Gallagher is currently playing at a suitable level, or do you believe that he could show his talent in the Premier League?

Sharpe: He’s still only 21, and will undoubtedly get better as he gets older, but to continue his development, he must continue to get games under his belt.  He’s started 14 of Rovers’ 18 games this season, and come off the bench in the other three, and that’s clearly aiding his development.

Given his build, and his ability in front of goal, as well as being at a club who has shown faith in their young players, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see him flourish in the Premier League.

Jepson: Gallagher certainly has all the qualities to get in the prem. If you look at your lad, Josh Sims, and how well he has fitted into the side then Gallagher can do it no doubt. He isn’t bullied either. Some of the battles he has had with some of the best Championship centre backs; Ciaran Clark, Chancel Mbemba, Magnusson, Danny Batth and Matt Mills, in which he has mostly won are exceptional to watch, he is a real talent across the board. 

The future is bright for Southampton’s midfield

Ah, ‘the diamond’. A term that I’m sure many of us Southampton fans are quite frankly growing sick of.

We had the initial ‘will it work?’ Followed by the ‘how long will it last?’ And now, after a spell whereby all fans grew a salty tasting love for it, there is once again doubt. But this piece isn’t a tactical analysis of the formation, or even how I want to see the side altered, this piece is here to appreciate the components themselves within Claude Puel’s aforementioned diamond.

To be precise, I believe that Southampton Football Club have one hell of a future in store for themselves in the middle of the park, and here’s why…

First are foremost, we have the balance and ability of the midfield itself. As we look to the future, there are three players that standout to me; Oriol Romeu, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and James Ward-Prowse.

With the combination of these three players, Southampton have an exceptional spine to their side, but let’s start with the base of the midfield. Throughout this season, Romeu has without a doubt been Southampton’s most improved player, and it could be argued by many that he’s challenging Virgil Van Dijk to be our top performer.

Romeu has now proven himself to be a monster in breaking up play, winning more tackles per 90 minutes (2.88) than Nemanja Matic, Ngolo Kante, Jordan Henderson and Francis Coquelin this season. He has also shown his quality in possession too, recording an 88% pass completion rate over his 12 Premier League starts.

Romeu is key in recovering the ball, maintaining possession and helping to pin back the opposition; with his latest role in the side allowing him to carry out these strengths most effectively. Whilst he plays a simple game, carrying out the role is far from simple. Considering that experience is one of the most important factors in becoming a top level defensive midfielder, Romeu is an exciting project at the age of 25.

Romeu acts as the foundation of Southampton’s possession based play, and it’s his deep positioning in the side that allows his two fellow midfield partners to flourish. One of which is a new found fan-favourite, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. The 21-year-old arrived at Southampton in the summer and since joining, every Southampton fan has come to recognise what he is all about.

Højbjerg is a central midfielder with a persistent positive approach to the game. At any given opportunity, Højbjerg looks to push Southampton forward and place pressure onto the opposition; be that through a cutting pass into Dusan Tadic, or a daring run from deep in the midfield. His technical ability is undeniable, and whilst his biggest negatives have been his fitness and sometimes wasteful nature, this can easily be worked with.

Then we come to one of our very own in James Ward-Prowse. In my opinion, the England U21 captain currently has a fantastic opportunity to cement himself as a starter for Southampton FC. Ward-Prowse boasts an unbelievable passing range, an incredibly dangerous delivery on set pieces, and holds the intelligence required to dictate the tempo of a game.

But I am by no means bias, and therefore, I am able to recognize that he often lacks the intensity needed in a Premier League match, and that his ability to finish is needing urgent attention. This has seen Ward-Prowse receive plenty of criticism in recent years, which in my opinion, most of which is unjust. He is still only 22-years-old and I believe that due to his great maturity on the field, so many fans forget that he still has plenty of time to improve.

With Romeu sitting deep to sweep up, Højbjerg looking to penetrate the opposition, and Ward-Prowse controlling the tempo of the game, Southampton have a wonderful balance in the midfield.

This leads us nicely into my second point; the fact that Southampton have two Pep Guardiola educated midfielders within their ranks. I’m of course talking about Romeu and Højbjerg. Admittedly, both possess two totally contrasting styles on the field, however, both share the same tactical understanding, willingness to learn and specifically to the training of Guardiola, an easily recognisable education in body orientation.

If you’re familiar with the demands that Guardiola holds over a player, then you will know just how important these characteristics are, and how deeply drilled these traits are into so many who have worked under the Spaniard.

The tactical understanding that both Romeu and Højbjerg hold is remarkable. They are able to naturally adjust to changes mid-game, possess the ability to greatly enhance their physical ability with their extensive tactical knowledge, and are able to absorb tactical concepts with ease. Perhaps explaining why both players were able to make such a seamless transition into their new formation and role.

Romeu and Højbjerg aren’t just switched on tactically either, they are also switched on mentally. Both players boast the same desire to learn and work on the training ground, often leaving manager’s helpless in admiring their mindset. A player can have an abundance of quality, but without the desire and willingness to learn more, they are significantly lowering their ceiling of potential growth – thankfully, the Southampton due possess both. Such keen learners of the game are easy to develop and progress.

Then we come to a trait that is as mentioned before, a must-have for players who wish to work under Guardiola; body orientation. To those who are unaware of what body orientation means in footballing terms, it is all about positioning your body so that you are able to see the pitch (hunting for space), your opponents, and of course, your teammates.

In a possession based side, this is vital for maintaining control of the game as each player constantly knows where and who they can pass the ball to. It sounds like a simple skill to adopt, but it fact, it takes years to integrate into a player so that the skill becomes second nature.

Next time you’re watching Romeu and Højbjerg play for Southampton, just watch the way that they position their body when receiving or turning with the ball – they always know what their next move will be, and the positioning of their body allows them to do it as fast as possible.   

Third and finally, we have the style of play that Puel is implementing onto Southampton’s midfield. Since arriving at the club, Puel has given the Southampton midfield far different demands to that of seasons gone by with Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman.

When in possession, Puel wishes to see his midfield control the ball in a composed manner, waiting for the opposition to open up in a bid to find that perfect opportunity to attack. This places great emphasis on the midfield to be assured in their short passing, composed on the ball, to remain patient, and to have belief in their ability. Notice anything? All of these demands match the strengths of Romeu, Højbjerg and Ward-Prowse…

Understandably, fans are a little worried about the side after that horrendous showing against Sparta Prague last Thursday, but how can we be so quick to forget so many of those dominant performances? We are so early into Puel’s reign, yet we have still been treated to some of the most composed midfield performances that i’ve seen from Southampton in recent years. Besides, what else can be expected from a side that is learning how to play an entirely different concept of football?

With all of these factors considered, it leaves me certain that with the same patience, education and belief given to so many talents at Southampton FC in years gone by, us Southampton fans have every reason to be excited for the future of our midfield.

After all, there are few better in the business at turning potential into performance.

The contradictory demands of loyalty from football fans

Loyalty – a trait that many football fans demand from their clubs players, but one that they themselves can so often forget to reciprocate.

In modern day football, many fans have grown up knowing that they have to cherish their club’s finest talents, as the moment that a big club comes calling, departure is inevitable. Understandably, this can be frustrating to experience, and as a Southampton fan, I know this better than most.

This more often than not leads to fans cussing the player, growing to hate them and in many circumstances, demanding that the player should have shown more loyalty. This was the case for Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and many more former Saints, and in truth, many of these players received the appropriate backlash to their decisions.

However, what leaves me confused is when fans bark and order for players to show loyalty to their club and fans, whilst they themselves only show loyalty to the player when it suits them.

The sad truth is that increasingly, it seems that the deciding factor in just how much loyalty fans show towards players has become determined by that player’s ability alone…

This became apparent to me after the Hull City game yesterday when just a quick search of ‘Jordy Clasie’ on Twitter, proved to me just how fickle some fans can be.

Criticism is allowed, in fact, it’s welcomed and encouraged. As fans, we deserve to voice our opinion over the performance of the players, but hurling abuse and treating one of our own players with no respect? That’s just ridiculous and unjustified.

Granted, Clasie’s performances have been below par of late and this is most certainly frustrating, but how many of us could truly put in a fantastic day’s work if being criticised constantly and publicly? Clasie has never kicked up a fuss at Southampton, has a strong relationship with Claude Puel, respects the fans, and quite evidently, gives his all on the pitch.

How can the same fans that abuse and turn on their own hard-working and honest players, simultaneously demand loyalty from their clubs wanted assets/stars?  

Southampton 0-2 Chelsea: where did it all go wrong?

Defeat is always painful. Sometimes in football there are games when you can watch your side dominate in the most beautiful fashion, only for them to throw it all away in the 90th minute.  Then there are moments when you stand in the stadium and question how such a gutless performance can be considered acceptable, but as a fan of a side that hadn’t lost at home since last February, this is something that I’ve been fortunate to avoid. But as the final whistle blew in Southampton’s 2-0 defeat to Chelsea yesterday, I found myself placing the defeat entirely down to an Antonio Conte masterclass.

On the face of things, this game dropped right into the hands of both sides; Southampton favour a possession-based style of football under Claude Puel, whilst Conte’s Chelsea prefer to sit deep and remain compact. Unsurprisingly, both sides carried out these aspects of their games without a worry, but it was Southampton’s inability to cut open the Blue’s defence and Chelsea’s ruthless finishing in front of goal that made the difference. But how exactly did Southampton allow that to happen?

To anyone who has watched Southampton under the microscope this season, they will recognise just how important the fullbacks are in Claude Puel’s system. They are a driving force in build up play, the first outlet when switching the ball and are required to overlap in the final third.

They are there to constantly provide options to anyone on the ball and to place doubt into the mind of the opposition fullbacks. However, due to Puel’s decision not to start wingers and Conte’s incredibly well drilled 3421 formation, Southampton struggled to find joy in these wide areas.

The reason being is that when Southampton picked up the ball in these wide areas, Chelsea would double or sometimes even triple up on Southampton’s only out and out wide player – the fullback.

Conte would simply instruct either one of Victor Moses or Marcos Alonso to man mark the fullback, whilst the left or right-sided centre-back will look to spread wider and provide cover behind.

From here, Southampton have two choices. The first is that they can play the ball inside due to a lack of attacking options, but this will force them into the direction of midfield duo Nemanja Matic and Ngolo Kante – it doesn’t take a genius to work out that out of all the ways to breach the Chelsea defence, this isn’t the way to go. Pace, strength, energy and technique, this partnership has it all.  

The second option is for Southampton to lump the ball into a box that contains Thibaut Courtois, David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. Once again, given the size, experience and sheer numbers in the box at this moment, this option should also be avoided. Without more than one natural wide player available at all times, Southampton only offer themselves these two ineffective options. 

Whilst this only explains how Southampton failed to score, it also helps to explain how Chelsea managed to grab both of their goals.

As Southampton no longer start wingers, the fullbacks have to take up very offensive starting positions. This is something that Conte wanted his side to encourage from Ryan Bertrand and Cuco Martina, with the idea that when his side recover the ball, they will instantly look to attack the open channels.

Given the quality of Hazard, Moses and Pedro in wide counter attacking situations, this proved to be a devastatingly effective game plan. So much so that even when Bertrand or Martina were able to drop back into their defensive positions in time, the entirety of the Southampton midfield wouldn’t be back in their defensive shape yet, giving Chelsea some inviting areas of space to drive into.

Coming into this game Conte looked at how his side could create the most dangerous attacks, not the most, and he executed it with absolute perfection. Seven shots on target from 13 attempts is an indication as to just how dangerous those attacks were.

Bertrand and Martina’s usual role in the Southampton side has huge physical demands, and this is something that Conte looked to take advantage of. With his counter-attacking focus to the game, Conte forced the Southampton fullbacks to make numerous 60+ yard sprints back to their box, giving Chelsea’s wide men the advantage of running at some lazy-legged defenders in the later stages of the game. Perhaps that explains Martina’s comical attempt of blocking Diego Costa’s fine curling strike?

In recent weeks Southampton have played with such remarkable understanding in their system, and in truth, plenty of that understanding was still on show yesterday. The only difference however is that Chelsea Football Club, one of the League’s strongest outfits, has Antonio Conte at the helm – a man who is currently squeezing every last drop of talent out of all the players at his disposal.

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Claude Puel’s focus on aesthetics at Southampton FC

“It’s important to play good football and to give pleasure to the players, because if they feel good together and they play good football, they can give pleasure to the fans also” – this is a quote from Southampton boss Claude Puel on the day that Les Reed decided that this man was the right man to take our club forward. Nearly four months on, Puel has well and truly lived up to his word.

After being appointed on June 30 2016, there were split opinions amongst the Southampton fans regarding Claude Puel. One-half were optimistic and had faith in the decision due to the clubs previous managerial appointments, whilst the other half were ruing the missed opportunity to bring in a proven name (Manuel Pellegrini was a name mentioned by many).

Over the first four fixtures, the bedwetters and the media were in heaven. Southampton had picked up just two points in the League whilst looking lightweight in attack, void of any creativity and unaware of Puel’s tactical demands. This cued the beginning of numerous fans questioning Puel’s appointment and more specifically, his decision to play a 442 diamond. In this moment they believed that they were right – that Southampton’s replacement policy had finally failed and that all those years of warning the club had paid off.

Oh but football is a crazy game and believe it or not, it takes more than just four fixtures for a manager to implement his ideas effectively. When you are willing to show patience and place trust in a manager, the rewards can be remarkable; something that many Southampton fans are having to come to terms with this season.

The Saints currently sit in eighth place in the Premier League, but the most staggering feature of Puel’s reign at Southampton so far has been the aesthetics of his side. Yes, Puel is desperate to grab all three points at any given opportunity, but his other demand from the players is one that sits nicely for onlookers at St Mary’s; entertainment.

Puel is a strong believer in playing football the right way. This means encouraging and training his players to keep the ball on the ground, remain composed at all times and to not be afraid to take calculated risks – a style and set of ideologies in football similar to that of Arsene Wenger.

Unlike Wenger however, Puel opts for his team to carry out these ideologies in a 442 diamond. This formation allows each player to have a constant set of clear cut passing opportunities, which has allowed our defence and midfield to play with more composure than ever before.

Puel has placed great emphasis on passing in triangles since arriving, with the intention to maintain the ball until the perfect opportunity to cut open the oppositions defence arises. It requires exceptional patience, intelligence and skill to carry out such a game plan, and impressively, Puel has helped to increase these three traits in all of our players.

The result is a style of football that is filled with fluidity, one touch ball retention, precise passing, Intelligent decision making and effective trickery. To put it simply, I would say that it’s the most attractive football that Southampton have played in recent years.

When Mauricio Pochettino was at the helm of Southampton Football Club, the Argentine encouraged a very disciplined and drilled style of football. Pochettino’s time at Southampton was all about improving fitness, holding a strong and resilient defensive shape, and having the ability to attack in an effective manner. This gifted the Southampton fans many exciting games, but in truth, the football was often predictable and was more impressive for its organisation, rather than the aesthetics of the football itself.

Then along came Ronald Koeman who shared the same desire for defensive stability as Mauricio Pochettino, whilst also having the willingness to allow for greater fluidity. The only issue however is that Koeman had a tendency to display favouritism towards certain players at Southampton and didn’t prioritise the desire to play good football. It’s undeniable that there were many moments of exceptional play, but in large parts of the season Koeman would revert to an awfully direct style of football – a style that would have been labelled “hoof ball” if Koeman was an Englishman.

At this point I want to highlight that by no means am I making such comments about Pochettino and Koeman out of spite or as a cheeky remark. I believe that both managers are amongst some of the very best names in management and that Puel has a lot of work to do in order to be mentioned alongside them. However, in this moment Southampton have only fallen to defeat against Inter Milan, Arsenal and Manchester United under the Frenchman, all whilst playing this expansive and positive style of football. Given Southampton’s track record of managerial appointments, this gives the Southampton fans good reason to be optimistic for the remainder of the season.

Whilst the effectiveness of Puel’s ideologies remain to be seen, there is one thing that the Frenchman has proved to us, that he is capable of making Southampton Football Club play their most attractive football in recent years.

How Claude Puel has created a plethora of options at Southampton FC

Last night was a night of mixed emotions. On one side, our minds were filled with anger as we watched Antonio Candreva cruelly and undeservedly put Southampton to the sword. But on the other side, pride was pumping through our hearts as we watched our beloved Southampton dominate play in the historic San Siro Stadium. Regardless of how much we think about it now, we can’t change a thing; that’s football. But last night there was a decision by Southampton boss Claude Puel that we should be thinking about, as it gives us great reason to be optimistic over the future of Southampton Football Club.

As the clock struck six, Southampton had taken yet another step in completing the journey that Markus Liebherr envisioned all those years ago. The boys in red and white were finally underway against Inter Milan in the Europa League – an event that serves as a reward for the hard work of last season. But I’m not writing this to discuss the importance of such a game – anyone with even a brief knowledge of football will understand the magnitude of this tie for every Southampton fan. I’m writing this because of Puel’s selection at five o’clock and the remarkable performance that came with it.

When the teams were announced, it showed that multiple players who have been at the core of Southampton’s recent fine form were on the bench (or injured). Club captain Jose Fonte and top goalscorer Charlie Austin were told to have a rest, whilst the fit and formidable midfield partnership of Steven Davis and Jordy Clasie were also dropped. In addition to this, Matt Targett, Ryan Bertrand, Cedric Soares and Nathan Redmond were all left back in England as they continue their road to recovery from injury.

Yet despite the decision to make so many changes ahead of perhaps one of Southampton biggest ever games, the team still played the Claude Puel way. The team carried out their roles as expected, dug deep and played with an immense understanding of one another, almost as if each player was in Puel’s weekly XI. There was not even as much as a hint to suggest that any of the players on that field were squad players or youngsters.  

This tells me that Puel is successfully drilling his beliefs and demands in how he believes football should be played into every player at Southampton. I must place emphasis on the term “every player” here too, as it appears that Puel views every squad member as a valuable asset who shouldn’t feel segregated in the side. This is filling players who would previously only be considered “squad players” with confidence, perhaps explaining why they are making such seamless transitions into the starting XI.

Just for a moment Imagine if during his time at Southampton, Ronald Koeman was having to plan for last night’s fixture. If he selected that same starting XI from last night, then I have no doubt in my mind that we would have lost that game in an embarrassing manner. Not because I believe that he is a bad manager – in fact, he is a fantastic and very effective one – but because players outside of his favourite XI simply didn’t have the confidence and willingness needed to perform to a high standard. 

If Koeman started McQueen, Yoshida, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Romeu and Rodriguez in the same fixture, those players would have entered the pitch with a totally different mentality to that of last night. The reason being is that Koeman only ever would have considered such a line up in moments of desperation, and when players enter the field knowing that they are the weaker option, it’s easy to be turned over.

Yes, Puel is obviously helping the players to become more intelligent and skillful on the field, but it’s with the confidence and trust that he’s placed in every player at his disposal that’s making them carry out his system so effectively. In doing so, Southampton now have a plethora of options that have been created from within the squad, rather than needlessly looking to the transfer market.

Puel clearly understands that holding a happy, confident and tight-knit squad is in the fabric of success and Southampton Football Club.

 

The rough cut diamond that’s not for sale

On August 15, 2015, Southampton were trailing Everton by two goals to nil as the referee put an end to the first 45 minutes. Roberto Martinez’s team had been sharp, alert and clinical, but Ronald Koeman’s boys were lacklustre, lazy-legged, and desperately needing change. Koeman turned to his bench and handed a Southampton debut to one of football’s forgotten men: Oriol Romeu.

Within minutes, the Spaniard took charge of the midfield and clattered James McCarthy with what has now become a trademark feature of his game – a crunching tackle with a customary yellow card too.

For the first time in the 2015/16 season there was finally a showing of passion and fight on the field, and despite being unable to change the result, Romeu had started his quest to develop as a footballer and finally find a club that he can call home. A year down the line, he has most certainly achieved that.

The growth in Oriol Romeu at Southampton FC has been staggering. When he arrived in the summer of 2015 for a £5m fee, the fans appeared to be in agreement. He was ready to prove a point, physically dominant over the opposition and gifted on the ball. At the same time, he was a raw talent and clearly lacking experience. He possessed the ability to execute those vital tackles and passes, but would often mistime and misplace them. He was rusty, but perhaps that’s no surprise when you’re a victim of the Chelsea loan system.

Like a professional, he kept his head down and continued to strive for improvement; waiting for the chances to come his way. And when they did, he made sure to make the most of them, often leaving onlookers at St Mary’s desperate to see more. Koeman, on the other hand had different ideas, with the most common position for Romeu following a top performance, being the bench.

There is no denying that there were obvious faults in Romeu’s play – the most obvious being his ill-disciplined style and wayward positioning – but his inability to gain a starting place was cruel. Fans would argue against Koeman’s team selection, saying the Dutchman showed an unfair favouritism toward Victor Wanyama. Maybe, but not a whisper was made to his agent or the media. Romeu just tried and tried again.

As an outsider looking in, it seemed to me that Romeu was quite simply still grateful for the opportunity handed to him by Southampton. The trust from the club and the morale of our dressing room appears to have allowed Romeu to call our club home, and for that, he was prepared to fight for a starting spot.  

Then along came Claude Puel this summer and with him, the best of Oriol Romeu.

Puel came to Southampton with a clear philosophy and set of ideas in his mind; he knew exactly what he wanted and just what type of players he needed to carry it out. Luckily for Romeu, the formation in focus is the 4-4-2 diamond and this presented him the opportunity to make the defensive midfield position his own.

The first few fixtures were tough; not only for Romeu but for the whole team. Each player not only had to familiarise themselves with their new role, but they also had to learn about the roles of their teammates and what that meant for them during an in-game situation.

A slow start for all players in the Southampton side was inevitable – anything else would have been a miracle at work – but few have taken to their new role as smoothly as Romeu.

The cup game against Crystal Palace aside – where he used a heavily rotated side – Romeu has started every competitive game under Puel so far – the perfect testament to the Spaniard’s clear improvement. But just what role is Romeu playing exactly?

Over the past six games that Romeu has started in, we’ve truly been able to see just what Puel is demanding from the man at the base of the midfield diamond. During build up play, Romeu has been operating as an auxiliary centre back. This involves Romeu often dropping in between the centre backs, therefore giving Van Dijk and Fonte the freedom to spread wider, and the fullbacks freedom to push higher up the field. This positioning from Romeu allows for the composed possession-based play that has gifted us so many passing options in recent fixtures.

He’s executed this role with perfection too, showing that he has the discipline to remain in position and the technique to control the tempo of the game. In addition to this, he’s also been making so many of these passes with his first or second touch of the ball – only a player with an immense understanding of his teammates can carry out such a difficult task.

What makes this all the more impressive however, is that throughout Romeu’s career, he has so often played with a partner alongside him in the midfield. It takes an abundance of intelligence and ability to switch from a midfield role that you’ve become so accustomed to – a double pivot – into a lone defensive midfielder.

Romeu serves as the first passing option for the CB’s, he’s responsible for breaking up opposition attacks, he so often initiates our counter’s and is effective in recycling play – handing out such key tasks to one single player shows just how much faith and trust Claude Puel has placed in Romeu.

With the combination of Romeu’s standout attitude and Puel’s attention to detail, Southampton are making remarkable progress to ensure that the rough diamond that joined our club in the summer of 2015, will soon be the finished product. One thing though. This diamond isn’t for sale.