“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” is a phrase used by many in the world of football. But In the case of Shane Long over the past ten games, this phrase couldn’t be further from the truth. Week in and week out this man gives his all for Southampton Football Club, yet still, nothing seems to be falling in place for the Irishman at the minute.
As Southampton fans looked over the success of their 2015/16 campaign, there was plenty to be optimistic about heading into the new season. Defensive solidity, a new found ruthlessness in front of goal and of course, qualification for the Europa League. Had it not been for the rise and development of Shane Long however, we may not have been able to look toward this current season with such positivity.
Over the first half of the 2015/16 season, it seemed to many that Southampton’s buy low and sell high approach to managing a football team had finally caught up with them. Ronald Koeman’s side were predictable, ineffective and for the first time in a long time, ugly. The team were in desperate need of fresh blood and oddly enough, it came in the form of an injury to Graziano Pelle’. With the absence of Pelle’, Koeman was forced into placing Shane Long into the starting XI – a decision that would save Southampton’s season and maybe even Koeman’s job.
Long’s high intensity, passion and direct style helped to make an instant impact in the side, with others taking inspiration from the Irishman’s work rate. Suddenly, Southampton were sharp and alive to every second ball, with results taking a turn for the better over the remainder of the season too. As a result, Long even managed to reach double figures for the first time in his Premier League career.
So, given that he finished the previous season in such fine form, where has it all gone wrong for Long?
With the introduction of Claude Puel at Southampton Football Club, there came a new system; the 442 diamond. Quite simply, this drastic change in system has placed Long in a position that will take patience, determination and Intelligence to overcome. The reason being is that Long is a square peg who must now fit into a round hole.
Previously under Koeman, Long spent two seasons learning how to operate as a lone forward, with the focus of the side being to provide him with service. The demands in this role predominantly involved a physical style of play, with the need to win headers, hold up the ball and ensure that you were in the box when the ball was delivered. Given Long’s natural fitness and strong build, he grew to be a real threat in this role after many months of learning on the training ground.
Under Puel however, the physical elements to Long’s game that helped to make him so effective are no longer a priority. As for the time he spent learning how to play as a lone forward, Puel favours having a two-man strike partnership. With such large changes to his demands as a player, is it any wonder that Long has struggled?
As a striker in Puel’s system there are a number of attributes that take great priority over physical dominance – this includes the ability to dribble, make cutting passes and possess natural flair. These are aspects of Long’s game that in truth, are weaknesses. Very rarely will Long have the ability to beat two or three players with the ball at his feet, have the technique to unlock a defence or have the skill to tip a game on its head. Puel’s system involves large amounts of ball possession and therefore, this requires great technical ability to escape from tight situations during a game.
In addition to this, Long is also having to learn and understand his demands as a forward with a strike partner and an expressive attacking midfielder. In a system such as Puel’s, the positioning of one player in the team directly affects the positioning of another, making it vital to understand your teammates if any sort of success is to be achieved.
Whilst Long’s lack of goalscoring may seem all doom and gloom for the moment, there are good reasons to be optimistic. Prior to Long’s stunning form last season, the Irishman played with little clue over what exactly Koeman demanded from him as a lone forward. But with dedication, hard-work and determination, Long managed to become a nightmare for any defence in the League to handle.
No, Long isn’t exactly what Puel wants from a forward in his system and yes, Long does have one hell of a challenge ahead of himself. But with the remarkable professionalism and attitude that he carries on the football pitch, who’s to say that Long can’t fit into Puel’s system in good time?