Author Archives: Aidan Small

Virgil Van Dijk: Southampton’s Latest Transfer Triumph

In recent years Southampton have become famed in the footballing world for their astute deals in business and undeniable eye for talent. However, after last summer’s departure of Toby Alderweireld, even Southampton fans worried how a player of that quality could be replaced. The media and fans alike believed that the previously lauded Southampton transfer committee, had finally met their match. But dare I say it, they may well have surpassed themselves once again with the signing of Virgil Van Dijk.

The slow start to the season and early exit from Europe reinforced those fears; this coincided with the protracted negotiations to bring in the clubs number one target, Celtic’s number 5.

After much haggling and dispute, an agreement was struck between both parties, allowing Virgil Van Dijk to join Southampton.

Since Van Dijk took to his place in the side alongside Jose Fonte, the defence has once again found its feet. Its no surprise that as a result, the beautiful football and results that fans became so accustomed to last season has returned.

The Dutchman’s influence on the team is clear for any Southampton fan to see; a quick look at football statistic site WhoScored proves just that.

Since Van Dijk’s Premier League debut versus West Bromwich Albion, only eight other players in the league have averaged a higher performance score.

His dominance in the air is also reflected by winning an average of 5.3 aerial duels per game – target men Christian Benteke, Rudy Gestede and Troy Deeney are the only players to have won more duels than the Dutch giant. Van Dijk also holds two man of the match performances and two goals in just seven appearances. As dangermen from set pieces come, Van Dijk is as good as they get.

Whilst Van Dijk’s defensive ability is a joy to behold, his influence on the pitch runs far deeper than tackles, headers and blocks. At moments of high pressure, Van Dijk remains as confident and cool on the ball as ever, ensuring to find the right pass.

That right pass can be anything from a midfield splitting ball, a 40 yard Hollywood ping to Sadio Mane or an inch perfect chip to an overlapping fullback.

These traits that make up a ball playing centre half breed confidence throughout the entire team.

Without this so desired confidence and brand of players, Southampton’s style of play would do more harm than good.

However, perhaps one of his greatest traits so far has been what many thought would be his early downfall, settling in to the Premier League. Van Dijk has taken to the Premier League like chips to mayonnaise, forming a formidable partnership with Jose Fonte as the core of the team. A player can hold all the ability and physical presence they wish, but without communication and being in the right place at the right time, that ability is rendered useless.

Much to the annoyance of Celtic fans, Van Dijk recently told the media how he has learnt more in five games at Southampton than his entire time at Celtic Park. Such recognition for the standard of our play and management can only bode well for the future. Should we have ever expected anything else? After all, Southampton’s latest gem was hand picked by fellow countryman, Ronald Koeman, and the almighty black box.

 

Podcast: Liverpool vs Southampton Preview

I joined @anfieldindex to talk about this weekends clash against Liverpool at Anfield. Southampton come into this fixture having recently thrown away a two goal lead against Leicester City at St Mary’s. Goals however have been flowing with Southampton netting an impressive 16 times in the past five fixtures.

In Liverpool’s last Premier League fixture, they were held to a goalless draw against ex-Southampton manager, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs. The most recent result came in the Europa League, having once again drew, this time to Rubin Kazan in the Europa League.

We talk about misconceived perceptions of both clubs, how we expect both sides to approach the game, who to watch and a prediction for Jürgen Klopp’s first home game.

Follow the link here and be sure to let us know what you think about this weekends fixture at @freshsaints

 

Review: The International Break That Has Southampton Flying Higher Than Before

Coming off the back of what is usually branded as a boring and uninspiring International break, Southampton couldn’t be higher in confidence. Before catching the plane to carry out their duty, the boys in red and white had put 3 back to back wins together – including a domination at Stamford Bridge that will live long in the memory of many Southampton fans.

Unsurprisingly, the first mention will go to Steven Davis. After the midfielder ended his lengthy goal drought – the last goal coming in February 2014 – he told the media how he hoped the floodgates would now open. However, even Davis himself wouldn’t have anticipated quite how quickly the next goals would come. Davis scored a game winning brace during the Euro qualifying clash with Greece at Windsor Park; those two goals would prove to be the crucial point in Northern Ireland’s first ever Euro qualification.

This wasn’t the only strong performance over the ten games either, Davis featured in the Euro qualifiers team of the tournament.

The second man to note is Graziano Pellè; the Italian has started the season in incredible form having netted an impressive five goals in just eight Premier League games. Not to mention joining Davis as a goalscorer in the preceding fixture against Chelsea.

With thanks to his move to the Premier League and Ronald Koeman, Pellè has become somewhat of a regular for the Azzuri. Every touch in recent games has turned to gold and the fixture against Norway was no exception; Pellè was on the receiving end of a lashed cross and with a clean strike of the left boot, he fired the ball into the bottom corner in the 82nd minute with what would prove to be the winner. The resulting goal placed Pellè as Italy’s top qualifying goalscorer, allowed them to top their group and extended their unbeaten run in European qualifying to 50 games.

The third big star of the break was Ireland’s new poster boy and cult hero, Shane Long. To the annoyance of the Republic of Ireland fans, Long once again began the fixture against world champions, Germany, as second fiddle to Jonathan Walters. But as Martin O’Neill looked to his options in the 65th minute, it was the Southampton man he turned to for a moment of genius. Just five minutes after stepping onto the pitch, Darren Randolph sent Long bounding through on goal to fire into the top left corner. Manuel Neuer stood no chance.

The goal resulted in Long being awarded with a start against Poland; however, this proved to be a poisoned chalice as the Irishman now finds himself sidelined for the next two weeks with an ankle injury.

Even England senior, Ryan Bertrand, and the U21 boys came away with strong results and showings to match. After missing out on pre season and the early Premier League fixtures, Bertrand would have been delighted to earn himself an instant recall to Roy Hodgson’s first XI. The full back gained 90 minutes under his belt during a routine 2-0 win versus Estonia, Bertrand was ever-present.

James Ward-Prowse and Matt Targett also recorded a full 90 for Gareth Southgate’s U21 side. During their 3-0 victory over Kazakhstan’s U21’s, Ward-Prowse delivered a number of impeccable set pieces that should have made the scoreline all the more merrier.

Where International breaks are often seen as a time for teams to re identify in times of crisis, Southampton can use such results and performances to continue their recent rich vein of form. Afterall, if an International break can be used to re organise, then why can’t it be used to improve? Morale is running high and performances are even higher, the Tinkerman is next on Koeman’s list.

Tactical Analysis: Focus On Tadic

Entering a new season, football fans will always have their expectations, hopes and unanswered questions.  One of the great questions for Saints fans at the outset of the  2015/16 campaign, was whether we’d see the return of Dusan Tadic’s immense early 2014/15 form.

During Tadic’s debut season, he began to struggle with numerous muscular strains and knocks from December 2014, right through until the summer. Understandably, this affected his performances and in turn, we did not see that creative spark shine as bright again. Southampton fans were screaming out for the Serbian International to return to his previous lofty heights; this season however, he has done just that.

Coming off the back of beating Jose Mourinho’s title winning side at Stamford Bridge, Southampton have now produced three wins on the bounce – scoring 12 goals in the process. Whilst the transfer gossip subjects, Sadio Mane and Victor Wanyama continue to reap the majority of the plaudits, Tadic’s work has truly been at the front of our stunning recent form. As a result, the Saints are flying high once again.

Over time, Tadic’s role in Southampton’s play has become more and more influential.

It goes without saying that the former FC Twente playmaker has incredible technical ability and vision; seven assists last year and a current season tally of 25 created chances, proves just that. However, his most recent flourishing has been due, in no small measure, to his mental attributes. Whilst his physical and technical ability has facilitated the execution, his intelligent play combined with world class positioning, has allowed Tadic to ply his trade so effectively.

So, What is the “role” that allowed for such a development in his play?

Upon face value, Tadic is deployed as a winger on the left hand side of Italian talisman, Graziano Pelle – Sadio mane playing on the right of course.

To use this simplistic label to describe his role in the side however, would be an insult to both Tadic and Ronald Koeman.

As we all know, Dutch managers have become famed for their promotion of fluent football and most notably, the era of beautiful play that goes by the name of “Total Football”. Total football, put simply, was a label given to a tactical theory in football, that any player can take up any position at any time. However, with the advent of more robust and defensive minded teams, down came Total Football, along with the rare breed of players to fit the mould.

Whilst the application of Total Football throughout the whole XI has died, that doesn’t mean it can’t live on for certain players. Dusan Tadic is one of those select few.

In games where Southampton are on top of play and pinning the opposition back, Tadic takes up his natural left wing position in a 4-3-3 formation. From there it puts best use to his quick feet in tight spaces, his ability to unpick a banked defence and hard drilled crosses with his strongest foot. When Tadic moves into this wide area, Mane knows to detach himself as a strike partner of Pelle and one of the midfielder three,  typically James Ward-Prowse or Steven Davis, push themselves into the number 10 position.

However, in games where Southampton themselves are under pressure and looking to counter, Tadic tucks inside and plays through the middle as a roaming playmaker. Playing as a number 10 allows for Tadic to be the main source of creativity, whilst Bertrand, Cedric and Mane amongst others know to bomb forward (Look below at the first image to see the runs when Tadic is playing as a number 10).

Pelle will be sure to stay central and ask questions of the centre halves, thus freeing up space for Tadic to run into. If need be, it gives Tadic the option to also pull wide on either side, provided someone occupies this central spot. (Look below at the second photo to see Tadic playing on the right, Mane on the left, Davis occupying the central spot and Bertrand as the furthest forward)

Tadic central with run

Bertrand through

Thirdly, Tadic takes up the role of a wide playmaker in moments where Southampton need to pick up their dominance of possession and play. This involves moving alongside the central midfielders to allow for greater stability and options from deep. The Serbian’s crisp and reassured passing will begin to dominate play from the left side of the field; typically, Tadic will look to dictate the play until an overlapping run occurs. When playing as a wide playmaker, Mane knows to join Pelle as a strike partner – forming a 4-4-2 formation. As a result, this means more options from deep, a stronger defence with two banks of four and a greater attention to the retention of the ball. ( Look below to see Tadic on the left wing as a wide playmaker with Pelle and Mane as a partnership )

Tadic playmaker

These movements from Tadic set the formation and positions of each and every other player on the field. Wherever Tadic plays, its down to the rest of the team to adjust accordingly. Tadic’s positioning dictates Mane’s role, it decides how far Bertrand can push forward, when the defensive midfielders should cover his wide area and when a centre half should cover the left side.

To suggest that Koeman is implementing an aspect of total football in Tadic’s play is certainly an argument that holds water.

So for now, in Tadic, those pre-season expectations and hopes are being met to the delight for the fans in red and white.

Match Preview: Monk Comes To The Chapel

After being held to a goalless draw on their travels to West Bromwich Albion, Southampton returned home to St Mary’s in search for a valuable three points. In what was to be a battle of the Dutch men’s bragging rights, fans were gifted a five goal thriller – sadly for Southampton fans as we know, Manchester United came out on top with a 3-2 win. Just three days later and Southampton have ripped apart MK Dons with six away goals and a clean sheet in the league cup. But, what have we learnt from these game as we look forward to this weekends fixture against Swansea City?

Throughout the opening 30 minutes of the Manchester United game, it would have been insane to label the performance as anything other than a tactical masterclass from Ronald Koeman’s army. The perfectly orchestrated and well positioned pressing was pushing the United defence deep into their own half, bringing mistakes from both the defence and midfield in turn. Provided Southampton can start the game with this same intensity and show Gary Monk’s side their intent, Swansea’s neat possession based football could work in our favour. This is of course if we repeat the opening third of the game; if we resemble anything after this ( minus the final ten minutes ) then an inform Bafetimbi Gomis and Andre Ayew will be sure to capitalise.

In that same performance against Manchester United we were treated to an incredible attacking performance throughout – the sharp incisive football that has become a part of Southampton’s DNA was back. Most notably, Graziano Pelle was at the fore of all proceedings; if we are going to beat Swansea City, then our talisman will need to continue his rich early season form. Each and every pass played into the Italian’s chest, feet or head was recycled with just a single touch, allowing runners to put the United defence on the back foot. With Swansea holding no true defensive midfielder, the pocket of space in front of the centre halves will play a key role in the outcome of this game. Ronald Koeman will certainly look to bring Mane and Tadic into this space, to benefit from the knock downs of Pelle.

All of this was play was carried out whilst Pelle continuously humiliated Daley Blind with a number of flicks, tricks and raw strength. With six goals in nine appearances this season, he’s the man that teams will be doing their homework on.

So, who have we got to look out for in this current Swansea side?

Jonjo Shelvey – fresh from his recent return to International football, Shelvey will be high on confidence and sure to show Hodgson why he deserves a starting spot. Not only has the roaming playmaker taken his game to yet another level this season, but he also holds fond memories of his visits to St. Mary’s – having scored an incredible strike from distance in the same fixture of the 2014/15 campaign, securing all three points in the process.

If Southampton show the same defensive sloppiness that has been displayed many times this season, then Shelvey will be in dream land. His right foot is one that can spray a 40 yard ball to the corner of the pitch, penetrate a defence and even sail a shot into the top corner – a scene that sadly Southampton fans know all too well.

If given space then he will be used as the centre piece of the side, dictating the game’s tempo with ease. Games of which Shelvey has been allowed space and time on the ball are when Swansea show their greatest displays.

Besides the hat trick of braces from the forward line, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the mid week fixture was the return of Ryan Bertrand, adding a positive attacking element to the full back role, mirrored by Cedric on the other side. Which as we all know, was an important factor in last seasons success. Welcome back, Ryan.

With both sides playing open and attractive football, we are sure to be in for an entertaining afternoon.

Who’s bringing the Mars bar then?

 

Season Review: Five Things Learnt With Five Games Gone

Were well underway in the 2015/16 season and so far it’s been one of mixed emotions for fans on the South coast. Southampton have been battered, done the battering, sent fans to away games more effective than sleeping pills and most importantly, kept hold of stars Sadio Mane and Victor Wanyama. So, what have we learnt?

1) Standing ground in the market

The first and perhaps most important lesson is that we have managed to keep a firm grip on our African stars. Both Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane played key roles in last years against all odds season; with such mesmerizing performances, fans were understandably fearing a summer exodus 2.0. All had prepared for yet another social media mockery.

However, Southampton chairman Les Reed ensured to make it clear that no player was to be leaving Southampton for the remainder of the window – this followed from the departures of Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne. Despite manager Ronald Koeman continuing to reiterate Reed’s promise, the rumour mill stops for no one. Tottenham Hotspur fans remained confident of securing the Kenyan’s signature, and in turn, many Southampton fans trembled at the knees. Yet here we are.

Since the Norwich City game it seems that Wanyama’s toys have returned to his pram and all can be dusted behind us. The board have remained strong and it’s an act that fans could certainly get used to.

We wouldn’t have it any other way, would we Saints fans?

well…

2) The Black Box Has Worked Its Magic Once Again

Had it not been for this wonder working machine, Southampton football club may well have been the laughing stock that the media wanted so badly last season.

Now it seems that Southampton have uncovered yet more gems in the form of Romeu ( 4.9 Million from Chelsea ) Cedric Soares ( 4.55 Million from Sporting Clube De Portugal ) and Virgil Van Dijk ( 11 Million from Celtic ). Romeu has offered a much needed presence in midfield after the departure of Schneiderlin to Manchester United. Fans have been wowed by his wide range of passing, passion on the field and crunching tackles; he’s fast becoming a fan favourite, proving to be our best player of the new season along the way.

Then we have the Portuguese International Cedric Soares who has provided an incredible option from the right side with persistent movement, a beautiful cross and stamina to make Steven Davis proud. Our new right back has already notched up one assist in his first five games, beating Nathaniel Clyne’s assist tally from last season. On top of that he has created six more chances than Clyne’s disappointing two for Liverpool; not half bad for a debut season.

To round it off we have the newly capped Dutch International Virgil Van Dijk who was a shining light in the recent fixture against West Bromwich Albion; with a classy touch, an eye for a pass and a composed defender, he’s a shoe in fit for Toby Alderweireld. Were yet to see a true reflection of Juanmi, Jordy Clasie and Marteen Stekelenburg’s talents, but with the track record that Southampton hold, it would come as no surprise for them to soon flourish under Ronald Koeman.

3) Europe Can Wait

 

After last seasons displays, Southampton fans held every reason to be positive about the European journey that lay ahead.

Sadly however it wasn’t to be, Southampton steered clear of their beautiful fluid football and poorly exchanged it with a Sam Allardyce tactical dream. To fans it became apparent that we had lost our core – thanks to th departure of Schneiderlin – and we needed time for our new faces to settle in. After all, it’s hard to maintain your identity with just two familiar faces in the seven defensive positions.

In a season that will largely be focused on transition and cohesion, European football would simply be an unneeded headache at the cost of League form. For now, the European nights can wait until we are ready to march on.

 

4) Koeman’s Favoritism

It’s slowly becoming more and more evident that Ronald Koeman holds his selected favourites. Whilst I applaud his man management and belief that he installs in his players, you have to worry that it could be at the cost of performance and team morale.

In light of the recent Wanyama transfer saga, James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu proved to form a perfect partnership in his absence. Despite wiping the floor clean with Norwich City and producing the first and only high quality game of the season, it wasn’t enough. Wanyama returned, Romeu was dropped and subsequently James Ward-Prowse was pushed forward into a less familiar position; the result? a share of the spoils in what was to be a 0-0 snoozefest against West Bromwich Albion. Granted, this is a point against a well structured Tony Pulis side that went out with the intent not to lose. However, you just can’t help but wonder what may have been if we stuck with our winning formula. Even more so if the returning player “Isn’t mentally ready” after a blocked transfer away. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, Ron.

5) We Can Still Play That Beautiful Football

Early season form was not only worrying, but ugly in the process. As mentioned before, our football shown against FC Midtjylland on the European stage was nothing to be proud of and a million miles away from the standards we had set last season. Fans were especially worried about the aesthetics of our play when you tie this performance in with the defensively poor showing against Newcastle and Everton. It had seemed we lost our identity; our beautiful and crisp passing that helped to make us everyone’s little soft spot was nowhere to be seen. Whilst fans questioned if that football had made its move to The Theatre Of Dreams, Koeman’s army produced the greatest response to silence the doubters… a dominating three nil masterclass. Southampton proved to be superior in every position against Norwich City in a performance that proudly and rightly belonged at St. Mary’s.

With our number one summer target Virgil Van Dijk still settling in and Clasie joining Bertrand on the way back from injury, play can only improve.

The overlapping runs, quick one touch passing, constant movement and sharp decisions were back, let’s hope they are here to stay.

 

 

Talking Points: Bertrand On Targett For Return?

During yesterday’s press conference it was confirmed that Ryan Bertrand has not yet recovered in time for Saturday’s trip to the Hawthorns.

Southampton boss Ronald Koeman then went on to say “I hope that he will start training with the whole group from Monday” You have to understand that he didn’t have a pre season and that’s always difficult for a player”. The England International has been sidelined for just over three months now and with his return on the horizon, can he replicate last seasons success and where does this place Matt Targett?

Confidence is the key factor in the comparison between both players; however, the reasons are quite different. In a Southampton XI with the oh so reliant Bertrand, each player around him is fuelled with confidence in both his ability and movement; defenders, midfielders and attackers alike take great risks in play due to the trust they hold with Bertrand. This confidence allows the left side of the field to play in the instinctive manner that has been drilled into their minds through Koeman. This instinctive and fast paced football is the play that we have grown to love.

Where as 19 year old Matt Targett desperately relies on self confidence – of which he has lacked – and the trust of his team-mates in order to perform well; both of which Bertrand holds in abundance. During Targett’s forced promotion to the starting line up, we have seen two sets of performances. One being a shaky and error prone youngster, the better side being an expressive and positive player that lives up to the Southampton academy reputation. In fixtures such as Norwich (Home) and Vitesse (Away) we have seen the brighter sides to his game, but for now those performances come around all too little.  

So, upon the inevitable occurrence of Bertrand reclaiming his starting spot, what could be next for Targett?

The club could look to give Targett the same chance that Gallagher, Stephen’s and Turnbull are currently experiencing on a loan spell; whilst this may be effective for the growth of Targett as an individual, it would damage the squad depth in turn and therefore force the club to bump into some avoidable transfer expenses. Combine this financial irresponsibility with Southampton’s academy ambitions and this looks like a weak possibility.

Instead, I expect to see Targett reinstalled in his role as backup. During his recent run of Premier League fixtures you could easily argue that as just a raw talent, Targett’s demands have been all too high. At such a young age he has been thrown into the starting line up with the responsibility/expectation that comes with it, all whilst he has no genuine competition. Being just 19 years old, competition is key in the unfortunate event of falling out of depth; this added bonus of quality is a safety net for the morale and health of a youngster, a safety net that Targett has had to deal without.

We have seen flashes and flickers of his talent during Bertrand’s absence and provided he stays within the first team plans, he has much more to learn from a manager who knows it all about defending. As for Bertrand, a player of his quality surrounded by the talents on show at St Mary’s will only continue to star in the red and white stripes. Perhaps Bertrand can mentor Mathew to keep him on Targett?

 

James Ward-Prowse: Is It Time To Kick Off Under Koeman?

Coming off the back of an incredible performance against Norwich City, James Ward-Prowse has been named as the England U21 captain – this reward will see Ward-Prowse take charge on the pitch for the forthcoming Euro qualifier against Norway. Southampton fans would agree that this achievement is a testament to the youngsters recent showings in the red and white stripes. So, is this the moment for Ward-Prowse to truly nail down his starting place?

A mature set of performances, International recognition and a current starting spot in the first team; the 20 year old is certainly doing his career no harm.

Though Victor Wanyama’s tantrum has given a helping hand to Ward-Prowse, it didn’t mean he was guaranteed to fill the boots. Yet here we are, Ronald Koeman shall be dealt a manager’s best nightmare upon the players return from International duty.

In the past two seasons Ward-Prowse has dealt battle with one of the league’s strongest midfield partnerships. Sadly however for the now England U21 captain, it was a partnership that held quality in abundance and rarely fell short of fitness; thus forcing Koeman to predominantly place Ward-Prowse in a less familiar advanced role. Whilst he has undeniably come up with the goods in assists and creativity, his lack of bursting pace, quick feet and poor finishing has left him ineffective when played as an attacking midfielder. His talent is clear to see, but for quite some time now we have been wanting to witness him apply his trade in a more natural position; perhaps a place in the midfield partnership, Ron?

With Morgan Schneiderlin now spending every waking moment studying the almighty Van Gaal “Philosophy” and Wanyama coming out the tail end of a disruptive transfer saga, this really is the moment for the young Portsmouth born boy to earn his spot.

In Southampton’s three nil domination over Norwich City, the La Masia academy star Romeu joined Ward-Prowse in the middle of the park. This partnership seemed to click from the very first whistle as it provided the much needed base to push Southampton onto victory. With both players holding incredible technical ability and an intelligent mind, the two put an end to the hoof ball that Southampton fans have become accustomed to as of late. Instead, fans were treated to the site of a classy Romeu – playing as the anchor from deep – and Ward-Prowse splitting the defence open and co ordinating in perfect harmony. Simply put, it was the perfect midfield balance and if either of the duo were not to start on Southampton’s visit to The Hawthorns, it would be a despicable decision. Fans have labelled the performance as their most attractive in recent games and best of all, it placed a smile back upon the face of Ronald Koeman.

You could easily argue that to see Southampton play in such a positive and attractive fashion is no surprise, given that Ward-Prowse was handed the chance. In previous fixtures we have seen a mistake filled and sluggish paced transition from defence to attack, this has strongly damaged our power at both ends of the field in turn. Most notably, these uninspiring performances have occurred when Wanyama and Steven Davis form a pair; whilst both players hold fantastic attributes in the correct system, they both rely on their physical strengths.

At this point to restore Southampton’s beautiful fluid football they need reassurance and class on the ball. Strangely enough, thats exactly what was shown against Alex Neil’s Norwich last weekend. The young man offers a calming influence on the ball, the ability to switch play over any distance, the intelligence to find space, a positive approach to play and not to mention his beautiful set piece deliveries.

If Ward-Prowse is able to maintain his position in the first team, it would not only be an incredible achievement for him, but also for the fans and the club. It’s a proud moment as a fan to watch over a player and know that he is one of your own, a feeling that as a Southampton fan, will never die.

 

Ronald Koeman: Mess Or Messiah?

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved” – Sun Tzu

I feel like these wise words from Sun Tzu sum up Ronald Koeman’s recent situation perfectly. Everybody can see the tactics that he has deployed in the past few Premier League fixtures, but no one apart from Ronald Koeman himself can fully understand his thoughts. The critics can all criticise (I’m looking at you Trevor Sinclair) but none will know his true intentions. Starting off with what is quite clearly a sore point for Southampton fans, the 0-0 draw away to Watford. Is that the game that could bring us back to basics? The start of the Koeman master-plan?

 

After conceding five goals in the opening two games of the Premier League season, with defending has been incomparable to last season it’s difficult to believe that this is the same side that had one of the best defences in England last season, let alone Europe.

But… upon closer inspection, such poor displays could be understood. Most notably, four of the back five that built the base in Koeman’s army are unavailable through departure and injury. Could the side really expect to kick on in the same manner when fielding an out of depth Matt Targett, a back up in Maya Yoshida and two whole new faces (Marteen Stekelenburg and Cedric Soares). It seems some have forgotten that it will take time to gel and for everything to settle down, the Dutchman has said it himself.

Once the so consistent Ryan Bertrand returns from injury – after the international break – and our mystery big money centre back (Virgil Van Dijk) partners Jose Fonte, our leaky defence can be boarded up once again. But for now, and certainly in the Watford game, Southampton didn’t  have that luxury of added quality.

The 3-5-2 formation that was blasted as ‘naïve’ by the aforementioned Trevor Sinclair added defensive solidity, making Southampton hard to breakdown. For the first time this season, Southampton looked sound and confident that they could keep a side out. Steven Caulker added to this, winning the majority of his aerial duals and bringing confidence to the side; he was fantastic.

Although, in the decision to return solidity at the back, the formation was a sacrifice in attack. This bluntness going forward was certainly not helped with Sadio mane having to go of with slight concussion. Mane is a true game changer and has the ability to produce something special in the dying moments of a game; many would argue he is the only Saints player to hold such traits.

Had Mane stayed on, we could have been discussing the tactical master-class to put Southampton’s first win on the table.

However, because of this unforeseen eventuality, I believe that Koeman wasn’t too far off getting his tactics spot on. The idea was to sit back, hit Watford on the counter and run play through Mane. Southampton could have easily won the game, but that’s football. The game wasn’t about smashing Watford out of the park, the new boys who were apparently there for the taking (which I believe to be quite an offensive stance) are an organised squad that have the ability to cause an upset at the scent of complacency. Despite the outcries of ‘we should be beating them easily’ etc etc, this is a side that drew 2-2 with the same Everton team who beat Southampton 3-0 at St.Mary’s. The game was about getting back to basics and ensuring that Southampton kept a clean sheet.

Moving on from the Watford game, what does Koeman need to do in order to move forward?

The key to success with the current crop of players is to revert back to the 4-2-3-1 formation with two defensive midfielders. The reason being is that Southampton hold a strong central core which acts as the focus in all stages of play. This strong core is the reason Southampton held such a tight knit defence and penetrative attack last season; the midfield pair act as a second wall in front of the defence whilst also encouraging full back overlaps, plugging the gaps of those who push forward. Not to mention that with a fully fit squad, Southampton will hold variations of the formation for particular games; Jordie Clasie being the option for games in which you expect to dominate in possession and Romeu acting as the destructive midfielder for those hard battling fixtures against the elite.  

The problem in recent games however, is that with the loss of Schneiderlin, Koeman has been playing Steven Davis alongside Wanyama and this has caused chaos in a subtle fashion. Davis is required to carry out roles that simply aren’t a natural part to his game, a square peg in a round hole so to speak. Yet with Romeu – a natural defensive minded midfielder – the balance is restored.

Well… kind of. Its no mystery that Southampton place great importance on the impact of their full backs, but perhaps we didn’t realise quite how important they really are. With Ryan Bertrand injured and Cedric Soares struggling to play back to back games, we’re weakened in quality and the team are less familiar of their surroundings. Not only are our full backs required to keep Skekelenburg’s gloves squeaky clean, they are also a key figure in freeing up space for the forwards and wingers – neither tasks have been carried out in Southampton’s difficult start to the season. Its clear for even the simplest of football fans that Matt Targett, Maya Yoshida, Steven Caulker and Cuco Martina offer half the options that Cedric and Bertrand provide at both ends of the field. Upon return of both full backs starting, I’m certain that Southampton will improve in every department.

For the moment however, Koeman is having to make do and every point gained is a very good one. We cant really tell just how good (or bad) Southampton will be until everyone is back fit and there is the full use of the squad. Only once the option of a fully fit squad arises, can we see our most dangerous front line and strongest defensive showings; then of course everyone will be saying Koeman is The Messiah once again and the best thing since chips and Mayonnaise.
All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. –  remember them when Southampton are flying once more, never question Big Ron , EVER.

Talking Point: Why Saints Fans Shouldn’t Worry About Sacrificing League Form For a European Run

After ex Saint Tim Sparv stunned St.Mary’s last Thursday by snatching FC Midtjylland an away goal and a share of the spoils, Southampton have it all to do this coming Thursday. With the score tied at one apiece, Ronald Koeman’s side will have to score at least one goal to book their place in the group stages of the Europa League.

 

The height of optimism by some for the season ahead is what I can regrettably only describe as, unrealistic – just like any other club would after a successful season, Southampton host a group of naive fans who think we can finish in the top seven, reach a domestic final and make the later knockout rounds of the Europa League. These same fans are those who scream MELTDOWN, claim that we are not reinvesting the money and that we are “going backwards” after a goalless draw to an inform Watford that have a point to prove.

The way I see it, Southampton are due a major trophy. If that were to mean a 14th place finish rather than a top half spot, I think I’d be content – as would many others upon watching club legends Jose Fonte and Kelvin Davis lift the trophy. After all, what’s the difference between 10th and 14th anyway? bragging rights over other mid table sides? extra prize money that is equal to one weeks wages?

Its safe to say we are no European Giants. The last time Southampton prepared for those oh so desired European nights was back in 2003 – even then, that was only two qualification legs against Steaua Bucharest.

However, this time round with an experienced European manager and a squad with greater depth, we have already beaten our 2003 European tour – If you can even call it that.

There are some big names in Europe’s second biggest club competition this year and Saints fans could have some extraordinary away trips. The electrical atmosphere of those Eastern European sides and jaw-droppingly vast stadiums such as Westfalenstadion – the battlefield of Borussia Dortmund – are certainly something to look forward to.

Realistically, we don’t have the squad to go far in all four competitions. If by the odd chance that we did go all the way in every competition, were talking about an 81 game season. However, that just won’t happen. Not only would that drain the players physically and mentally, but it would also destroy each player’s marriage in turn.

Now, lets take our mandatory 38 Premier League games and chuck in an early cup exit, getting to a respectable Europa League finish and a half decent FA cup run. We are now presented with our “What could be” 60 game season. Fans must understand that in a season consisting of 60 games, our form will peter out at some point; tired legs and sloppy passes happen to the big guns and we are certainly no exception.

So Saints fans, we can’t have it all. But that’s not to mean we can’t give it our best shot. Simply remember where we were six years ago and enjoy the journey, for were all going on a European Tour.