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The saintly triumvirate of Southampton’s season

As we enter the closing stages of the 2015/16 season, its time for us all to look back over the course of the year to find our star man. Moments of class, consistency throughout the year and making fans rise from their seat with excitement are all on the checklist, so without further ado, here are my top three players of the season.

When Toby Alderweireld departed Southampton in the summer of 2015, there was not only a feeling of sadness from losing who we believed to be the best defender in the league, but there was also worry for the defensive nightmares that could soon follow into the next season. That was of course until Virgil Van Dijk stepped in.

Having made a name for himself as the Scottish Premier League’s best defender, there was not only pressure for Van Dijk to maintain his reputation, but to also live up to his £11.5M price tag and hit the high standards that Alderweireld reached before him. But quite simply, Van Dijk has exceeded all expectations.

Right from the off, Van Dijk has shown Southampton fans his monstrous ability in the air, his calming presence on the ball and ability to distribute from the back like few others in the Premier League. Consistency has been an incredible area of his game over the course of the season, but by no means does that mean Van Dijk has played it safe. With his charging runs, silky drag backs and trademark diagonal switches, he’s an entertainer too. In games where Southampton have lacked that alertness and concentration at the back, Van Dijk has been there to save us. And In moments where we hold the chance to hit a team on the break, you guessed it, Van Dijk is the man to start the attack.

The 6ft 4in giant has even chipped in with three goals along the way. And having signed a five-year deal in the summer, Southampton fans will be hopeful that there is much more to come. Virgil Van Dijk is my player of the season.

 

Second in line is a man who sorely missed out on the top spot at no fault of his own – Shane long. At the beginning of the 2015/16 season, if anyone told you that Ronald Koeman would pick the Irishman as one of the first names on the team sheet, you would assume that a mass of injuries had struck the squad. Yet here we are, with 12 goals and four assists to his name this season, Long is arguably Southampton’s most important player, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down either.

Back in December of 2015, Southampton were showing onlookers at St. Mary’s their most rigid and uninspiring performances since their return to the Premier League in 2013. To our disbelief, we were allowing teams to build from the back, showing no movement in attack and severely lacking the fighting passion that is needed to lift a squad from a slump in form. But It was in Shane Long that Southampton found their remedy. Suddenly, our first line of defence was once again with the talisman, our attacks were free-flowing and he was loving every last minute of it. It was clear for the fans in the stand to see that Long knew exactly what was missing, and he was going to give everything to get it back.

Since the 26th of December – when Long was given the chance to start in the centre-forward role – he has struck the back of the net seven times in 19 appearances. In football, certain players will time and time again turn their back on the club during hard times, but to others, it’s seen as a moment where the stage is set and it’s their time to bed themselves into the hearts of the fans – the Irishman has been the latter, and Long may it continue. Shane Long is my player of 2016.

The third player is a man who since joining the club, has been everything you could ever want from a professional in your sides colours. An incredible attitude, a mature head, away from the media’s spotlight and boasting talent in abundance – I’m of course talking about, Ryan Bertrand.

Frustratingly for all Southampton fans, the Saints began the 2015/16 season without Bertrand, and consequently, bailed out of the Europa League and recorded just one win in their first six Premier League fixtures. But upon his return, the boys in red and white continued to go the next six league games unbeaten.

Throughout the course of the season, Bertrand has not only further proved himself to be one of the League’s best left-backs, but also as a classy centre-half in a 3-5-2 formation, and as a makeshift winger.

Without Bertrand’s sharp technical ability and undeniable versatility this season, Ronald Koeman would have struggled to overturn such poor blips in form. Perhaps what is most admirable about this, however, is not his superb on pitch showings, but the way he spoke off the pitch. Many other players would have potentially spoke sourly of being shifted out of position ahead of International fixtures and the Euros, but not Bertrand. Instead, he kept his head down, played for the badge on the front of the shirt, and continued to deliver the classy and consistent performances that we have become so accustomed to, over the past two seasons.

 

Preview: We talk Southampton vs Newcastle with NUFC360

Coming into this weekend’s clash, Southampton have won five of their last seven Premier League home games and they will be facing a Newcastle side, that have lost their last eight away games in the Premier League. With Southampton in eighth place and Newcastle now seven points adrift of safety, all statistics point in the direction of a routine home win. However, this is the Premier League and no game is a given.

We spoke with NUFC360 to find out more about our opposition, the perception of Southampton and Georginio Wijnaldum – a favourite of Ronald Koeman.

In three words, how would you describe your season so far?

No lessons learnt

Who is your player of the year?

It’s a toss-up between Rob Elliot & Chancel Mbemba, but I think Elliot just about edges it. He hadn’t covered himself in glory prior to Tim Krul’s season ending injury & plenty of fans had reservations about his capabilities, but he’s been absolutely superb. At times, he has single handedly won us games & stopped the opposition from hitting double figures. Without him, I fear we’d be in a similar position to Villa.

Despite results going against you, has Rafa Benitez added a new look to Newcastle?

The side certainly looks more organised, but the players at his disposal just aren’t good enough. We look more of a threat in the final third & in the last two games, we’ve finally started providing Mitrovic with the service he’s needed all season. He’s capable of changing a game with substitutions too, something our previous managers have struggled with. I do fear it’s too little too late, though, he should have been brought in after the 5-1 defeat at Chelsea.

If you could change one thing about your club, what would it be?

One thing!? Now that’s a tough one. There’s too much wrong with Newcastle at the moment & the club is rotten from the top to the bottom. Rafa’s arrival & the head coach model being scrapped was a real positive for fans, but if/when we go down & he leaves, it’s going to be one step forward and five steps back. Lee Charnley, the man responsible for appointing John Carver & Steve McClaren, really needs to go. He’s completely out of his depth & his ineptitude looks like it’s going to cost us our Premier League status.

Southampton boss Ronald Koeman is an admirer of Georginio Wijnaldum, if the unthinkable happened and Newcastle were to be relegated, do you think he would suit Southampton and could it happen?

Wijnaldum is a good footballer, there’s no doubt about that, & I think in a good football playing side like Southampton, he could be a hit. Unfortunately however, his form has nose-dived dramatically over the second half of the season & he goes missing away from home. He will certainly leave if we’re relegated, he’s far too good for the Championship. Spurs are rumoured to be monitoring his situation so Koeman might have to move quickly in the summer.

What is your perception of Southampton Football Club?

I like Southampton. They’re a good club, with good fans, who play good football. A proper club. I think Koeman’s done a stellar job again this season & I’m a big fan of the way he gives young players a chance. I think he’s amongst the best managers in the league.

Who from this Southampton side scares you most?

I’d probably say, Pelle, as he seems to reek havoc every time we play Southampton. He’s commanding in the air & we don’t seem capable of dealing with that. Charlie Austin, a player we courted for a long time, worries me too. It seems destined that he will put a nail in our coffin on Saturday to rub salt into the wounds.

If you were reporting back to Ronald Koeman on how to beat Newcastle, what would you say?

Target our full backs. Daryl Janmaat has been pitiful defensively this season & any one of Steven Taylor or Fabricio Coloccini, will struggle to deal with pace or a physical presence. We’ve conceded 58 goals this season, only four less than Villa, which is a pretty shocking statistic.

What is your prediction for Saturday’s game?

2-0 Southampton. We’ve been thrashed on our last few trips to St. Marys and I can see a repeat on Saturday. There’s been a lot of talk about the side tightening up & winning ugly in the week, so we may look to stay compact & organised as we did against Leicester, but ultimately I think your firepower will overwhelm our frail defence.

And finally, the harsh reality of Premier League survival. Will you? won’t you? And why?

We’re six points behind Norwich now & with seven games remaining, that’s a huge gap to breach. I fear the worst & have for a long time. We just aren’t good enough at either end of the pitch & with only 6 wins all season I can’t see how we’re going to turn it round now.

 

Has Ramirez finally found his level, or is there yet more to come?

Back on the 26th on January, Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough snapped up Gaston Ramirez for the remainder of the 2015/16 season on a loan deal. But just three months later, it seems that Boro fans have found themselves a new poster boy. After just 10 appearances, Ramirez has found the back of the net six times, carved 21 opportunities for his teammates and is once again, enjoying his football. We spoke with EverythingMFC to find out more about Ramirez’s sensational run of form. 

When Middlesbrough announced the signing of Gaston Ramirez, what were you initially expecting?

I was expecting a player with an abundance of attacking quality, a player that would make the no.10 position his own

Having now been given a number of games to assess his ability, how have Boro fans taken to Ramirez?

He’s gained a lot of admirers in the stands, people love him. He went off in his last game to a standing ovation, and richly deserved too!

What has been his standout quality in England’s second division?

His technical ability, it really does make him a joy to watch. I think his off the ball work has been admirable too; his first goal against Huddersfield epitomised that, straight from kick off he was pressing, intercepted a pass and went on to score.

Is he a cut above the rest in the Championship?

Definitely, he’s different class. I felt sorry for the Huddersfield players in our last game, they didn’t know what to do with themselves!

During his time in the Premier League, Gaston struggled with the physicality of the division and appeared to lack confidence, is that still the case?

The Championship is known for being a very physical league and he has thrived in it, so I wouldn’t say it’s been a problem for him. He definitely doesn’t lack confidence either, he looks like he’s thoroughly enjoying his football here and it’s definitely reflecting on his performances

If any, what are your worries or concerns with the Uruguayan playmaker?

That inconsistency could creep in. It has been a familiar story with our previous no.10s where they hit a purple patch and then go missing for the next handful of games, but hopefully Gaston is an exception.

Do you think that Southampton could live to regret allowing Ramirez to head out on loan?

Possibly, he has been a revelation for us in attack, but he is playing under a manager who believes in him and appears to be getting the best out of him, whereas at Southampton it seems like he wasn’t in the plans of Ronald Koeman to start with

And last of all – If Boro were to be promoted – has Ramirez shown enough quality to suggest that he can finally establish himself as a Premier League player?

Yes, as long as he’s under a manager like Aitor Karanka who allows him the freedom to express himself on the football pitch

Southampton’s race for European football

After last week’s exhilarating performance and result against Liverpool, Ronald Koeman’s side showed they have the fight, resolve and quality to challenge for European qualification. With Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane replicating their great early season form, all whilst Shane Long and Charlie Austin have popped up with vital goals, Southampton are now breathing down the neck of their fellow European football competitors.

As we approach the final few hurdles of the remaining season, the teams that join Southampton in this mouthwatering finale are Liverpool, Stoke City, Man Utd, West Ham and Manchester City. Liverpool are currently sat in 9th position, Stoke are in at 8th, with Manchester Utd in 6th, West Ham are on the brink of Champions League football, sat in 5th place, and Manchester City are slacking in 4th. With only seven points separating Man City in 4th and Liverpool in 9th, the Premier League will surely have a few more twists and turns as these sides challenge for a European spot, be it the Europa League, or the Champions League.

However, the race for these European spots will become much clearer when all teams have played the same total of games. Due to European and domestic cup commitments, not every team has featured the same amount of times in the league this season. Liverpool have the most games in hand, with two, which could potentially move the reds one place higher to 8th –  leapfrogging Stoke in turn. Then, with results going their way, Liverpool could move as high as 7th, but only if they were to better Southampton’s goal difference.

All three teams above Southampton have a game in hand, due to FA cup and Capital One cup appearances.

These could prove to be crucial points for West Ham, Manchester City and Manchester United to gain breathing space from the following pack. Manchester United and West Ham could go six points clear of Southampton if results fall in their favour, and Man City could push their margin to seven points. The pressure is well and truly with the four teams who have their games in hand.

On paper, Liverpool and Manchester City have the ‘easiest’ run-in in terms of times facing the current top four. Liverpool will only play against Tottenham on the 2nd of April, whilst Man City will only face Arsenal. Unfortunately Saints fans, you guessed it, we have the toughest run-in on paper. Southampton will play against three of the current top four in the last seven games of the season. And of course, that would include the current top two battling it out for the Premier League crown – Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. The King Power Stadium is Southampton’s next stop in the Premier League, whilst our final away outing of the season is at White Hart Lane, against Pochettino’s Spurs. Before Southampton make the trip to North London, however, St Mary’s will be the host of a potentially season-defining match against Man City on the 1st of May.

As for the Hammers and the Potters, West Ham will face Arsenal and Leicester, whilst Stoke will play against Man City and Tottenham. Manchester United will also compete with the current top two – Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. United’s clash against the Foxes will be held at Old Trafford, whilst they also travel, like Southampton, to North London to face Tottenham.

Worryingly, the final table would be grim reading for Saints if the remaining fixtures finished how the reverse fixtures finished earlier in the season. If Saints’ remaining seven games finished how they did earlier in the campaign, we would only gain three more points, leaving us with 50 points in 9th place. Manchester City would rise to 3rd with 73 points, whilst Arsenal would slip down to their familiar surroundings of 4th place with 68 points.

Manchester United would finish the season in 5th and gain automatic qualification to the Europa League, whilst West Ham, who would finish in 6th place, qualify through Manchester City’s Capital One Cup win. Liverpool would finish in 7th with 59 points and Stoke would finish one place below the reds in 8th.

However, there’s no need to panic Southampton fans. During the reverse fixtures, Southampton were in their worst form of the current season. We have to remember that during those games, we were missing Pelle, Forster and Rodriguez. Not to mention that we were still trying to find our feet after the loss of Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne and Toby Alderweireld. Now, however, with the return of Forster, the defence has looked as strong and reliable as it did the season before. To add to the positives, Pelle and Mane are both back amongst the goals, Shane Long is in the best form of his career, Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez will be back from injury and Wanyama looks to have turned a corner after his five-match ban. With all these factors present, there’s no reason why we can’t get the results to gift us an immediate return to European football for Ronald Koeman’s side.  

 

Premier League Podcast Preview Show: Southampton vs Liverpool

I was fortunate enough to join Hari Sethi and John Ritchie on the AnfieldIndex Podcast show to preview this weekend’s fixture against Liverpool. We look ahead to Southampton’s upcoming game and discuss everything you could possibly want from a preview show – including an opening question at Arry’s new role at Derby County.

Follow the link here to give it a listen

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We discuss…

Who would ‘Arry Redknapp scout for Derby County?

What can we expect from this weekend’s game?

Can Liverpool record four League wins on the bounce?

Who have been Southampton’s standout players this season?

How have Southampton managed to recover so well following a tough season with injuries?

We also round up the show with our predictions for this weekend – we hope you enjoy the show.

Be sure to let us know what you think over at FreshSaints and AnfieldIndex

 

Charlie Austin: Following the footsteps of a Southampton great?

Since Rickie Lambert left Southampton for his boyhood club, Liverpool, there has been a 6ft 2 Liverpudlian shaped gap left on the St Mary’s turf and in Saints fan’s hearts. But, could that gap be filled once again?

With the arrival of Graziano Pelle back in 2014, Southampton fans thought they had an immediate replacement.
Sadly, this was not the case. Whilst the Italian may possess some of Lambert’s mean heading ability and a strong presence up top, this is rivaled by a habit to moan at teammates, storm down the tunnel and find himself amongst long goal droughts – three traits that were never seen in Lambert’s game. Pelle has been a brilliant forward for Southampton and has given fans some unforgettable memories, but he just can’t fill that gap left by Lambert.

However, on the 16th of January, Southampton announced the £4 million signing of Charlie Austin from QPR. The England international striker was in high demand from other Premier League rivals and Saints’ fans were licking their lips at their new found potential Lambert replacement. The similarities are there for all to see.

Back in 2009, Southampton were sitting rock-bottom of League 1 with -10 points. They were crying out for someone who had experience in the lower leagues and the man to change that was Rickie Lambert. Lambert was brought in for £1 million at the age of 27 and those who knew League One, knew that Southampton had found themselves a bargain.
Prior to putting on his red and white stripes, Lambert had scored 29 goals in his previous season for Bristol Rovers – with 59 goals for the Pirates in 155 appearances.
Rather like Lambert, Austin joined Southampton with a goalscoring record to boast about – scoring 46 goals in 79 appearances for QPR. Both strikers joined Southampton with a strong reputation, knowing that if they receive service, then the goals would quickly follow. All fans can agree that both signings are a bargain given their proven records.

Successful debut seasons in the Premier League are yet another similarity between the two. As both strikers were playing for newly promoted sides, the same question marks were lingering over them. Could they handle the physical nature of Premier League defenders? Could they adapt and impress in England’s top division? The answer was of course, yes.
Lambert finished his debut season with 15 league goals, making him the League’s joint highest English goalscorer alongside Frank Lampard.
Charlie Austin also went on to have an amazing breakthrough season in the Premier League, scoring a total of 18 goals – making him the League’s second highest English goalscorer that season.

As for debut goals, yes, you guessed it. They both struck gold on their Southampton debut. Lambert opened his account in a League cup tie against Northampton at St Mary’s, heading home Lloyd James’ cross to open the scoring.
A little more glamorous admittedly, Austin was presented the challenge of grabbing his debut goal at Old Trafford. This looked to be an unlikely feat from the first whistle, as Ronald Koeman opted to start Shane Long. But Austin clearly thought otherwise.
With only seven minutes left on the clock and the game poised at 0-0, Southampton won a free-kick right by the corner flag. With a signature Ward-Prowse set piece, Austin found himself a free header that powered past David De Gea in the United goal.

Best of all, however, both forwards share the same rags-to-riches story. At just 15 years-old, both players were released and forced into the everyday jobs that helped to create their widely documented success stories that we now all know.
After being released by Reading for his slight frame, Austin found work as a bricklayer. Life wasn’t any sweeter for Lambert either, who took up a job at a beetroot factory after being released by Liverpool.
But their dreams of playing football were far from over, as they both went on to join non-league sides. Austin was considerably more prominent in non-league football, having played for Kintbury Rangers, Hungerford Town, and Poole Town. Lambert briefly trained for non-league side Marine, but soon joined Blackpool as a trainee.

For now, though, we should enjoy knowing that we have a forward in our side who has always found the back of the net at all levels of English football. However, to see the best of Austin, it would come as no surprise to me if we must wait until the new season.

The reason being is that he needs time to fully adapt to our style of play. Simply look to Austin’s strike partner Shane Long for a lesson in the importance of patience and time with new signings. During the Irishman’s debut season at Southampton, Long just couldn’t nail down a first team spot. Instead, he would drift into the side with two good games and then frustrate fans with a series of underwhelming and wasteful showings. His £12 million price tag was mocked by many. But now, having been given time to adapt and learn his role in the side, Long has become one of our most influential and exciting players.

But truth be told, the gap left by Lambert will never be filled, no matter how successful Austin is. It was a case of the right man being here at the right time with his and the clubs own two stories merging into something truly special.
It’s certainly exciting and intriguing to see the similarities between the two, but I want to see Austin create his own legacy.

With an eye for goal, clinical finishing and a potentially formidable partnership with Long on the horizon, Southampton fans have every reason to be hopeful that Charlie Austin can one day stand alongside Sir Rickie Lambert in St Mary’s folklore.

Calling all Football League clubs

Having burst onto the first-team scene back in August 2013 as a 19-year-old, there was much promise that this industrious midfielder would be breathing down the necks of Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin over the next two seasons. However, with the strong additions of Jordy Clasie and Oriol Romeu, all whilst James Ward-Prowse has been maturing into a first team regular, appearances have arrived at somewhat of a premium. Now being 21-years-old, It’s time for first-team football to be his priority. Harrison Reed has to kick on.

Since that first team debut against Barnsley, the England U20 regular has featured 21 times in the famous red and white stripes – 14 appearances of which have come in the Barclays Premier League. Now, whilst this may be an impressive accolade for most young talents who wish to forge their way into their sides first team, I ( and I’m sure many others ) would agree that these numbers are not representative of Reed’s talent.

He’s sharp, aggressive, passionate, hard working and where others with these traits usually fall short in technically ability, little Harry does not.

For the past three seasons now, Harrison Reed has been a sure starter in Martin Hunter’s U21 side. But that level can only develop and aid the ability of a player for so long. You only have to watch one game of U21 football to see that Reed is far superior to others whilst on the ball, off the ball and physically. He has truly surpassed the standard of the U21 League.

So, why is he still plying his trade at this level?

It seems that the midfielder – who has been likened to Paul Scholes – has found himself in a grey area of selection at Southampton.
At this point, he remains one of the few experienced players for the U21 side – making him a valuable member to Martin Hunter.
This is due to Matt Targett being tied down to first team commitments, Jason McCarthy being on loan at Wycombe Wanderers, Jack Stephens being on loan at Coventry, Jordan Turnbull being on loan at Swindon Town and even Sam McQueen being sent out on loan to Southend.

Perhaps the club feel that losing a player of Reed’s quality and experience would damage the other youngsters development? Whilst results at the U21 level are said to be irrelevant, playing attractive football and breeding the club’s philosophy is important – doing so would be made a damn sight harder with the absence of Reed.

Not to mention that when Southampton boss Ronald Koeman was asked who stood out in the U21 side, the Dutchman said: “Harrison Reed is close to the first-team.”.
Reed was one of only two academy prospects to be mentioned, so it’s clear that Koeman is viewing the possibility to embed Reed into his side. Most encouraging, the other player mentioned was Matt Targett, who has since picked up a handful of Premier League appearances. Maybe Reed’s chance is just over the horizon?

To me, however, all factors are pointing toward a loan move being the best decision. Reed is all too good for the U21 league, he will only be handed first team appearances if injuries were to strike and now being 21, he has to make a name for himself. Gametime is a priority and I believe that could be found in the middle of the Championship table or at a high-flying title challenging League One side.

Truth be told, Reed faces the threat of stalling his development if he doesn’t find a higher level of play.

He must ensure to find new challenges and place himself in high-pressure situations. Afterall, that is what makes players the best they can possibly be. If you ask any player who worked their way to the very top of the game what made them who they are, they will all speak of facing daunting situations as an unknowing youngster. Given Reed’s ability, continuing to settle for U21 football will hold him back from hitting the heights we all know he can reach.

If Reed’s attitude to be the very best is anything like his desire on the field, then he can make a loan move work and return to make a first team spot his own.

Interview: James Ward-Prowse

Here at FreshSaints, we were fortunate enough to grab an Interview with Southampton starlet and England U21 captain, James Ward-Prowse. 

Follow the link here to give it a listen and look below for details on our interview.

00:10 – Scoring his first free-kick

00:41 – Signing his first professional contract

01:11 – Going away with England from young

01:48 – Failing at the U21 Euro’s

02:32 – Southampton’s youth academy

03:08 – Why aren’t young players in the Premier League being given a chance?

We hope you enjoyed the interview – be sure to tell us what you think on Twitter at FreshSaints

Shane Long: Breaking down that ten goal barrier

Shane Long is in hot form right now, and after netting the winning goal against Swansea City last weekend, the Irishman is on course to reach double figures for the first time in his Premier League career. It’s safe to say he’s cemented his name into Ronald Koeman’s starting XI. But, can Shane Long break past that ten goal barrier? And why is this season different to his previous years with Reading, West Brom and Hull City?

Long started his career in England when he joined Reading FC from Cork City for an undisclosed fee in 2005. However, he struggled for game time in his first few years at Reading, with Kevin Doyle and Leroy Lita placed ahead of him in the pecking order. He scored three goals in eleven appearances in his first season, which resulted in Reading being promoted to the Premier League.

Coming into his first Premier League season, Long disappointed in the top flight, scoring just two goals – thankfully, however, Reading had done just enough to steer clear of the drop. But it was to be yet another frustrating season for Long, who knew he had to better last season’s goal tally. Having mustered up just three goals throughout his second season in the Premier League, Reading were relegated back to the Championship.

Whilst relegation was hard to take for the Royals, it was to be seen as a fresh challenge for Shane Long. Long became Readings first choice striker when Doyle left the club, going on to score 21 league goals for Reading in the 2010/11 Championship season. Reading made the play-off final that season, but, unfortunately, lost 4-2 to Swansea City. Reading remained in the Championship for yet another season.

As a result of his immense goal scoring form, Long was sold to Premier League side West Bromwich Albion – the transfer fee was believed to be around £4.5 million. In his first season for the Baggies, he came close to reaching double figures as he scored eight goals, including strikes against Manchester Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal. In the following season, Long once again fell short – matching the eight goals he scored during his previous campaign.

In the 2014/15 season, Long started the season at West Brom – scoring three goals in 15 appearances – but later moved to Hull City in January. Whilst all looked promising for Long when he scored on his home debut against Tottenham, his goal-scoring tally remained similar to that of previous years – scoring four goals in 15 appearances for the Tigers.

After only half a season at Hull, Long jumped ship to join Southampton in a £12.5 million deal. With strong opposition from Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane, Long struggled to maintain a first-team spot in his first year with Saints. Despite that, he managed to score 5 goals in 32 Premier League appearances – 21 of which were from the bench.

His first two goals came in a match against Leicester City at St Mary’s, where he bagged a brace after being introduced as a second-half substitute with only 20 minutes to go.    

But now, after a year of hard work, training with the best squad of his career to date and working under Ronald Koeman, Long has been able to take his game to a level that he hasn’t reached before. He said it himself upon joining Southampton: “Southampton play a brand of football that’s enjoyable to watch, and I’m sure it’ll be enjoyable to play in as well”

Long has already scored six Premier League goals in 18 appearances this season, with his usual his nonstop work rate and pace being influential for the way Southampton play.  However, he has been far more than the player of years before.

Long has been learning to play in an expressive and established top-flight side that persistently play on the front line for the first time in his career.

Previously, he would play for sides that drop deep and look to greatly play off his defensive contributions, rather than focusing on his build up play and dangerous movement. This has been a big step up for Long.

During his first season for Southampton, Long would mis-hit crosses, shank his shots and rush decisions. But having now settled into an attack-minded team, were being treated to skillful lay-offs, calm finishes and composed thinking too.

With goals against Arsenal and Manchester City already this season, Long is playing with a calmness and confidence in front of goal.

There are now 12 games remaining in the 2015/16 season, including matches against rock bottom Aston Villa and a struggling Sunderland side in freefall. With it almost being a guarantee for Long to start those games at the minute, there’s a great chance he can break that ten-goal barrier. Who’s to say what could come next?

 

Match Preview: Six clean sheets in a row?

Southampton have taken 13 points from their last five fixtures. During that time, they have kept five clean sheets in a row; totalling 509 minutes since a red and white shirt had to pick the ball out the back of the net. Better yet, Southampton face a goal-shy Swansea side this Saturday that will be fearful of the challenge that Manchester United and Arsenal failed to overcome. Could yet another clean sheet and three points be on the cards?

All was going so swimmingly for Swansea. After Francesco Guidolin took hold of the club alongside Alan Curtis, the impact was instant. Swansea recorded back-to-back wins for the first time this Premier League season and fans were confident in avoiding the drop. Since then, Swansea have been held to draws by a blunt Crystal Palace side in free fall and a West Bromwich Albion team that is tearing at the seams. Both the Eagles and the Baggies came into the game with poor form, making it plausible to suggest that Swansea have just thrown away their relegation-get-out card.

Worst of all, they are set face a ruthless, clinical and robust Southampton side that are in their best form of the season so far.

Who have Southampton got to watch out for?

Gylfi Sigurdsson –  The Icelandic international has been in fantastic goal scoring form as of late, with five goals in his last six appearances. Having scored in each of Guidolin’s first three games in charge, the Italian said “I think Gylfi could score 15 goals in a season because he has quality and he has intelligence.”

It’s clear to see that Sigurdsson is Swansea’s most potent attacking outlet.

Over recent weeks, Southampton’s defence has been tight, organised and compact, with little room for the opposition to force an opening. As a result of this game plan, teams have been forced into crossing and striking from distance. However, with the common known knowledge of Sigurdsson’s ability to strike a ball from distance, Koeman will have a tough call to make.

Alberto Paloschi – The 26 year old Italian is somewhat unknown to the common football fan, but his lively style of play has been clear to see so far. Paloschi stands at just five-foot-nine-inches, flourishes with the ball at his feet and will look to be a handfull by finding space in the channels between both centre backs. Southampton have been used to dominating at the back through aerial duels, but this battle will take place on the ground. After all, it’s Swansea City.

Who can shine for the Saints?

Oriol Romeu – Romeu has put in a succession of impressive performances this season, yet he just can’t nail down that first team spot. With Victor Wanyama now suspended for five games after receiving his third red card of the season, there is a gap to fill. A gap that the Spaniard will want to make his. Romeu will not only see this as his time to push Southampton into Europe, but also his time to show Koeman why he needs to be the main man next season. Go get em Rom.

Charlie Austin – Since joining in January, Austin has so far been available for selection in only two games – starting from the bench on both occasions. Having brushed off his injury that left him out of the side at the Emirates and now being more aware of his role in the team, Austin will be raring to go. Even more so when Swansea’s defending still leaves much to be desired. If Austin starts, then you can bank on a ball falling handsomely in the box for him.

Swansea City Form – 2-4 loss vs Sunderland (A) 1-0 win vs Watford (H) 1-2 win vs Everton (A) 1-1 vs WBA (A) 1-1 vs Palace (H)

  • Seven goals scored over these five games
  • Seven goals conceded over these five games
  • In Swansea’s last fixture they drew against the worst form team in the League – Crystal Palace
  • Swansea lost and conceded four to 19th place Sunderland
  • Sigurdsson (5), Ayew (2) and Williams were the scorers over these five games

Southampton Form – 2-0 win vs Watford (H) 3-0 win vs WBA (H) 0-1 win vs Manchester Utd (A) 0-0 vs Arsenal (A) 1-0 win vs West Ham (H)

  • Seven goals scored over these five games
  • Five clean sheets in five games
  • Southampton beat fifth place Manchester United and beat sixth place West Ham
  • Southampton drew against third place Arsenal
  • Tadic (2), Ward-Prowse (2), Long, Austin and Yoshida were the scorers over these five games

Prediction: Austin and Van Dijk to gift Southampton a 2-0 away win

Who do you think will leave the Liberty Stadium with all three points? Perhaps a share of the spoils?

Let us know on twitter @freshsaints