Matches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-match thoughts: Tottenham Hotspur vs Southampton

Facing Tottenham away was always going to be a tough ask for Southampton, especially coming off a prolonged period without a match. We fought admirably until the final whistle, but ultimately a lack of consistent quality on the ball was our undoing. Still, there were positives to our performance – let’s take a look.

Under pressure in the first half, Southampton struggled to string consistent, meaningful passages of play together. Our opponents collapsed well and cut off our passing lanes. We were able to intercept Tottenham quite a bit, but when we failed to do so, the likes of Christian Eriksen were able to get four shots away, including the opening goal. After a soft penalty was given to Dele Alli, the youngster buried Tottenham’s second goal, and the game seemed well out of our reach.

But Saints kept the intensity switched on in the second half, showing that our loss was not for lack of effort. As I said before Sunday’s match, Nathan Redmond would have his hands full dealing with the charging Kyle Walker. Redmond did a fine job, and there were several occasions where he was deep in our own half putting in hard tackles and clearances. He finished the game with four tackles, the second-most out of any Southampton player, but it was Oriol Romeu who led all players on the pitch with six tackles.

Romeu was my man of the match today, and I’ll tell you why. If it wasn’t for his constant presence mopping things up in front of our back line, Spurs would have terrorised our center-halves. We miss Virgil Van Dijk more than ever, and Steven Davis wasn’t exactly stellar as captain, but Romeu put in a solid shift this afternoon. Yes, his decision-making was pretty lacklustre once he won possession, but we wouldn’t have had much possession at all if he hadn’t been on the pitch!

Overall, I hate losing to Mauricio Pochettino, but our lasting tenacity against a top side was inspiring. It remains to be seen how serious Manolo Gabbiadini’s injury is, but hopefully a run of consistent games can bring the best out of Southampton, particular in the offensive third.

Nathan Redmond’s pivotal role to play against Tottenham

Rested and ready, Southampton prepare to face Tottenham Hotspur this Saturday at White Hart Lane. Can we sustain our momentum following strong performances against Manchester United, Sunderland and Watford? Can we take advantage of an injury ridden Spurs side? Let’s take a look at how we might march on with momentum this weekend.

December 28th to February 4th was a difficult time for Southampton. We lost four in a row beginning with Tottenham, won once, and then lost two more. Even in our lone victory against Leicester, we lost our club captain to injury. As a Saints’ fan, I’ll admit I was beyond worried. How were we expected to march on? With a thumping 4 – 0 victory against Sunderland, that’s how.

Even though this was a disheartening period, it was, more importantly, a transformative one. The players had regrouped. With confidence and time to prepare, Southampton faced Manchester United in the EFL cup. Though the cruelty of the football gods would have us lose, the Saints deserved far more in our match against United, and the pride for our club reached an incredible peak. These things have been particularly evident in Nathan Redmond. He’s been playing out of his skin recently – attacking well and working hard on defence – and we need to keep his form elevated against Spurs come Saturday.

With tremendous effort in both our matches against Sunderland and United, followed by a two-goal performance versus Watford, Redmond has been firing on all cylinders for several weeks now. During that time he has completed ten dribbles and nine shots, with an average WhoScored rating of 8.16.

I had long been a fan of his during his time with Norwich, and I was excited at his purchase. Though some fans have rightly groaned about his performances, I believe Redmond will play a pivotal role in Southampton’s upcoming clash with Tottenham. (And if numbers are anything to go by, Squawka shows Redmond to be our second-best player this season).

Harry Kane has picked up an injury and Danny Rose is still out injured as well, meaning Mauricio Pochettino will be putting extra pressure on Kyle Walker to provide a threat going forward. Redmond will be given the difficult task of tracking Walker’s sideline gallops, but if opportunity allows, he has the chance to take advantage of the empty space left behind.

Southampton will need to effectively break up Tottenham’s play and quickly locate an outlet – most likely the in-form Redmond – if we wish to break down a side that has lost as many League games as Chelsea this season.

As Cédric said recently, Southampton are “in a good moment.” He feels as I do that we have the confidence and form to challenge Tottenham, and hopefully – with the continued success of Redmond – the Saints shall continue to march with momentum.

Q&A: Tottenham Hotspur vs Southampton

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

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

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

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

Who has been your player of the season?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would make for a successful end to the season?

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

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

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

One lion in and one lion out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabbiadini on his start to life in the Premier League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In defence of Sofiane Boufal

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

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

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

via GIPHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lesson learnt from our trip to Wembley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southampton FC’s history with Wembley Stadium

In two days time, over 35,000 Saints fans will embark on their journey to the home of English football. This isn’t a journey we are entirely used to, so I, like everyone else, will savour every last second of it.

Southampton take on Manchester United in the first major final of the season as Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils battle Claude Puel’s Saints in the EFL Cup final. Saints fans have only travelled to Wembley four times in their clubs 131-year history, despite being in eight domestic finals.

Southampton’s first three major finals were held at current athletics ground ‘Crystal Palace’ as Ernest Arnfield’s men lost two FA Cup finals; the first in 1900 as Bury ran out 4-0 winners. Saints then lost 2-1 to Sheffield United in 1902 after a 1-1 stalemate resulted in a replay. Saints’ most recent major final was, again, in the FA Cup as Gordon Strachan’s men travelled to Cardiff to face Arsenal. Robert Pires broke Saints hearts as his goal in the 38th minute sealed a 1-0 win for the Gunners at the Millennium stadium. Apart from a dismal record away from Wembley, Southampton currently have a 50% win record at the national stadium, as Saints have won and lost two finals in four respective competitions. These competitions being the FA Cup; the League/EFL Cup; the Zenith Data Systems Cup and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

1976 F.A Cup Final

Saints’ first appearance at Wembley was in 1976 and it’s still our greatest achievement to date. Lawrie McMenemy’s Second Division side had a huge task of beating First Division Manchester United to their first major trophy. Southampton were undoubtedly the underdogs as many expected the Red Devils to ease past Saints to victory. However, as the game unravelled, McMenemy’s side showed they had the quality and fight to match Manchester United. After their opponents hit the bar, Saints took their chance. Jim McCalliog sent a ball over the top of the Manchester United defence which looped into the path of Bobby Stokes. Stokes allowed the ball to bounce once then struck a precise shot past United ‘keeper Alex Stepney. The goal was scored in the 83rd minute as the yellow end of Wembley went wild. The goal didn’t come without its controversy though, as the United players and coaching staff claimed Stokes was offside, but the linesman’s flag remained down. As the full-time whistle blew, Saints pulled off one of the great FA Cup giant killings and secured themselves their first major trophy. The sea of yellow and blue erupted when club captain, Peter Rodrigues, collected the trophy from Her Majesty the Queen and lofted it high. There are many parallels from this game to our upcoming match this Sunday. Firstly of course, we have our opponents. Just like 1976, standing in our way of a major trophy is arguably one of the biggest clubs in world football, Manchester United. Coming into this Sunday’s fixture, the Red Devils have only lost once in their past 25 games. Due to this incredible form, Saints are firmly the underdogs once again, and hopefully rather like 1976, we can use this to our advantage.

1979 League Cup Final

Three years after the FA Cup final triumph, Lawrie Mcmenemy masterminded another great cup run. Southampton embarked on their League Cup adventure by beating First Division Birmingham City and Derby County in rounds two and three. Saints then needed a replay in the fourth round to see past Fourth Division Reading. In the quarter-finals, Saints beat Manchester City 2-1 and then secured their place in the final by beating Leeds 3-2 on aggregate across two legs. In the final, Saints faced Brian Clough’s legendary Nottingham Forest side. Much like the 1976 FA Cup final, Saints were seen as the underdog as Forest were amidst their greatest ever era; Clough’s side eventually won the European Cup that season. Brian Clough was up to his usual antics before a ball was even kicked. Prior to any cup final at Wembley, opposition managers lead their teams out onto the pitch before kick-off. However, Clough did not lead his team out and gave duties to his right-hand man Peter Taylor; he followed closely behind and went straight to the dugout. Saints took the lead in the 16th minute through David Peach and the score remained 1-0 up until half time. Forest then equalised just six minutes into the second half as Garry Birtles drew his side level. Birtles then struck again to give Clough’s side the lead in the 79th minute after a closely fought second half. Forest’s number 10 Tony Woodcock looked to have sealed the tie in the 83rd minute, but Nick Holmes nicked one back five minutes later to give Saints hope of taking the tie to extra time. Unfortunately for McMenemy’s side however, Saints couldn’t grab that elusive third goal and were defeated in their second match at Wembley. This was Saints’ last League Cup final appearance.

1992 Zenith Data Systems Cup Final

After the League Cup final defeat to Nottingham Forest, Southampton had to wait 14 years until their next Wembley appearance. The opponents, again, Nottingham Forest, still managed by Brian Clough. Although this competition is far less prestigious than the previous two, it’s still a trip to the home of English football for the fans and the club. Saints were managed by the highly unpopular Ian Branfoot who famously shut out Matt Le Tissier citing that he wasn’t good enough. However, Branfoot started Le God in this particular final alongside Alan Shearer, Neil Ruddock, Francis Benali and Ian Dowie. Southampton had the worst possible first half as they found themselves 2-0 down at the break after goals from Scot Gemmill, in the 16th minute, and Kingsley Black, right on the stroke of half-time. This particular final conveyed the phrase “a game of two halves” as Southampton looked a completely different side in the second 45 minutes Matt Le Tissier pulled a goal back in 64th minute with a header from six yards out, and only six minutes later, a ball into the box found Kevin Moore, whose header crashed in off the woodwork to level the scores. The game went to extra time after Saints’ great come back from two-nil down, but once again, it was Forest who won the trophy at Wembley after a deep ball into the box found Gemmill unmarked – Tim Flowers was helpless in denying the winner.  

2010 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final

Ah, what a day. After a fall from grace which left Saints bottom of League One with a 10 point deduction, this final really showed what was in store under the guidance of Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese. For the first time, Saints came into this game as huge favourites as Alan Pardew’s team showed great form within the new era at the club. Players such as Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Jose Fonte and Michail Antonio, unknowingly used this victory as their springboard to Premier League and International success. Saints took on Carlisle in the 2010 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final after seeing past MK Dons in the semi. Southampton took the lead after 15 minutes through a trademark Rickie Lambert penalty, after Peter Murphy handled in the box. Saints then netted just before and after half-time as Rickie Lambert flicked on the ball to the far post, where Lallana found himself free to knock the ball into the net. Southampton then sealed the trophy after a mistake from Horwood allowed Antonio to let fly at the Carlisle goal; Collin made a brilliant initial save, but his strong hand couldn’t stop the ball dropping to Papa Waigo, who was left with the simple tasking of nodding it into an empty net. As the game fell away from Carlisle, a ball deep into their half from Kelvin Davis found Antonio, who chested the ball down and struck a venomous low volley past Collin. Our opponents that day did pull a goal back as Gary Madine glanced the ball past Kelvin Davis, after a free-kick was whipped into the box. The waves of red and white flags flew in the air as Saints sealed their first win at Wembley since 1976. One of the great images of the day was to see our saviour savour the day as his smile beamed from ear to ear. Markus Liebherr was seen taking photos throughout on his small digital camera, as he soaked up the atmosphere from the club he saved. Back-to-back promotions soon followed as a new manager, Nigel Adkins, took the reigns. And the rest, they say, is history.  
After a 41 year wait without a major trophy, a victory on Sunday would cap off a meteoric rise under Markus and Katharina Liebherr. I’m sure the players will have Markus in their minds and hearts as they step onto the carpet that is Wembley’s pitch. After a two-week break Saints should be fresher than their counterparts who played a Europa League game away in France only two days ago. Whatever the result, the fact that Puel and his players have taken us fans to Wembley for a mouthwatering tie is something to be very grateful for. Let’s hope we return to the south coast with an EFL Cup and a performance to be proud of.  

Preview: Southampton vs Manchester United

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who has been your player of the season?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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