Matches

Luck of the Irish?

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” is a phrase used by many in the world of football. But In the case of Shane Long over the past ten games, this phrase couldn’t be further from the truth. Week in and week out this man gives his all for Southampton Football Club, yet still, nothing seems to be falling in place for the Irishman at the minute. 

As Southampton fans looked over the success of their 2015/16 campaign, there was plenty to be optimistic about heading into the new season. Defensive solidity, a new found ruthlessness in front of goal and of course, qualification for the Europa League. Had it not been for the rise and development of Shane Long however, we may not have been able to look toward this current season with such positivity.

Over the first half of the 2015/16 season, it seemed to many that Southampton’s buy low and sell high approach to managing a football team had finally caught up with them. Ronald Koeman’s side were predictable, ineffective and for the first time in a long time, ugly. The team were in desperate need of fresh blood and oddly enough, it came in the form of an injury to Graziano Pelle’. With the absence of Pelle’, Koeman was forced into placing Shane Long into the starting XI – a decision that would save Southampton’s season and maybe even Koeman’s job.

Long’s high intensity, passion and direct style helped to make an instant impact in the side, with others taking inspiration from the Irishman’s work rate. Suddenly, Southampton were sharp and alive to every second ball, with results taking a turn for the better over the remainder of the season too. As a result, Long even managed to reach double figures for the first time in his Premier League career.

So, given that he finished the previous season in such fine form, where has it all gone wrong for Long?

With the introduction of Claude Puel at Southampton Football Club, there came a new system; the 442 diamond. Quite simply, this drastic change in system has placed Long in a position that will take patience, determination and Intelligence to overcome. The reason being is that Long is a square peg who must now fit into a round hole.

Previously under Koeman, Long spent two seasons learning how to operate as a lone forward, with the focus of the side being to provide him with service. The demands in this role predominantly involved a physical style of play, with the need to win headers, hold up the ball and ensure that you were in the box when the ball was delivered. Given Long’s natural fitness and strong build, he grew to be a real threat in this role after many months of learning on the training ground.

Under Puel however, the physical elements to Long’s game that helped to make him so effective are no longer a priority. As for the time he spent learning how to play as a lone forward, Puel favours having a two-man strike partnership. With such large changes to his demands as a player, is it any wonder that Long has struggled?

As a striker in Puel’s system there are a number of attributes that take great priority over physical dominance – this includes the ability to dribble, make cutting passes and possess natural flair. These are aspects of Long’s game that in truth, are weaknesses. Very rarely will Long have the ability to beat two or three players with the ball at his feet, have the technique to unlock a defence or have the skill to tip a game on its head. Puel’s system involves large amounts of ball possession and therefore, this requires great technical ability to escape from tight situations during a game.

In addition to this, Long is also having to learn and understand his demands as a forward with a strike partner and an expressive attacking midfielder. In a system such as Puel’s, the positioning of one player in the team directly affects the positioning of another, making it vital to understand your teammates if any sort of success is to be achieved.

Whilst Long’s lack of goalscoring may seem all doom and gloom for the moment, there are good reasons to be optimistic. Prior to Long’s stunning form last season, the Irishman played with little clue over what exactly Koeman demanded from him as a lone forward. But with dedication, hard-work and determination, Long managed to become a nightmare for any defence in the League to handle.

No, Long isn’t exactly what Puel wants from a forward in his system and yes, Long does have one hell of a challenge ahead of himself. But with the remarkable professionalism and attitude that he carries on the football pitch, who’s to say that Long can’t fit into Puel’s system in good time?

Nathan Redmond: patience is a virtue

When Nathan Redmond arrived at Southampton earlier this summer, it was clear for all to see what role he was expected to play at the club. Being the dangerous but inconsistent young talent that he is, he was purchased as an asset for the future and to provide competition to his red and white counterparts; but as we find Southampton nine games into their 2016/17 season, many have forgotten the clubs expectations and demands of the England U21 starlet.

Over the course of the season so far, Redmond has no doubt shown some moments of brilliance; there’s been some fierce shots, many darting runs and of course, a growing tally of broken defenders ankles. However, to only look at these moments wouldn’t be a true reflection of Redmond’s showings so far, as for all these positives, there have also been some areas to his game with some clear room for improvement. We’ve seen stages in games that have somewhat passed him by, chances that he has failed to bury with a lack of composure and moments where his confidence overrides his decision making. Contrary to the reactions of many fans however, this is all perfectly okay, and here’s why.

First and foremost, Redmond has been handed a role in the side that he never played during his time at Birmingham and Norwich City. Southampton boss Claude Puel appears to identify Redmond as either an inside forward or an attacking midfielder at the tip of the midfield diamond (behind the two forwards) and as some appear to be forgetting, this will involve countless alterations to his usual style. Whilst yes, in the short term we may be restricting Redmond’s performances, this is a change that Puel believes is worthwhile, and such changes take good time. For now, we must accept that Redmond is still learning when to press, when to work the channels and when to offer himself to his teammates.

Alongside this, if Puel had his way, then he wouldn’t have handed so much responsibility to Redmond during such an early stage of his learning. Over the summer, Puel and the Southampton board acquired the services of Sofiane Boufal for a club record fee, and it goes without saying that the Moroccan International was Puel’s top target over the summer window. Had it not been for the injury that Boufal picked up prior to his move, Redmond’s game time would have most likely been greatly reduced – the amount of pressure applied to him dropping in turn too. There has been an awful lot of pressure on Redmond to perform this season; pressure that the manager and board themselves would have never intended to apply to their young project.

What Redmond is in fact requiring however, is patience. The reason being is that despite breaking onto the scene in the 2011/12 Championship season with Birmingham, he is still just 22-years-old. To put it into perspective, that’s just one year older than Southampton duo James Ward-Prowse and Matt Targett, or even just two years older than Jake Hesketh. Personally, I have no doubt in my mind that if Redmond was from our academy, we would all be waxing lyrical about his start to the season so far.

Think back to Southampton’s first season in the Premier League and remember just how many games Adam Lallana would struggle to make an impact in, despite his obvious talent. At the age of 24 (two years older than Redmond) he was still continuing to work on his understanding of the game, but with the same patience that I want to see shown to Redmond, he has now become an integral part of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side.

As for an example over just how important understanding your new role is, take a look at Shane Long’s development under Ronald Koeman. Long joined Southampton with limited knowledge of how to operate as a dangerous lone centre forward, but come the end of the 2015/16 season, there was not a defence that the Irishman couldn’t trouble. Although patience and determination is required, history at Southampton Football Club certainly suggests that this is the place to learn and flourish as a footballer.

So far, Redmond has made errors in the same way that all of our academy graduates have too in the past, but as we’ve seen so many times, It’s how they learn and recover that turns them into the fine Premier League footballers that they are so promised to be. As a young talented English footballer, he’s in the safest hands possible at Southampton FC, so, let’s ensure that we give Nathan Redmond the same patience as if he was one of our own.

An analysis of Southampton’s attacking flair over the years

Despite the fact that Southampton FC have only been back in the Premier League for four years, we as fans have seen a number of “exoduses” – as the media would label them – and an influx of new players every Summer. We have lost players in every position and consequently, we have been forced into rebuilding in every position; in some cases we have recruited younger, more talented players at a cheaper price, but there have also been some players who have not lived up to expectation, despite the club’s continued progress and development.

However, I would like to focus on the role of the attacking midfielder at Southampton Football Club. In the last month, Saints have broken their record club transfer fee with the signing of Sofiane Boufal for a reported £16million from LOSC Lille, a player who entices the St Mary’s faithful greatly. We have also this week been linked with Hatem Ben Arfa, who has just signed for Paris Saint-Germain. In my opinion, however, this is simply lazy journalism from several media outlets; Puel was praised with saving HBA’s career and HBA has fallen out with Unai Emery, so putting those two together makes for an easy story. Finally this week, young Jake Hesketh put in a stellar performance against Crystal Palace in the EFL cup, coming in for Tadić in the number 10 role, he made some fantastic passes and even scored a well-taken goal. Now with all of these players, rumours, performances and most importantly, our emphasis on a narrow system with the number 10 being the main creative outlet, I wanted to discuss the role of the attacking midfielder at Southampton FC since our return to the Premier League.

The first and probably most controversial of these players would be Adam Lallana; a fan favourite for many years whose reputation was tarnished after leaving to Liverpool. Despite the fact that many Saints fans will still despise Lallana for the way he left, none can deny his quality and malleability. He can play on both wings, behind the striker and can play in almost any tactical system.

Jurgen Klopp seems to have him down as one of the first names on his Liverpool team-sheet every weekend too; Lallana always creates chances and even scores a few goals, despite the fact that he is competing with other brilliant players in Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mané. The way in which Lallana dribbles with the ball makes up for his lack of pace that so many other wingers/attacking midfielders rely on, and the way he can pick out a pass means he is far more reliable than other players with whom he has had to compete against. However, whether Lallana would work in Saints’ current system is not 100% certain; Puel forces the strikers out wide, with the false-9 pressing centrally when Southampton lose the ball, therefore pressing the fullbacks and centre-backs simultaneously. In addition, Lallana has a tendency to push out wide to look for space rather than play more narrowly, which is where Puel wants his attacking midfielder. I have no doubts over Lallana’s quality, but he is very different to other players who would fit in more comfortably under Puel, and others who would have been the focal point of Koeman’s system.

Secondly, we have Dušan Tadić; a player of great quality who was brought in to replace Lallana himself. His crossing and passing are second to none, with the third most assists by any player in the past two Premier League seasons combined. His ability to beat a man with his dribbling and skill is fantastic to watch, despite his lack of pace that, again, most wingers and attacking midfielders rely on. Tadić has become a fan favourite due to his ability to flourish in every system he has played in; this includes the 4-3-3 under Koeman, the 5-2-1-2 which Koeman used during a slump in his reign as Saints manager, the 442 diamond, and finally, in Puel’s new system, where he plays a very similar role to that which he played in the short-lived wing-backs formation under Koeman. However, Tadić does have the tendency to drift out wide instead of staying in the centre.  He doesn’t seem to be as comfortable pressing up the pitch, as he only wants to attack and create, but he still has great ability to drop into pockets of space between the lines, which many players would miss. His vision and footballing brain are what separates him from other stereotypical wingers or attacking midfielders, and it is also the reason that I think he is a better player than Lallana, with his stunning deliveries from set-pieces allowing more threats from free-kicks and corners. I, as a Saints fan, am very excited to see how Tadić grows this season as the main outlet of creativity, as I hope his fluid style and flair shine through, whilst also learning how to move into that pressing false-9 role when on the defence. This could be a career-defining season for Tadić, as he looks to become the complete trequartista that can bring deeper-lying players into the game, score goals and make fantastic runs, rather than just being another Premier League playmaker.

Thirdly, we have one of the brightest young talents in European football at the moment; Sadio Mané. Despite only playing for Southampton for two seasons, Mané proved himself time and time again as an explosive threat, who can provide pace down the wing, yet still play down the middle as a second striker.

He has all the makings of a brilliant premier league player; his dribbling is incredible and he is one of the quickest players in the league, but under a manager such as Jurgen Klopp, I believe that he can fine tune the things that are holding him back from reaching the same level as the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard; his finishing and his passing.

His movement, however, is up there with the best in the Premier League and I am intrigued to see how he develops in the coming seasons, as Mané could provide the injection of pace and the spark that Liverpool have been missing – this could potentially allow them to truly challenge for the Champions League. However, it almost seemed as though he needed the team to revolve around him, rather than every player fluidly working and communicating together to ensure that the team’s system became the priority. This is what Puel, and many other managers want in from their players, which is why the loss of Mané may not be as hard-felt as many Saints fans want to believe.  However, with that said, Puel is credited with bringing Hatem Ben Arfa’s career back from the dead; a man who believed that he was bigger than every team he played for, who wanted the system to play for him rather than vice-versa. In this regard, I would have loved to see Mané play under Puel, to see how the aforementioned Senegalese winger developed even further at St. Mary’s.

Finally, we have Sofiane Boufal – Southampton’s brand new £16million club record signing, who has come into the club off the back of a fantastic season with LOSC Lille. Of which he scored 11 goals in 29 league games in Ligue 1 from left wing. He has already been likened to Eden Hazard, Riyad Mahrez and Dimitri Payet, comparisons which are going to make Saints fans believe that he can be the “new Sadio Mané”. But with regards to Boufal’s qualities and nuances; I would never claim to be a connoisseur of French league football, as it is a league that has not interested me as much as the likes of La Liga or the Premier League. With that said, I have read about Boufal since his arrival at Southampton; he seems to be a left winger who loves to cut inside onto his favoured right foot, constantly wanting to shoot or create chances for his team. It seems that he possesses the dribbling, skills and pace that can fill the gap that Mané has left. He will look to play directly on the left wing with the intention to dictate play in the way that Hazard so often does, whilst also holding the skill set to cut inside and score.

Although, I am very intrigued to see how he fits into Puel’s narrow system; Redmond has made the conversion to a striker, Tadić has become our star central attacking midfielder and all of the strikers are learning to drift wide without the ball, so as to suffocate the possibilities of the opposition playing out from the back. Yet Boufal has been known to play as a left winger, so, in this case I am really interested to see if Puel decides to play him as our main Number 10 (even with Tadić playing well and Hesketh wanting to breakthrough) or if he is one of the two strikers who drifts out wide during the game, as he is already used to.

Quite simply, “Attacking midfielder” is far too broad of a term nowadays, as there are so many intricacies when it comes to each player. Some are strictly wingers who look to break away and win games with their crosses, and some are inside forwards who wish to cut inside and win a game all on their own by scoring after a fantastic run into the box.

Dušan Tadić will be extremely important for Southampton FC this season as they look to use the narrow system to penetrate teams under Claude Puel; I’m hoping that Tadić himself becomes a complete trequartista, who is able to dictate the tempo of a game, make passes that others would not even see, and to even make runs and score solo goals – something that his game is currently lacking. I firmly believe that Tadić will be able to take the bull by the horns and fine tune his game to become the style of player that Saints need him to be, in the puppet-master role as Kevin De Bruyne has done for Manchester City.

I am also very confident that Sofiane Boufal will hit the ground running, as Sadio Mané did before him, due to the fact that the club place a lot of emphasis on flourishing talents from not just England, but from all over the world. We as Saints fans hope that he can be the new Riyad Mahrez or Dimitri Payet, pulling defences apart on both flanks whilst allowing his central teammates to make shadowing runs and also to create from the centre too. Should these players live up to expectation, Southampton again are in for another fantastic season. to implement our brilliant academy graduates too. 

Once again though, Southampton FC have a good mix of quality and depth allowing for competition in all of the attacking midfield positions. There is pace and power, skill and dribbling, and also distinct passing and crossing ability, in addition, Southampton also have the possibility to turn to their brilliant academy. Bear in mind that others in the U23s and U18s will be looking to push on under a manager who favours young players too. Saints fans will be more than pleased come May, as I expect attractive, fluid and dominant football with lots of ball possession – which is what fans truly want to see at their football club.

The curious case of Charlie Austin

Having scored twice against Sparta Prague last Thursday, many Southampton fans were bemused as to why Charlie Austin had been dropped to the bench against Swansea City – but come the final whistle at St Mary’s stadium yesterday, Austin was once again the name being sung from all fans in red and white.

Charlie Austin joined Southampton on the 16th of January 2016, and it was a signing that many predicted to be the deal of the window. Having scored 18 Premier League goals in the 2014/15 season, it seemed that a then goal-shy Southampton had found the solution to their problems.

But despite opening his goalscoring account on his debut in dream fashion with a winner at Old Trafford, the signing of Austin coincided with Shane Long’s immense rise in form. From here, even Graziano Pelle struggled to get game time – considering Koeman’s tendencies to stand by the Italian in eye-gouging form, that’s really saying something.

Now however, there is a new man in charge. Austin has managed to find the back of the net three times under new boss Claude Puel, making him Southampton’s current top goalscorer for the season so far. This has given Puel a lot of food for thought, and here’s why.

It’s now been widely documented that Puel’s hopes for success at Southampton come in the form of his 442 diamond formation, but for anyone that can see the qualities needed from a forward in this system, they will see that Austin doesn’t fit the profile. In this role, your forward must possess pace, the ability to work the channels, be an accomplished passer of the ball and be fit – very fit in fact.

Austin however isn’t quick off the mark, has always played as a central striker, isn’t selected for his build up play and struggles to meet his defensive requirements. Due to this, whenever Austin is playing in this system he can sometimes make the attack look disjointed, and in truth, clueless. The moment that one player isn’t carrying out their duty, the system can come crumbling beneath itself like a toddler playing Jenga.

But this is no fault of Austin’s, and in the 53rd minute of Sunday’s clash against Swansea, Puel recognised that. Charlie Austin is Southampton’s best striker – he knows exactly where to place himself, he can act as a focal point for the side and damn can he finish a ball – and therefore, in order to see him at his best, he must be played in his favoured position.

Whilst Puel could see that his side were dominant at the back, composed in midfield and fluent in attack, anyone could see that the team was screaming out for a natural born finisher. So, in that moment, Puel opted for a 433 formation with Austin leading the line. The effect was disastrous for Swansea City.

Within minutes, Austin was causing havoc amongst the Swansea defence. After getting in behind Jordi Amat, Nathan Redmond cooly slotted the ball into the path of Austin, who watched on in horror as his effort rattled the crossbar.

But like all good forwards, Austin picked himself back up and prepared for the next chance. As it happens, that chance turned out to be the winner. Tadic lofted a ball into the Swansea box which was then deflected into the feet of Austin. With a fine touch and a laced shot, Southampton finally had their much-deserved lead in the 64th minute.

This all but confirmed to everyone in St Mary’s stadium something that we already knew – that Charlie Austin is Southampton’s best finisher – but now, Puel is presented with what could prove to be a season-defining decision: does he continue to stand by his 442 diamond? Does he opt for a 433 with Austin leading the line? Or does he find a balance between the two?

One thing is certain however, and that’s that Charlie Austin has now truly made his mark on this Southampton side.

 

Southampton FC vs AC Sparta Praha: My starting XI

So, here we are again. Southampton Football Club are back in the Europa League, but this time, they come bearing a new manager, new players, and the desire to right the wrongs of last season. With the first game of Southampton’s Europa campaign kicking off tonight, I gave my view regarding who I believe should make the starting XI against Sparta Praha. 

Fraser Forster – given the confidence that the 6ft 7-inch giant installs in the defence, selecting anyone else would cause outrage. 

Cedric Soares – at times like this, playing Pied would have been a very useful option; but with the Frenchman out for up to nine months, Cedric has to start again. In addition, It seems that Martina hasn’t impressed Puel either.

Jose Fonte – despite a number of mistakes in recent showings, Fonte is our leader at the back and simply must start in such an important game for the club.

Virgil Van Dijk – for me, Van Dijk is without doubt Southampton’s best defender. Keeping the Fonte and Van Dijk partnership is key.

Ryan Bertrand – despite only just returning from injury, Bertrand’s impact on the left flank is too strong to possibly drop him. We must start the Europa League as we mean to go on, even if that means considering the possibility of starting Targett this Sunday.

Oriol Romeu – the Spaniard was my man of the match against Arsenal last weekend and we must reward him for such a passionate performance. Romeu will be up for this game and provide that much-needed protection in front of the backline.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg – after being dropped to the bench last weekend at the Emirates, Hojbjerg will now be raring to continue his exciting start to life at Southampton. From what we’ve seen so far, Hojbjerg ensures that the midfield continues to take up a positive and expressive approach to the game. He’s a player that places the fans on the edge of their seat.

James Ward-Prowse – the England U21 captain has not only been rested well since the International break, but he has also shown promising signs that he can form a partnership alongside Hojbjerg in central midfield. Firstly, I would start Ward-Prowse over Davis as he has so far struggled to adapt to this new central midfield role – this has seen Davis get dragged out of position on numerous occasions and prove wasteful in deeper areas. However, whilst I believe that we would currently be a stronger XI with Clasie starting, the Dutchman has recently been showing fine form and I wouldn’t want to burn him out. Small and effective use of rotation is crucial when playing on both Thursday and Sunday

Dusan Tadic – he is not only our most creative spark, but he’s also coming off the back of scoring against Arsenal last weekend (albeit with the help of Petr Cech) – we can’t afford to bench a player who gives us our bench chance of carving open the opposition defence.

Nathan Redmond – whilst Redmond has so far been lacking the drive and aggression needed from a forward, I believe that It would be idiotic to start him on the bench. In European football, those tight margins matter all the more and the extra pace/movement that Redmond provides will be key if we go on to win. He’s also one of the few players that we possess who can naturally operate in the channels too.

Shane Long – it goes without saying that Long had a shocker against Arsenal last weekend after missing three fantastic opportunities, but to tell the truth, I think that Long has to start again. Not because of form and certainly not because he deserve’s it right now (he doesn’t), but because he is the only striker in Southampton’s ranks who understands Puel’s system. Long has been well below par over the start of this Premier League season, but provided he can at least carry out his demands in the system, the performances of others will be raised. 

Three is the magic number

As the final stages of Southampton’s clash with Arsenal came to a close last Saturday, I was left with two overriding positives from the gut-wrenching defeat – the return of Ryan Bertrand, and the complete midfield performance from Oriol Romeu. Since signing for the club, the pair have most definitely forged their way into the hearts of the Southampton fans, but it’s the way in which these players were sourced by the club that has left me excited.

If you look at the signing of Bertrand in 2014, Romeu in 2015 and even Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in 2016 (admittedly, on a bigger scale) Southampton Football Club appear to have found themselves a new transfer strategy, and I’ve got to say, I like it. I like it a lot.

Quite simply, Southampton have placed their focus on scouting and securing third tier talents from Europe’s big clubs. When Bertrand signed for Southampton on loan in 2014, he had just come off the back of a loan spell at Aston Villa – his eighth loan move away from Chelsea. Similarly to Bertrand, Romeu had also fallen out of favour at the Blues and spent two seasons out on loan in Spain and Germany, before Southampton came calling. Then we have Hojbjerg, a player who despite being labelled as the next Sergio Busquets, found first team football at Bayern Munich a premium to come by – two loan moves over two seasons was the end result.

A top tier player is one that the manager believes should always be in the starting XI. A second tier player is one that the manager often uses to change the game, to replace a player, or is a young project. Then, we have a third tier player; at a big club, this player was most likely filled with much promise at one point and had stages of greatly impressing onlookers, only to be cast away from the teams first team plans along the line (often due to a ludicrous amount of quality in the top two tiers). Simply take a look at the numbers below to see why I categorised Bertrand, Romeu and Hojbjerg in the third tier at their previous club…

Ryan Bertrand: appearances for Chelsea – 28

                         Loan appearances – 183

Oriol Romeu: appearances for Chelsea – 22

                         Loan appearances – 40

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg: appearances for Bayern Munich – 17

                         Loan appearances – 39

What must be said however is that there is no shame in being a third tier player at a club like Chelsea or Bayern Munich – Southampton and the players themselves have certainly proved just that. In fact, Southampton have come to realise that there is many benefits in snapping up such players.

Firstly, and perhaps one aspect that us Southampton fans can appreciate most, their attitude is spot on. Due to previously only being handed first team minutes when they were a young star, others were injured or whilst out on loan, Bertrand and Romeu clearly value the trust that has been placed in them under both Koeman and Puel. Not to mention that the pair also have an exceptional relationship with the fans too. After so many years of uncertainty in their position, they are now eager to prove to everyone that they are the real deal – this can only benefit all parties.

However, whilst they were held back in not being rewarded with first team minutes at their parent club, Southampton are now reaping the benefits of all the training sessions that Bertrand, Romeu and Hojbjerg took place in. During their time at Chelsea and Bayern Munich, these three trained with some of the greatest players in the game and any football expert will tell you just how beneficial this can be. Training with these top tier players helps to raise the bar of the third tier players as they are forced into learning about how to handle and outsmart a stronger opposition at all times.

In addition to this, Bertrand and Romeu appear to have realised what they believe is important in football – gametime, appreciation from fans and feeling valued – and therefore, have no desire to leave. They have experienced life at a big club and don’t want that back. In turn, this builds a strong core in the Southampton side, helping to not only churn out more consistent performances, but also create a good feeling around the squad. This means that Southampton can continue to ship in those players who carry that extra special touch of quality – by that I mean the players who see us as a stepping stone and ensure that our club’s balance sheets are looking healthy in two seasons time. Continuing to strike a good balance between players that are here for the long run and those that are here for their big money move is key to Southampton’s success.

The final benefit is one that most certainly keeps in line with Southampton’s transfer policy; they are cheap. The simple reason for this is that the selling club will so often struggle to justify a large price tag if the player is struggling to get minutes for the club itself. The signing of Bertrand at £10M, Romeu at £5M and Hojbjerg at £12.8M is living proof of that. If any of these players were plying their trade at a mid table side, then you would have to expect the club to demand at least double the fee that Southampton paid to acquire their services.  

For me, there is no doubt that the club have placed a clear focus on snapping up gems from the big boys, and oddly, the position of all three of these player’s seems rather fitting with what Southampton have been about since returning to the Premier League. Despite the doubts, questions and pressure piled on from many, we are good enough and we will continue to progress.

 

Management and mannerisms

In the last few years, the Premier League has seen an influx of world-class managers, and in the modern game, we now know more about them than ever.  Their tactics are scrutinised and analysed until which point that every fan seems to know the intricate differences between Conte’s brilliant wing-back formation with Italy during the 2016 EUROs, and Brendan Rodgers’ three-at-the-back formation which took the Premier League by storm in 2013/14.

However, there is obviously a lot more going on than the “Average Joe” might believe, with regards to formations, player roles and managers pinpointing areas of weakness in their opposition’s team. What most interests me, however, is the way in which a manager can carry himself, both in the public eye of press conferences and in the privacy of the training ground. The way in which a manager asserts himself as the focal point of a football club after a move is of utmost importance.

The past three managers at Southampton FC – including the latest man at the helm Claude Puel – seem to have very different ways of carrying themselves. In pre and post-match press conferences they have all acted in very different ways and on the training ground they seem to have very different ways of getting involved.  Not to mention that if rumours are to be believed, they also have very different ways of dealing with player disputes. But how have their respective mannerisms altered results on the pitch? this is something that intrigues me greatly.

Firstly, we have Mauricio Pochettino – a man who came to England with little knowledge of the English language. But simply based on how many players followed him out of St. Mary’s to different clubs in the summer of 2014, we can infer that there was a true bond and sense of camaraderie among the players in his squad. He joined in with training sessions, taking a hands on approach and tried to teach the players everything he knew; both technically with their feet and tactically with their brains. He seemed to love the youth players, using many of them in all competitions; Luke Shaw was a regular starter for Pochettino and owes a lot of his development to the Argentine. Sam McQueen made his debut away to Sunderland in the FA cup, and Harrison Reed and Sam Gallagher made their competitive debuts under Pochettino too. He built an aura of trust and friendship with all of his players, which is why so many refused to stay when he left in 2014.

Pochettino has been described as working his players very hard; he will not tolerate anything less than 100% effort from his team.  Victor Wanyama claims that Pochettino himself was the main reason behind his recent move to Spurs – another indicator that players bought into him as both a football manager and on a human level. Wanyama also stated that Pochettino’s pre-season was a gruelling regime, which meant all players would be at peak fitness come the start of the season, but was an embodiment of the man himself and his philosophies and mannerisms; 100% effort or no playing time. I personally believe that Erik Lamela’s rebirth as a star in the Premier League can be attributed to Pochettino’s traits yet again.

With regards to Pochettino in the media, we as Saints fans are led to believe that he continued to use a translator to make sure that he was not misquoted in the media. He would always answer questions directly; giving pure truth and making sure that the general public knew exactly what he wanted to say. As a man, many respected him; he never seemed to shy away or lie, he instils bonds among his squads and he knows how to win, which led to his brilliant 8th place finish with Saints in 2013/14. In this regard, I personally believe that Pochettino will go on to have a brilliant managerial career, as he gets the best out of his players in every way.

Secondly, we have a vastly different character to Mauricio Pochettino; the former Saint Ronald Koeman. He came to England with an almost native-fluency of the spoken language, he played at the highest level under some of the best managers of all time and he was very tactically proficient. However, Koeman was a hard-headed individual and a stubborn manager who would not allow his players to undermine him in any regard. Every photo and video released by Saints’ media team of the training sessions held by Koeman show him, with arms folded, on the touchline, barking orders at his players. He never seemed to get involved with the training sessions and teach his players, despite being considered as one of the greatest defenders of his generation.

Quite simply, if we are to believe many rumours circulating Southampton F.C, it seemed that Koeman did not care for many of his players during his two-year tenure at St Mary’s. In the last few months for example, Sadio Mané was used as a scapegoat for Southampton’s poor form; during the 2015/16 season, Mane arrived 15 minutes late for a pre-match team meeting in an away fixture against Norwich City, and as a result, Koeman dropped him. This seemed like a fair punishment at the time, but soon after, confirmed reports stated that Mané believed he was perfectly on time. The mix-up was in fact on Koeman’s behalf, after  changing the time of the meeting without Mane being notified. This was the supposed beginning of the breakdown in the relationship between Koeman and Mane – one that led to Mané’s exit this summer. There are also murmurs that Tadić and Cédric would have left St Mary’s if Koeman stayed as they were tired of his dictator-like attitude. They were also reportedly made to feel like scapegoats during the team’s drop in form.

Finally, again if we can believe rumours, Koeman did not care for any of the youth team. He never bothered to watch their games, he refused to promote many of them to the first team and even went on a “foul-mouthed tirade” at a 20-year old Matt Targett during a training session, abusing him in front of many of his friends and colleagues. This again is a sudden misstep from what Pochettino had installed previously, and what Southampton F.C. want to promote in a football club.

However, in press conferences, Koeman embodied the word confidence; he nonchalantly ignored any journalist that he felt was asking unimportant questions, he blatantly lied about the Everton link and often made jokes at the journalists themselves. One thing we cannot doubt; Ronald Koeman is a winner, a disciplinarian who will most likely rise to the top and succeed in his managerial career, given his two record-breaking season in the dugout of St Mary’s. But Southampton fans should not be worried to lose him; he may have broken records and taken us to Europe, but he did not put emphasis on the club’s structure or philosophies, and his mannerisms suggest to me that he thought he was bigger than the club.

The 30th June 2016, enter the latest man to become Southampton manager; Claude Puel. With a wealth of experience in France and a history of promoting young players; including giving debuts to Yohan Cabaye and Eden Hazard, and being attributed with turning Thierry Henry into a striker from a winger, Puel seems to be an ideal fit for Southampton’s philosophies.

With regards to his personality and mannerisms, it is very hard to judge him based on his two months at St Mary’s, but I have personally seen encouraging signs. He seems to want camaraderie among his camp, constantly complimenting his players in the press and engaging with training sessions (if we can believe the Saints media team!). Nathan Redmond is a name that springs to mind; Puel has likened him to Henry already, saying that he could be a fantastic signing for years to come. Redmond then returned him with an equalising debut goal vs Watford.

Puel seems to engage the media very well, his knowledge of the English language has impressed me greatly already and he speaks in a very calm and collected manner, rather than giving a brash response. Puel himself claimed that it is very important to carry oneself well in the public eye; if he wants to scream at his players after a poor performance, then so be it, but once the cameras are on him, or as soon as the newspaper journalists start to take note, it is of utmost importance to stay professional and calm, so as to keep the aura and reputation of the club focused and pristine even in hard times. This is something I have admired greatly; I think it will enhance the attitudes of players too as they will most likely buy into his way of thinking if he continues to compliment them and keep their bond of trust private inside the club.

Finally, many former players under Puel have constantly praised his attitude towards his players; he buys into them and invests time into improving not only the club, but the players themselves, and they in turn reward him with performances and results. Thierry Henry has been full of praise for him and his way of acting on the training ground, claiming that he is the “perfect fit” for Southampton F.C.

I think it speaks great volumes that new club record-signing Sofiane Boufal rejected multiple offers to come to St Mary’s. Boufal’s agent himself even stated that had Laurent Blanc remained in charge at PSG, Paris would have been the destination for Boufal this summer. In his first interview as a Saint, he constantly attributed Puel as the reason for his move, which gives me a new sense of confidence about the new manager. His reputation in France precedes him; a brilliantly technical coach, with the level-headedness of a future world-class manager. Puel himself has attributed all of his characteristics to Arséne Wenger, and if Saints fans get even the slight taste of one of the Premier League’s and world’s best ever managers, they will be delighted with Puel’s appointment.

Personally, I am expecting a similar tenure to that of Mauricio Pochettino; Puel will start slow and steadily get the players onside, creating a bond and friendship between his backroom staff and players that will lead to stable and successful seasons in the future. Yet unlike Pochettino, I trust in Puel that if all goes to plan, he will stay loyal to Southampton F.C. and remain at the head of the club for many years, as he has done at his previous clubs.

Europa League: A low-down on Southampton’s opponents

On the 2nd of January 2016, Southampton travelled 200 odd miles across the country for their match against newly-promoted Norwich City. At this point of the season, Southampton had currently won only one match from seven, including a draw against Aston Villa and a loss to Stoke City, both of which coming at home. Saints looked strong favourites for the clash against the Canaries despite their current barren run, but Norwich were coming into this game off the back of a historic victory away to Man United. The contrast of confidence in both squads showed as Norwich edged the match 1-0 with an Alexander Tettey goal, three minutes after Victor Wanyama received his second red card of the season. After the loss, Saints slumped down to 13th in the table, placing them only seven points off the relegation zone. However, from this point on in the season, Ronald Koeman’s men turned their season around.

This fine form coincided with the return of Fraser Forster, who achieved six clean sheets in a row on the Saints’ march up the league table, alongside Shane Long’s inspired goal scoring form. Southampton picked up memorable victories at Old Trafford and achieved the comeback of all comebacks at home to Liverpool –  it still gives me the chills just thinking of Sadio Mane’s second goal!

From that loss against Norwich, Saints only lost three games in the remaining 18 fixtures, winning the last four. In the last four weeks of the season, Saints had fixtures against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs left to play. At this point, Saints had managed to salvage their season and were in the thick of the fight for a spot in Europe next season. A Sadio Mane hat trick sealed all three points against Manchester City in a 4-2 home victory. Then a Steven Davis double a week later against Spurs saw Saints take three points from White Hart Lane for the first time in 12 years. This meant that going into the final game of the season against Crystal Palace, Saints had to better West Ham’s result against Stoke and hope that Manchester United lose at home to Bournemouth.

As it turned out, Southampton came out 4-1 winners against former manager Alan Pardew and his Palace side, and to make things even better, West Ham threw away a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 at Stoke. This guaranteed a place in the Europa League qualifying round for the boys in red and white. From here, the match at Old Trafford was abandoned due to a bomb scare and when the match was replayed two days later, Manchester United won the match 3-1. The end result? Southampton had finished their season in 6th place on 63 points – their highest ever Premier League finish and points total. A week later, the FA Cup final saw the Red Devils seal a 2-1 win in extra time over Crystal Palace to lift the historic trophy. As a result, Southampton were entered straight into the group stages.

On the 26th of August, the eagerly anticipated draw was finally going to take place, and Southampton were amongst some of Europe’s top clubs. Southampton were placed into pot three, so a difficult draw was potentially on the cards. As the draw was being made, all Southampton fans were glued to their screens. The draw was dragged out and Saints fans had endured 10 groups being drawn, A to J without seeing our name. As group K was being drawn, we were all hoping our name will be plucked from a ball. First in the group – Inter Milan. Second team into the group – Sparta Prague. The third team – Southampton Football Club. Finally, we saw our lads placed into the Europa League group stages, with the fourth team to join group K being Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

But, who exactly are the teams that we will face (no matter how big or small) and who should we look out for?

More than just a game

After yet another record-breaking year, Southampton are currently preparing to reap the rewards of their sixth place Premier League finish last season –  the opportunity to impress in the Europa League group stages.

The achievement was celebrated wildly on the South coast, and understandably so given that the club have yet another opportunity to go toe to toe with some of Europe’s biggest and greatest names. To the players of last season, it’s also seen as a chance to right the wrongs of their premature exit last time out.

After the disappointment of getting knocked out by an inferior FC Midtjylland team, many thought that this was the end of our European hopes, and that our chance to really make ourselves known amongst Europe’s elite football clubs had gone. Matters were made worse by the fact that had we defeated FC Midtjylland, Southampton would’ve been drawn alongside Italian giants Napoli in the group stage – this left fans wondering what could have been had we qualified and faced players like Gonzalo Higuaín.

But, despite all this, the 2015/16 season saw Southampton better their league position for the 7th year in a row. A remarkable achievement given the fact that we were continually written off and tipped for relegation by many “experts.” This trend of selling players, being written off and over-achieving has been repeated and repeated until we found ourselves in 6th place, and now, we have our reward. Just last week, the club was drawn into group K alongside Israeli Premier League champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the Czech First League runners-up Sparta Prague, and Italian super club Inter Milan: the 9th most successful football club in the world.

For many (myself included) to watch Southampton play at the San Siro against Inter Milan in a competitive football match is unimaginable. It’s something that I thought until recently,  we as Saints fans could only dream about. Whilst growing up, Inter Milan was always one of the superpowers of world football, and is it any surprise when they held such great players like Ibrahimovic, Figo, Eto’o, Ronaldo, Baggio and Matthaus amongst others.

Yet despite the history and power behind Inter Milan, we – Southampton Football Club – have found ourselves in this unbelievable position. This draw has acted as a reward to the fans, staff, players and owners. It’s rewarded those who shunned interest from other clubs to stay with us, and it has rewarded the fans whose support never wavered.  

This draw is for the fans who saw us hit the bottom of League 1 with minus 10 points, for those who made the Tuesday travels to Rochdale, for those who stood proudly at Old Trafford just last season, and for those who watched our relegation fixture against Manchester United in 2005.

On top of this, it signifies the influence of the Liebherr family who saved us from liquidation. When they took over, Southampton were on -10 points in the 3rd tier of English football. That year, we finished the season with a 3-1 win at home to Southend and gained a respectable 7th place finish. 12 days later, Inter Milan would beat Bayern Munich 2-0 to win the Champions League final with the likes of Diego Milito, Javier Zanetti and Wesley Sneijder all at their disposal. Yet 7 years down the line these two teams find themselves playing against each other in a competitive match. Imagine telling someone that after Southampton’s 1-1 draw against Millwall on the opening day of the 09/10 League 1 season.

For me, such an achievement epitomises everything great about our beloved club. This achievement was made possible by the unrivalled training facilities that we possess, the trust in our youth, the mysterious black box, those who know what it means to be a Saint, and every last player that has had the pleasure of putting on that red and white shirt.

But regardless of these achievements and the significance of it all, we have a game to play and a trophy to win. We aren’t in this tournament to make up the numbers, nor will we treat it any less than any other game. We aren’t going to the San Siro for a holiday, we’re going there to get 3 points, and along the way, we will have 5000 loyal Saints fans singing  around all four corners of the 80,000 seater stadium

Win, lose or draw, this will be one of the greatest nights in our clubs history. Many haven’t seen us come up against a team of this calibre before in a competitive match, and whether we will again remains to be seen. But to see our very own youth academy graduates walk through the infamous San Siro tunnel to play on that turf, standing where the greats of both Milan clubs have stood, you can only be proud of our achievements. And who’s to say this is the end of Southampton’s rise? we are fine being the underdogs and we embrace going against the odds. We’ve done the unthinkable before, why not do it again?

Ryan Bertrand – Southampton’s unsung hero

Southampton are now three games into the new season and still find themselves searching for their first win. But this situation is far from unfamiliar for Southampton FC, and with the return of a man who has captured the heart of every Southampton fan, history suggests that this slow start will soon be put to an end.

This same time last season, Southampton had played three games and found themselves with just two points on the table. Worry was beginning to creep into the minds of the onlooking Southampton fans, and with a further three fixtures, Southampton had secured just one win in their opening six. The papers were lapping it up with their early reports of a meltdown occurring on the South coast, but Ryan Bertrand had other ideas. Having been absent in Southampton’s opening six fixtures due to injury, Bertrand returned to the starting XI against Swansea City on the 26th of September – of course, Southampton won 3-1 and proceeded to go their next five fixtures unbeaten. So, with Bertrand once again missing from our opening three fixtures, is it any wonder that Southampton have struggled?

With the return of Ryan Bertrand, Southampton will once again have an outlet on the left flank that is capable of contributing to all phases of play. Few defenders in the League hold the defensive understanding, physicality, discipline, consistency and attacking mindset that Bertrand possesses in abundance. To those who have watched Puel’s system, they will know just how valuable a fullback of such quality can be.

Whilst in Bertrand’s absence I have enjoyed watching Matt Targett – a product of the Southampton academy – prove his worth, I would be lying if I said we weren’t a far weaker side without Bertrand. In situations where other fullbacks have that split second of doubt when looking to advance, Bertrand drives to the byline, and when other defenders are caught between two minds against an attacker, Bertrand has already put his body on the line. The England International fills all his surrounding teammates with confidence, helping the side to play the exciting and expressive football that they’re so capable of.

But whilst Bertrand’s ability has been above and beyond what any of us expected, there is a side to Bertrand that as Southampton fans, we have come to admire and appreciate – his attitude. Having joined Southampton in 2014 from Chelsea – after a rather underwhelming loan move to Aston Villa – it appeared that Bertrand almost instantly appreciated the joys of regular football in an organised side. Since then, Bertrand has jumped into every last 50/50, chased down any loose ball and can be seen applauding the fans at any possible moment. His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed either, having been awarded the Terry Paine MBE award, a spot in the Premier League’s 2014/15 Team of the Season and an all but guaranteed spot in the England squad.

What I find best about Bertrand’s humble and determined attitude however, is that it’s always focused on the bigger picture. Whenever he’s forced into making a sacrifice or putting those extra miles in, he’s doing it so that Southampton Football Club can continue to grow – nothing illustrates this better than his attitude regarding one particular demand from Ronald Koeman last season. After a barren run over the Christmas period, Southampton desperately needed change and stability. So, Koeman opted for Southampton to switch into a 3-5-2 formation. Despite the Euros taking place in just a number of months, Bertrand placed his own personal ambitions to the side and impressively operated as a centre back throughout January, February and March of 2016. Not a single complaint, worry or issue arose from the situation. In this modern age of the game, it would come as no surprise to me that if that same situation occurred to Bertrand’s England team-mates, numerous agents would have been put to work. 

Southampton gambled with the signing of Ryan Bertrand back in 2014, and in return, the club have been rewarded with a fine footballer who has been desperate to pay back that trust. Ryan Bertrand knows what it means to be a Saint, and after transfer windows of the past, we must ensure that he never forgets how much we appreciate it.