Matches

Southampton 0-2 Chelsea: where did it all go wrong?

Defeat is always painful. Sometimes in football there are games when you can watch your side dominate in the most beautiful fashion, only for them to throw it all away in the 90th minute.  Then there are moments when you stand in the stadium and question how such a gutless performance can be considered acceptable, but as a fan of a side that hadn’t lost at home since last February, this is something that I’ve been fortunate to avoid. But as the final whistle blew in Southampton’s 2-0 defeat to Chelsea yesterday, I found myself placing the defeat entirely down to an Antonio Conte masterclass.

On the face of things, this game dropped right into the hands of both sides; Southampton favour a possession-based style of football under Claude Puel, whilst Conte’s Chelsea prefer to sit deep and remain compact. Unsurprisingly, both sides carried out these aspects of their games without a worry, but it was Southampton’s inability to cut open the Blue’s defence and Chelsea’s ruthless finishing in front of goal that made the difference. But how exactly did Southampton allow that to happen?

To anyone who has watched Southampton under the microscope this season, they will recognise just how important the fullbacks are in Claude Puel’s system. They are a driving force in build up play, the first outlet when switching the ball and are required to overlap in the final third.

They are there to constantly provide options to anyone on the ball and to place doubt into the mind of the opposition fullbacks. However, due to Puel’s decision not to start wingers and Conte’s incredibly well drilled 3421 formation, Southampton struggled to find joy in these wide areas.

The reason being is that when Southampton picked up the ball in these wide areas, Chelsea would double or sometimes even triple up on Southampton’s only out and out wide player – the fullback.

Conte would simply instruct either one of Victor Moses or Marcos Alonso to man mark the fullback, whilst the left or right-sided centre-back will look to spread wider and provide cover behind.

From here, Southampton have two choices. The first is that they can play the ball inside due to a lack of attacking options, but this will force them into the direction of midfield duo Nemanja Matic and Ngolo Kante – it doesn’t take a genius to work out that out of all the ways to breach the Chelsea defence, this isn’t the way to go. Pace, strength, energy and technique, this partnership has it all.  

The second option is for Southampton to lump the ball into a box that contains Thibaut Courtois, David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. Once again, given the size, experience and sheer numbers in the box at this moment, this option should also be avoided. Without more than one natural wide player available at all times, Southampton only offer themselves these two ineffective options. 

Whilst this only explains how Southampton failed to score, it also helps to explain how Chelsea managed to grab both of their goals.

As Southampton no longer start wingers, the fullbacks have to take up very offensive starting positions. This is something that Conte wanted his side to encourage from Ryan Bertrand and Cuco Martina, with the idea that when his side recover the ball, they will instantly look to attack the open channels.

Given the quality of Hazard, Moses and Pedro in wide counter attacking situations, this proved to be a devastatingly effective game plan. So much so that even when Bertrand or Martina were able to drop back into their defensive positions in time, the entirety of the Southampton midfield wouldn’t be back in their defensive shape yet, giving Chelsea some inviting areas of space to drive into.

Coming into this game Conte looked at how his side could create the most dangerous attacks, not the most, and he executed it with absolute perfection. Seven shots on target from 13 attempts is an indication as to just how dangerous those attacks were.

Bertrand and Martina’s usual role in the Southampton side has huge physical demands, and this is something that Conte looked to take advantage of. With his counter-attacking focus to the game, Conte forced the Southampton fullbacks to make numerous 60+ yard sprints back to their box, giving Chelsea’s wide men the advantage of running at some lazy-legged defenders in the later stages of the game. Perhaps that explains Martina’s comical attempt of blocking Diego Costa’s fine curling strike?

In recent weeks Southampton have played with such remarkable understanding in their system, and in truth, plenty of that understanding was still on show yesterday. The only difference however is that Chelsea Football Club, one of the League’s strongest outfits, has Antonio Conte at the helm – a man who is currently squeezing every last drop of talent out of all the players at his disposal.

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Claude Puel’s focus on aesthetics at Southampton FC

“It’s important to play good football and to give pleasure to the players, because if they feel good together and they play good football, they can give pleasure to the fans also” – this is a quote from Southampton boss Claude Puel on the day that Les Reed decided that this man was the right man to take our club forward. Nearly four months on, Puel has well and truly lived up to his word.

After being appointed on June 30 2016, there were split opinions amongst the Southampton fans regarding Claude Puel. One-half were optimistic and had faith in the decision due to the clubs previous managerial appointments, whilst the other half were ruing the missed opportunity to bring in a proven name (Manuel Pellegrini was a name mentioned by many).

Over the first four fixtures, the bedwetters and the media were in heaven. Southampton had picked up just two points in the League whilst looking lightweight in attack, void of any creativity and unaware of Puel’s tactical demands. This cued the beginning of numerous fans questioning Puel’s appointment and more specifically, his decision to play a 442 diamond. In this moment they believed that they were right – that Southampton’s replacement policy had finally failed and that all those years of warning the club had paid off.

Oh but football is a crazy game and believe it or not, it takes more than just four fixtures for a manager to implement his ideas effectively. When you are willing to show patience and place trust in a manager, the rewards can be remarkable; something that many Southampton fans are having to come to terms with this season.

The Saints currently sit in eighth place in the Premier League, but the most staggering feature of Puel’s reign at Southampton so far has been the aesthetics of his side. Yes, Puel is desperate to grab all three points at any given opportunity, but his other demand from the players is one that sits nicely for onlookers at St Mary’s; entertainment.

Puel is a strong believer in playing football the right way. This means encouraging and training his players to keep the ball on the ground, remain composed at all times and to not be afraid to take calculated risks – a style and set of ideologies in football similar to that of Arsene Wenger.

Unlike Wenger however, Puel opts for his team to carry out these ideologies in a 442 diamond. This formation allows each player to have a constant set of clear cut passing opportunities, which has allowed our defence and midfield to play with more composure than ever before.

Puel has placed great emphasis on passing in triangles since arriving, with the intention to maintain the ball until the perfect opportunity to cut open the oppositions defence arises. It requires exceptional patience, intelligence and skill to carry out such a game plan, and impressively, Puel has helped to increase these three traits in all of our players.

The result is a style of football that is filled with fluidity, one touch ball retention, precise passing, Intelligent decision making and effective trickery. To put it simply, I would say that it’s the most attractive football that Southampton have played in recent years.

When Mauricio Pochettino was at the helm of Southampton Football Club, the Argentine encouraged a very disciplined and drilled style of football. Pochettino’s time at Southampton was all about improving fitness, holding a strong and resilient defensive shape, and having the ability to attack in an effective manner. This gifted the Southampton fans many exciting games, but in truth, the football was often predictable and was more impressive for its organisation, rather than the aesthetics of the football itself.

Then along came Ronald Koeman who shared the same desire for defensive stability as Mauricio Pochettino, whilst also having the willingness to allow for greater fluidity. The only issue however is that Koeman had a tendency to display favouritism towards certain players at Southampton and didn’t prioritise the desire to play good football. It’s undeniable that there were many moments of exceptional play, but in large parts of the season Koeman would revert to an awfully direct style of football – a style that would have been labelled “hoof ball” if Koeman was an Englishman.

At this point I want to highlight that by no means am I making such comments about Pochettino and Koeman out of spite or as a cheeky remark. I believe that both managers are amongst some of the very best names in management and that Puel has a lot of work to do in order to be mentioned alongside them. However, in this moment Southampton have only fallen to defeat against Inter Milan, Arsenal and Manchester United under the Frenchman, all whilst playing this expansive and positive style of football. Given Southampton’s track record of managerial appointments, this gives the Southampton fans good reason to be optimistic for the remainder of the season.

Whilst the effectiveness of Puel’s ideologies remain to be seen, there is one thing that the Frenchman has proved to us, that he is capable of making Southampton Football Club play their most attractive football in recent years.

How Claude Puel has created a plethora of options at Southampton FC

Last night was a night of mixed emotions. On one side, our minds were filled with anger as we watched Antonio Candreva cruelly and undeservedly put Southampton to the sword. But on the other side, pride was pumping through our hearts as we watched our beloved Southampton dominate play in the historic San Siro Stadium. Regardless of how much we think about it now, we can’t change a thing; that’s football. But last night there was a decision by Southampton boss Claude Puel that we should be thinking about, as it gives us great reason to be optimistic over the future of Southampton Football Club.

As the clock struck six, Southampton had taken yet another step in completing the journey that Markus Liebherr envisioned all those years ago. The boys in red and white were finally underway against Inter Milan in the Europa League – an event that serves as a reward for the hard work of last season. But I’m not writing this to discuss the importance of such a game – anyone with even a brief knowledge of football will understand the magnitude of this tie for every Southampton fan. I’m writing this because of Puel’s selection at five o’clock and the remarkable performance that came with it.

When the teams were announced, it showed that multiple players who have been at the core of Southampton’s recent fine form were on the bench (or injured). Club captain Jose Fonte and top goalscorer Charlie Austin were told to have a rest, whilst the fit and formidable midfield partnership of Steven Davis and Jordy Clasie were also dropped. In addition to this, Matt Targett, Ryan Bertrand, Cedric Soares and Nathan Redmond were all left back in England as they continue their road to recovery from injury.

Yet despite the decision to make so many changes ahead of perhaps one of Southampton biggest ever games, the team still played the Claude Puel way. The team carried out their roles as expected, dug deep and played with an immense understanding of one another, almost as if each player was in Puel’s weekly XI. There was not even as much as a hint to suggest that any of the players on that field were squad players or youngsters.  

This tells me that Puel is successfully drilling his beliefs and demands in how he believes football should be played into every player at Southampton. I must place emphasis on the term “every player” here too, as it appears that Puel views every squad member as a valuable asset who shouldn’t feel segregated in the side. This is filling players who would previously only be considered “squad players” with confidence, perhaps explaining why they are making such seamless transitions into the starting XI.

Just for a moment Imagine if during his time at Southampton, Ronald Koeman was having to plan for last night’s fixture. If he selected that same starting XI from last night, then I have no doubt in my mind that we would have lost that game in an embarrassing manner. Not because I believe that he is a bad manager – in fact, he is a fantastic and very effective one – but because players outside of his favourite XI simply didn’t have the confidence and willingness needed to perform to a high standard. 

If Koeman started McQueen, Yoshida, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Romeu and Rodriguez in the same fixture, those players would have entered the pitch with a totally different mentality to that of last night. The reason being is that Koeman only ever would have considered such a line up in moments of desperation, and when players enter the field knowing that they are the weaker option, it’s easy to be turned over.

Yes, Puel is obviously helping the players to become more intelligent and skillful on the field, but it’s with the confidence and trust that he’s placed in every player at his disposal that’s making them carry out his system so effectively. In doing so, Southampton now have a plethora of options that have been created from within the squad, rather than needlessly looking to the transfer market.

Puel clearly understands that holding a happy, confident and tight-knit squad is in the fabric of success and Southampton Football Club.

 

The rough cut diamond that’s not for sale

On August 15, 2015, Southampton were trailing Everton by two goals to nil as the referee put an end to the first 45 minutes. Roberto Martinez’s team had been sharp, alert and clinical, but Ronald Koeman’s boys were lacklustre, lazy-legged, and desperately needing change. Koeman turned to his bench and handed a Southampton debut to one of football’s forgotten men: Oriol Romeu.

Within minutes, the Spaniard took charge of the midfield and clattered James McCarthy with what has now become a trademark feature of his game – a crunching tackle with a customary yellow card too.

For the first time in the 2015/16 season there was finally a showing of passion and fight on the field, and despite being unable to change the result, Romeu had started his quest to develop as a footballer and finally find a club that he can call home. A year down the line, he has most certainly achieved that.

The growth in Oriol Romeu at Southampton FC has been staggering. When he arrived in the summer of 2015 for a £5m fee, the fans appeared to be in agreement. He was ready to prove a point, physically dominant over the opposition and gifted on the ball. At the same time, he was a raw talent and clearly lacking experience. He possessed the ability to execute those vital tackles and passes, but would often mistime and misplace them. He was rusty, but perhaps that’s no surprise when you’re a victim of the Chelsea loan system.

Like a professional, he kept his head down and continued to strive for improvement; waiting for the chances to come his way. And when they did, he made sure to make the most of them, often leaving onlookers at St Mary’s desperate to see more. Koeman, on the other hand had different ideas, with the most common position for Romeu following a top performance, being the bench.

There is no denying that there were obvious faults in Romeu’s play – the most obvious being his ill-disciplined style and wayward positioning – but his inability to gain a starting place was cruel. Fans would argue against Koeman’s team selection, saying the Dutchman showed an unfair favouritism toward Victor Wanyama. Maybe, but not a whisper was made to his agent or the media. Romeu just tried and tried again.

As an outsider looking in, it seemed to me that Romeu was quite simply still grateful for the opportunity handed to him by Southampton. The trust from the club and the morale of our dressing room appears to have allowed Romeu to call our club home, and for that, he was prepared to fight for a starting spot.  

Then along came Claude Puel this summer and with him, the best of Oriol Romeu.

Puel came to Southampton with a clear philosophy and set of ideas in his mind; he knew exactly what he wanted and just what type of players he needed to carry it out. Luckily for Romeu, the formation in focus is the 4-4-2 diamond and this presented him the opportunity to make the defensive midfield position his own.

The first few fixtures were tough; not only for Romeu but for the whole team. Each player not only had to familiarise themselves with their new role, but they also had to learn about the roles of their teammates and what that meant for them during an in-game situation.

A slow start for all players in the Southampton side was inevitable – anything else would have been a miracle at work – but few have taken to their new role as smoothly as Romeu.

The cup game against Crystal Palace aside – where he used a heavily rotated side – Romeu has started every competitive game under Puel so far – the perfect testament to the Spaniard’s clear improvement. But just what role is Romeu playing exactly?

Over the past six games that Romeu has started in, we’ve truly been able to see just what Puel is demanding from the man at the base of the midfield diamond. During build up play, Romeu has been operating as an auxiliary centre back. This involves Romeu often dropping in between the centre backs, therefore giving Van Dijk and Fonte the freedom to spread wider, and the fullbacks freedom to push higher up the field. This positioning from Romeu allows for the composed possession-based play that has gifted us so many passing options in recent fixtures.

He’s executed this role with perfection too, showing that he has the discipline to remain in position and the technique to control the tempo of the game. In addition to this, he’s also been making so many of these passes with his first or second touch of the ball – only a player with an immense understanding of his teammates can carry out such a difficult task.

What makes this all the more impressive however, is that throughout Romeu’s career, he has so often played with a partner alongside him in the midfield. It takes an abundance of intelligence and ability to switch from a midfield role that you’ve become so accustomed to – a double pivot – into a lone defensive midfielder.

Romeu serves as the first passing option for the CB’s, he’s responsible for breaking up opposition attacks, he so often initiates our counter’s and is effective in recycling play – handing out such key tasks to one single player shows just how much faith and trust Claude Puel has placed in Romeu.

With the combination of Romeu’s standout attitude and Puel’s attention to detail, Southampton are making remarkable progress to ensure that the rough diamond that joined our club in the summer of 2015, will soon be the finished product. One thing though. This diamond isn’t for sale.

 

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.