Saints

Jack Stephens: the latest talent off our academy conveyor belt

Just over six months ago the sale of Jose Fonte was sanctioned to West Ham United, before Virgil Van Dijk was dealt a season ending injury blow just two days later. The following ten days proved to be even worse than any Southampton fan could imagine, with the board opting to stand still in the January market. An onslaught of panic amongst fans was well and truly beginning to settle in.

But when one door closes, another door opens, as the emergence of Jack Stephen’s has most certainly shown.

Should we have aimed to sure-up our defence up with an experienced defender? Were we right to let Fonte leave? And did we chose to work with what we’ve got, or was it simply poor planning?

These topics are all up for debate and will most likely divide opinion amongst fans, but there’s one thing that we’re all certain about; the undeniable talent of Jack Stephens.

We really shouldn’t be surprised to see another academy prospect benefiting from the opportunity of first team football, but I’m sure I won’t be alone in saying that I didn’t see Stephens breaking through in the manner that he has.  

So often in the past Southampton have aimed to gently integrate their promising starlets into the first team, ensuring not to hand them too much too soon. It’s vital to present a youngster with opportunities, but only when it truly benefits their development; this often requires having a leader alongside them, ensuring that there is capable back up to cover for them, and keeping responsibilities limited. There’s far more to developing a youngster than simply throwing them into the starting XI.

However, Stephens introduction into the first team as an academy graduate has been really rather different; quite the opposite in fact. Rather than being handed the opportunity as a reward for good form in the youth leagues, or even just to showcase the clubs future, Stephens was being used out of necessity. He had no natural leader by his side, no first-team standard back up to take his place, and was being handed all the responsibilities that Virgil Van Dijk took on before him.

Stephens was placed in a position whereby he simply had to deliver, and boy has he done just that.

The England U21 International has always held promise – there’s no disputing that – but it’s over the past six months where he’s truly come into his element.

Southampton Football Club as a whole have always promoted the idea of playing with an attractive style of football, and naturally, this creates a demand for a certain type of player; in this case, a certain type of defender.

With Virgil Van Dijk sidelined through injury, Southampton lost a vital cog in their approach of building from the back. Without a player of such a mould, Southampton heavily reduce the intensity of their attacking play, and there’s often a disjointed link between the defence and the attack.

In the form of Stephens however, Southampton are able to effectively maintain this approach to their games. Each and every time that he receives the ball, I’m astounded at his awareness of his surroundings, as he instantly knows who will next take charge of possession.

He holds the ball with great composure and plays his passes with real conviction. If there’s a full back free on the opposite wing, then you can bank on him to make that pass, and if the opposition’s midfield shows a gap, then you can be sure that he’ll drive into the space.

Dare I say it, but his qualities on the ball have an heir of Van Dijk about them…

Don’t begin to think that these technical strengths come at the cost of bread and butter defending however. Stephens is improving defensively on a weekly basis, showing that he can handle all the different challenges that the Premier League can throw at you – be that a nippy and pacey forward, or a physical and classic British number nine.

I’m yet to see him back out of a single 50/50, he’s brave enough to always put his body on the line, and he’s even adopted his own signature method of tackling; this involves sliding, then hooking his ankle around the ball from behind the player, before quickly rising to his feet and recycling play. It never fails to get a standing ovation from us Southampton fans…

However, I’m not wearing red and white tinted spectacles; Stephens does have his weaknesses.

In those all important moments against the big teams he boasts the tendency to switch off, and whilst he’s certainly not troubled physically, his aerial presence does need improving.

On top of this, having only spent half a season in the Premier League, Stephens can still be dragged out of his defensive line in those manic end to end fixtures. He can be guilty of over committing when the opposition overloads their attack, but with time on his side and plenty more challenges on the horizon, these shortcomings can be corrected.

At a time when everyone is talking about Virgil Van Dijk and the transfer window, it’s important to appreciate the talent of those who will proudly step out onto St Mary’s this season; especially when they’re one of our own.

My centre-back choice for Southampton FC

Many Southampton fans have already highlighted their main objective from the current transfer window; to retain our assets rather than reform our squad. But whilst this is an opinion I certainly share, there’s one position in the side where Southampton Football Club can’t afford to stand still.

Regardless of whether Virgil Van Dijk stays or goes, Mauricio Pellegrino needs another body at the heart of his defence; and in my eyes, Kevin Wimmer fits the billing.

At this point some may understandably have their doubts, due to the 24-year-old spending the past two seasons as back up at Tottenham Hotspur, but hear me out…

First and foremost, being second choice to Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen is certainly no insult; far from it in fact. Under Mauricio Pochettino’s management, the pair have arguably become the strongest centre-back partnership in the Premier League, and given that current Saints Ryan Bertrand and Oriol Romeu were forced out of Chelsea due to unassailable competition, it’s mindless to discount a player’s ability for these reasons.

The Austrian International has built up a reputation as a tough tackling centre-back, who isn’t afraid to put his body on the line and block efforts at all costs. He’s more than capable in the air, and despite his naturally strong physical nature, is accomplished on the ball too – a vital characteristic for being a Southampton centre-back.

However, there are of course some areas of his game that desperately need work.

Wimmer deputised well for Vertonghen over the 2015/16 season, and barely put a foot wrong; proving himself to be reliable back up should anyone be on the injury table. But over the 2016/17 season and so far in pre-season, Spurs fans have found that the lack of game time has taken a toll on his fitness. His reading of the game is also struggling at the minute too, with opportunities coming few and far between.  

But when you consider Pochettino’s demands of a centre-back, it’s understandable as to why Wimmer has struggled over the past 12 months. Wimmer’s not a quick defender by any means, so when he plays in a defensive line as high and physically demanding as Tottenham’s, he’s naturally going to be exposed in these areas of his game. On top of this, he can’t evade pressure or carry the ball out of defence quite like Vertonghen or Alderweireld, meaning he’s forced to operate in a system that doesn’t play to his strengths.

What’s most encouraging about these current shortcomings however, is that all of them can be solved under the right management and set up; something Southampton Football Club have shown with a number of players in recent years.

Wimmer would be my personal choice, but of course I would back any other first-team signing given our track record. The bottom line however is that we simply have to get someone through the door; not only to potentially prepare for a Van Dijk exit this summer, but also to ensure that we have a mature defender who knows his demands if Van Dijk departs next year.

Aiming to form an entirely new defensive partnership in just one window is a risk that would be all too mindless to take.

I’m confident that if our club is keeping tabs on Wimmer – as some reports are suggesting – we’d be able to mould our system to his strengths, and he could get back to realising the joys of being a truly valued squad member. He only has to ask Romeu and Bertrand what it’s like…

The early promise shown by Mauricio Pellegrino

During Ronald Koeman’s reign at Southampton Football Club, I remember racing to watch each and every press conference, desperate to hear his comments on the week’s drama and results; and following an entire season of quite the opposite, it’s wonderful to have that back again with Mauricio Pellegrino.

Southampton announced the appointment of Pellegrino on the 23rd of June, and it’s safe to assume that he’s a name many English fans aren’t particularly familiar with. Yet despite the Argentinian being in charge for less than a month, I’ve already been left excited for the project that could be under our new boss.  

We’re yet to see a ball be kicked in a single competitive game, yet solely through Pellegrino’s early press conferences and interviews, my interest has been captured and my attention grasped. It’s not a matter of accent and dialect, it’s his knowledgeable mannerisms, phrases and aura that has already created an excitement about the product we may see on the pitch.

The Saints have just concluded their pre-season training in Switzerland after a 0-0 draw with St Gallen, and the videos shared throughout the week have helped to give the fans a slight idea of how the Argentine will operate at the club. It appears that there’s been double sessions, drills on high intensity, and pressing the opposition; similar to the style of play Pochettino enforced at Southampton. If this is the case then it’s not only pleasing to watch, but it’s also an exhilarating style which the Saints fans will welcome with open arms.

One clip in particular that stuck with me was the crossbar challenge between Pellegrino and Kelvin Davis. As a fan it’s always nice to see certain figures ‘break character’, so seeing our new manager and a club legend partake in this was highly entertaining; which also helps the club to connect with the fans.

Admittedly, Claude Puel was also known for getting stuck in during training, which I personally loved, but as we later realised, player/manager relations were not as they seemed on the outside.

During Claude Puel’s short time in charge of Southampton Football Club, he guided us to an EFL cup final, developed a number of players into first team stars, and even pushed through a number of academy prospects. But whilst the headlines will predominantly focus upon our goalscoring troubles and dull football, off the field issues played an equally important part in his sacking. When a manager continues to present tedious, predictable and repetitive performances and press conferences, combined with a non existent relationship with fans, something has to give.

Which brings me onto a vital aspect of being a Southampton manager where Puel clearly fell short; unity in the squad.

This is something that Pellegrino has clearly acknowledged himself, as he proves when asked about his objectives and goals from pre-season…

“We have to create one style of playing, one model, one behaviour, and an understanding between manager and players, medical staff and us. Not just inside the pitch but always outside the pitch too.

“We have to meet how they are because in modern football today there is a lot of diversity. We are a lot of people with different behaviours and different beliefs, and you have to try to unify them to create one team on the pitch. It’s something that looks really easy, but it’s not too easy.”

Now by no means am I getting carried away or forgetting just how much more there is to prove; but just like any other fan, I’m growing increasingly optimistic of seeing us rebuild that bridge between the club, the manager and the fans.

Southampton FC and VVD: It’s time to make a stand

With the potential sale of Virgil Van Dijk, the Southampton board could lose a damn sight more than just their best current player; they risk losing the trust of their fans.

According to Paul Joyce of the Times – one of the most reliable sources regarding Liverpool FC news – Virgil Van Dijk is set to snub interest from Manchester City this summer, in favour of a move to Anfield. Southampton have stated once already this summer that their club captain is not for sale, but Liverpool are set to test that resolve with an offer that could reach £60M.

Reports from the Daily Echo have since claimed that Southampton have requested that the Premier League investigates Liverpool over their “illegal” approach for the Dutchman, but the following point still stands. Regardless of who the interest is coming from, the Southampton board need to stand strong this summer.

Viewed objectively from a neutral’s perspective, it could be seen as yet more fine business from Les Reed and co (£60M is superb in fact). But I’ve got to say as a fan who well and truly loves his football club, I’m sick and tired of having to justify departures to myself, let alone anyone else, each and every summer.

I tell myself that the money is good for the club and that it’s hard to turn down such an offer, but there’s far more to football than positive balance sheets. For once, could the board please deliver on their comments and previous promises.

Now by no means am I stating that Southampton’s business model of buying low and selling high should be abandoned; it would be simply ridiculous to scrap a model that has helped our club to stand where it is today.

There comes a point however, when the board need to remember that this is a football club, and not just a business.

This business model has allowed us to find some of the most exciting gems in football, and it’s vital in preventing our club from ever facing the darkness of 2009 again. But it needs to be followed with moderation, and the reason being is that in football the board aren’t just managing finances and business, they’re also responsible for the emotions of loyal lifelong supporters.

Time and time again us Southampton fans have been promised that we will “build for next season”, or even retain the services of a particular player. The only exceptions that spring to mind are the board’s handling of Morgan Schneiderlin in the summer of 2013, and Victor Wanyama in 2014.

As mentioned before I completely understand why this business model has to be followed, but once every now and again, it need’s to be put aside. Virgil Van Dijk has five remaining years on his contract, whilst also currently assuming the role of club captain; so please, tell me now why our board shouldn’t stand strong and demand another season from the Dutchman.

Not only are we clearly in what many would consider a strong position to deny such a transfer, but it’s not like a similar offer won’t come along again next year.

Given that he’s arguably the most sought after defender in the Premier League and will have four years remaining on his contract by the end of next season, I certainly don’t expect his value to fall. You could even argue that it has the potential to rise.

Schneiderlin stuck around for another season after wanting out, and soon after received his “dream move” to Manchester United in return. If Van Dijk does the same, then who knows which European giant could come calling next summer…

A series of poor decisions at the top of a club can cause uproar amongst fans, leading to a divide between those running the club and those supporting the club. It’s worth remembering that behind any successful football club is the unwavering support of their fans, and for this reason, I will be distraught if we sell Van Dijk this summer.

With fans becoming increasingly wary of emotionally investing into Southampton FC, I worry about our club losing it’s identity and becoming yet another soulless Premier League side. With the chance to refuse the sale of Virgil Van Dijk this summer, we have an opportunity to prevent that from happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is bright for Southampton’s midfield

Ah, ‘the diamond’. A term that I’m sure many of us Southampton fans are quite frankly growing sick of.

We had the initial ‘will it work?’ Followed by the ‘how long will it last?’ And now, after a spell whereby all fans grew a salty tasting love for it, there is once again doubt. But this piece isn’t a tactical analysis of the formation, or even how I want to see the side altered, this piece is here to appreciate the components themselves within Claude Puel’s aforementioned diamond.

To be precise, I believe that Southampton Football Club have one hell of a future in store for themselves in the middle of the park, and here’s why…

First are foremost, we have the balance and ability of the midfield itself. As we look to the future, there are three players that standout to me; Oriol Romeu, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and James Ward-Prowse.

With the combination of these three players, Southampton have an exceptional spine to their side, but let’s start with the base of the midfield. Throughout this season, Romeu has without a doubt been Southampton’s most improved player, and it could be argued by many that he’s challenging Virgil Van Dijk to be our top performer.

Romeu has now proven himself to be a monster in breaking up play, winning more tackles per 90 minutes (2.88) than Nemanja Matic, Ngolo Kante, Jordan Henderson and Francis Coquelin this season. He has also shown his quality in possession too, recording an 88% pass completion rate over his 12 Premier League starts.

Romeu is key in recovering the ball, maintaining possession and helping to pin back the opposition; with his latest role in the side allowing him to carry out these strengths most effectively. Whilst he plays a simple game, carrying out the role is far from simple. Considering that experience is one of the most important factors in becoming a top level defensive midfielder, Romeu is an exciting project at the age of 25.

Romeu acts as the foundation of Southampton’s possession based play, and it’s his deep positioning in the side that allows his two fellow midfield partners to flourish. One of which is a new found fan-favourite, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. The 21-year-old arrived at Southampton in the summer and since joining, every Southampton fan has come to recognise what he is all about.

Højbjerg is a central midfielder with a persistent positive approach to the game. At any given opportunity, Højbjerg looks to push Southampton forward and place pressure onto the opposition; be that through a cutting pass into Dusan Tadic, or a daring run from deep in the midfield. His technical ability is undeniable, and whilst his biggest negatives have been his fitness and sometimes wasteful nature, this can easily be worked with.

Then we come to one of our very own in James Ward-Prowse. In my opinion, the England U21 captain currently has a fantastic opportunity to cement himself as a starter for Southampton FC. Ward-Prowse boasts an unbelievable passing range, an incredibly dangerous delivery on set pieces, and holds the intelligence required to dictate the tempo of a game.

But I am by no means bias, and therefore, I am able to recognize that he often lacks the intensity needed in a Premier League match, and that his ability to finish is needing urgent attention. This has seen Ward-Prowse receive plenty of criticism in recent years, which in my opinion, most of which is unjust. He is still only 22-years-old and I believe that due to his great maturity on the field, so many fans forget that he still has plenty of time to improve.

With Romeu sitting deep to sweep up, Højbjerg looking to penetrate the opposition, and Ward-Prowse controlling the tempo of the game, Southampton have a wonderful balance in the midfield.

This leads us nicely into my second point; the fact that Southampton have two Pep Guardiola educated midfielders within their ranks. I’m of course talking about Romeu and Højbjerg. Admittedly, both possess two totally contrasting styles on the field, however, both share the same tactical understanding, willingness to learn and specifically to the training of Guardiola, an easily recognisable education in body orientation.

If you’re familiar with the demands that Guardiola holds over a player, then you will know just how important these characteristics are, and how deeply drilled these traits are into so many who have worked under the Spaniard.

The tactical understanding that both Romeu and Højbjerg hold is remarkable. They are able to naturally adjust to changes mid-game, possess the ability to greatly enhance their physical ability with their extensive tactical knowledge, and are able to absorb tactical concepts with ease. Perhaps explaining why both players were able to make such a seamless transition into their new formation and role.

Romeu and Højbjerg aren’t just switched on tactically either, they are also switched on mentally. Both players boast the same desire to learn and work on the training ground, often leaving manager’s helpless in admiring their mindset. A player can have an abundance of quality, but without the desire and willingness to learn more, they are significantly lowering their ceiling of potential growth – thankfully, the Southampton due possess both. Such keen learners of the game are easy to develop and progress.

Then we come to a trait that is as mentioned before, a must-have for players who wish to work under Guardiola; body orientation. To those who are unaware of what body orientation means in footballing terms, it is all about positioning your body so that you are able to see the pitch (hunting for space), your opponents, and of course, your teammates.

In a possession based side, this is vital for maintaining control of the game as each player constantly knows where and who they can pass the ball to. It sounds like a simple skill to adopt, but it fact, it takes years to integrate into a player so that the skill becomes second nature.

Next time you’re watching Romeu and Højbjerg play for Southampton, just watch the way that they position their body when receiving or turning with the ball – they always know what their next move will be, and the positioning of their body allows them to do it as fast as possible.   

Third and finally, we have the style of play that Puel is implementing onto Southampton’s midfield. Since arriving at the club, Puel has given the Southampton midfield far different demands to that of seasons gone by with Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman.

When in possession, Puel wishes to see his midfield control the ball in a composed manner, waiting for the opposition to open up in a bid to find that perfect opportunity to attack. This places great emphasis on the midfield to be assured in their short passing, composed on the ball, to remain patient, and to have belief in their ability. Notice anything? All of these demands match the strengths of Romeu, Højbjerg and Ward-Prowse…

Understandably, fans are a little worried about the side after that horrendous showing against Sparta Prague last Thursday, but how can we be so quick to forget so many of those dominant performances? We are so early into Puel’s reign, yet we have still been treated to some of the most composed midfield performances that i’ve seen from Southampton in recent years. Besides, what else can be expected from a side that is learning how to play an entirely different concept of football?

With all of these factors considered, it leaves me certain that with the same patience, education and belief given to so many talents at Southampton FC in years gone by, us Southampton fans have every reason to be excited for the future of our midfield.

After all, there are few better in the business at turning potential into performance.

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.

 

A tactical analysis of Claude Puel’s Southampton

It’s so nearly back. After almost two and a half months, there are now just three days left until the Premier League season is back underway and St Mary’s is once again rocking. But in Southampton’s usual fashion, they will enter the forthcoming season with multiple changes both on and off the pitch. Most notably, the managerial switch that has seen Claude Puel take over from Ronald Koeman. With pre-season now over, many Southampton fans are optimistic that we can once again defy the odds, but in truth, many just aren’t too sure on how Puel is going to do that. So, after analysing Puel’s red and white army over their six pre-season fixtures, were here to explain how.

Let’s start with the basics. Since taking over at Southampton, Puel has confidently taken to the 4-4-2 diamond formation. This formation (as shown below) holds a four man defence, a deep lying midfielder, two central midfielders ahead of the DLM, a playmaker and two strikers.

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Unsurprisingly, this midfield focused formation allows Puel’s side to adopt a patient style of play with the aim of keeping the ball fixed to the floor. These aims are achieved through the multiple passing triangles that are made available via the formation and player intelligence – an example of a triangle in the 4-4-2 diamond formation is the positioning of the two CB’s and the deep lying midfielder.

Puel’s aim is to ensure that these triangles continue to be formed in almost every passage of play. The simple concept of triangles in football allows for there to be a large number of passing options at all times, but it takes great understanding from each player to make it an effective means of ball retention and attacking play. When carried out effectively, this patient passing system will suddenly draw an opposition player out of position, and in that moment, the opportunity must be seized with a sudden burst of pace and movement. This concept of Puel’s will allow for some potentially beautiful and fluid football to be played at St. Mary’s stadium this season.

As for when the team isn’t in possession, the general means of recovery is through a relentless high-pressing system that ensures that the midfield diamond is always in shape – the diamond constantly shifts the midfield players about as it’s a ball-oriented system (but more on that later).

So, in the same way that Puel likes to build from the back, it seems logical that we start this analysis from the back too. Simply click onto the next page to begin the analysis.

The torrid love affair between football and delusion

Football can do dangerous things to a man. But perhaps the most common trait is the outright stupidity that this beautiful game can make a man see, spout and shout. Whether your vision is tainted by a prestigious history that is failing to repeat itself, through a lack of knowledge in football, or just your love for your boyhood club, delusion is at the heart of every football fan. And regardless of whether you visit lowly Hereford FC at the weekend or have the joy of watching the Catalan giants, Barcelona, there are aspects of delusion, that as fans, we simply can’t hide.

Looking back, I’m sure we can all remember the first time we fell in love with a footballer. As a Southampton fan from birth, I had the joy of experiencing near and actual relegations and financial conundrums from the age of eight – about the age that you truly begin to fall for your club. So, naturally, just like any other child would at that age, to a backdrop of other fans screaming from the terrace with faces apparently broadcasting the dreadful time they were having, I took an unorthodox approach in selecting my favourite player… whoever looked the coolest. Tragic, I know.

That player just so happened to be Rudi Skacel, and for that bizarre reason (combined with his fashionable arm tape and suave and alluring foreign name) he became my favourite player.

In my eyes, he couldn’t put a foot wrong. So much so, that when he would strike a ball 30 yards high of the goal, I would fervently seek any reason that could steer the blame from my beloved Rudi.

“The sun was in his eyes, I’m sure of it”

“He got crunched five minutes ago, that was the injury there!”

Dear god, I would even go as far to suggest that he must be wearing some new hair product, causing the gel to drop into his eye and place him off balance.

But perhaps the most enduring memory I hold of my unequivocal love for Skacel, was one that broke my heart and revealed the delusion right before my eyes.

My Father had always been opinionated in football, and in truth, as much as I hate to admit it – and he will love reading this – he’s rather intelligent when it comes to football. Even at such a young age, I worshiped his opinions. So, like a little Gary Neville, I saw my classroom as the Monday Night Football studio and repeated every last rant about the weekend’s fixtures, that my Dad had passed comment on.

But there was one topic that as a genuine Dad, he dared never touch upon. Rudi Skacel.

I would always ask him for his view on the man, but for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why he would quickly shift the conversation. I would excitedly point out any little trick that Skacel would pull off, only to be met by silence by my Dad.

Was I the only one watching and appreciating this clear talent before me? Well, as it turned out, yes. Yes, I was.

In one of the final games that Skacel was to ever play for Southampton, I remember a free-kick being awarded just 25 yards out from goal.

“Perfect Skacel territory,” I told myself.

But as he wrapped his left boot around the ball, the strike was met by a shout that would see me tear down my poster of the Czech playmaker later that night.

“Go back to Scotland to that tin shed that they call a football ground, you f*cking waste of space”

After two years of frustration, my Dad let it out. It was in that moment that my first love in football came crashing down.