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…
— talkSAINTS (@talkSAINTS) August 5, 2017
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.