After a shaky start to life at Southampton, Jannik Vestergaard is starting to show why the club brought him in to replace Virgil Van Dijk.
In January 2017, a Van Dijk shaped hole was left at the heart of our defence following the Dutchman’s £75 million departure to Liverpool. By not replacing in the same transfer window, Saints’ task of staying in the Premier League seemingly hardened.
The emergence of Jan Bednarek coinciding with Maya Yoshida’s leadership qualities kept Southampton in the division by the skin of our teeth; bringing in a centre back was imperative in the summer.
Southampton turned to Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Danish centre-back Vestergaard to strengthen an already fragile backline.
During the 2017/18 Bundesliga season, Vestergaard averaged just under two tackles and five clearances per game; scoring three goals in the process. This alongside his immense aerial presence saw him fit to fill the void left by Van Dijk.
Vestergaard made his Southampton debut in the uninspiring 0-0 opening day draw against Burnley where, for the most part, the Dane looked solid. From that point onwards, however, it appeared that it was going to take Vestergaard longer to adapt to the fast paced nature of the Premier League than we’d hoped.
Vestergaard was caught out on a number of occasions through a lack of pace and positional awareness after steaming into midfield areas creating space in-behind the back line. Despite his great height, we were yet to see the Denmark international take command in the air as Saints’ achilles heel of conceding from set plays hindered us consistently.
Playing under Mark Hughes may have also hindered his progress. The Welshman’s teams are renowned for shipping goals and during his last four full seasons in management, his sides have conceded 214 times collectively.
Hughes’s inconsistent tactics and formations caused major confusion for the entire squad, let alone a player trying to adapt to new surroundings.
Throughout pre-season, Hughes worked on and implemented the 5-3-2 formation that kept us in the Premier League. However, after it proved ineffective during the first half performance against Burnley, the former Manchester United striker switched to a 4-4-2.
As results failed to pick up and Southampton slid towards the foot of the table, Hughes’s decisions looked more baffling by the day. In an attempt to save his job, the Welshman stuck by the defenders that kept Saints up and dropped Vestergaard to fourth in the pecking order behind Wesley Hoedt, Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida, .
Vestergaard was in danger of following the path of Juanmi, Gaston Ramirez, Dani Osvaldo and Emmanuel Mayuka as another failed transfer.
As Saints’ league position worsened, unsurprisingly, Hughes was dismissed and replaced by former RB Leipzig manager, Ralph Hasenhuttl.
The Austrian has breathed life into a dejected and depleted squad which has given us a real chance of staying in the Premier League.
Hasenhuttl has brought players such as Bednarek, James Ward-Prowse and Vestergaard in from the cold; and they haven’t let him down.
Saints have reverted back to a 5-3-2 under Hasenhuttl and the clear identity in tactics and formation is beginning to get the best out of Vestergaard and the whole squad.
Under Hughes’s guidance this season, Southampton conceded an average of 1.73 goals per game, whilst under Hasenhuttl, we’ve concede an average of 1.4 goals per game.
Bednarek and Vestergaard are beginning to form an impressive partnership as they continue to compliment each other’s weaknesses. Bednarek proves to be a more no-nonsense defender whilst the Denmark international looks comfortable on the ball and opts to pass his way out of trouble.
Adding the Premier League experience of Yoshida into the mix, Southampton have started to look less fragile at the back.
Vestergaard still has a long way to go in order to fill the void left by Van Dijk and, perhaps, he never will. The Dutchman has shown the world the quality we saw week-in week-out since playing for Liverpool and any team would fail to replace him.
Although he may not be the leader our backline is still crying out for, under Hasenhuttl, Vestergaard will prove to be an asset rather than a hindrance.