Surely any team in the league would currently feast their eyes, licking their collective lips in anticipation of a weekend trip to the Black Cats. Especially when the team making the journey to the Stadium Of Light is a free flowing, goal scoring, in-form Southampton. The recent appointment of Sam Allardyce was unsurprisingly an attempt to sure up what is the Premier League’s worst defence – the 2015/16 campaign has seen them concede 25 goals in just 11 games. But with seven goals conceded in three games and a 6-2 humiliation at the hands of Everton, all has not gone to plan for Allardyce. So, what can be expected?
Reflecting on the drubbing at Goodison Park seems a positive start for Southampton fans. During the opening 20 minutes it was a new look Sunderland side on show; fullbacks were bombing on, runs were made from the midfield and efforts were oh so close to putting them one goal to the good. However, after the visitors rattled the post twice early on, Everton smelt blood and proceeded to take a two goal lead, courtesy of strikes from Gerard Deulofeu and Arouna Kone. In all the excitement of Sunderland’s attacking play, they left themselves wide open to Everton’s clear strengths of wide play and pace.
With the same attack-minded approach, Sunderland soon clawed two goals back to level the scores. These goals came in the form of a smart individual finish by Jermain Defoe and a textbook Steven Fletcher header. Yet once again, Sunderland’s naivety prevailed and they steered away from Allardyce’s strict defensive priority. Just 26 minutes later and Sunderland found themselves having to overhaul a four goal deficit – that’s a goal every six minutes.
Despite fielding five defenders, no formation can compensate for defensive ill-discipline and a severe lack of pace. Where John O’shea and Wes Brown would have swept the ball with a clean crunch years ago, they now run on empty with lazy legged lunges, watching wingers bound past.
As for fullback Patrick Van Aanholt… well… defending isn’t his forte. So much so, that it’s a rare sight to catch him in defence.
Credit where it’s due however, Van Aanholt is certainly an attacking threat. The Dutchman has blistering pace and given the space to run into, he can deliver a fantastic cross. His style of play as a free spirit attracts positive and negative comments in equal measure. With Cedric typically holding high positions on the pitch, Koeman will be sure to find the right balance between attack and defence. The Sunderland fullback is a familiar face to Koeman, through their shared time in the Eredivise – Van Aanholt was under contract with Chelsea at the time, but spent a two year period on loan with Vitesse.
What will be key to Koeman’s boys winning this game? Runners from deep and confidence in their own ability.
It goes without saying that the Black Cats defence presents just about every weakness possible; own goals, a lack of pace, a disjointed unit and an ever-present likelihood of the away fans singing a chorus of “Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio” as any one of the backline walks down the tunnel.
The last thing Koeman wants to see is hesitance to bomb forward or a missing sense of urgency; such a style of play would only invite Sunderland to get bodies behind the ball and then hit us on the break. With the quality we boast in our frontline and our current goalscoring form, free expression should be encouraged. Putting any of the Sunderland centre halves on the back foot is the order of the day and will be an exciting sight to this weekend’s away fans.
This is where Southampton’s danger man, Sadio Mane, comes into play. The Senegalese international would be picked out by any fans in the league as Southampton’s biggest threat, understandably so, with his recent form. It’s common knowledge that the combination of his ability to play on the last shoulder and pace has embarrassed some of the best defenders in the league. If Southampton want to come away with three points, getting in behind Van Aanholt and charging down on O’shea, Brown or Coates is key. Southampton must capitalise on Sunderland’s sluggish defence with Mane’s intelligent movement and natural pace.
Whilst the suspension of Victor Wanyama will be hard felt and no doubt a disadvantage, Sunderland operate without an established and recognised number 10. In theory this should reduce the damage caused by the Kenyan’s absence, but, Big Sam may well look to exploit this middle avenue. The gap will most likely be plugged by Oriol Romeu, who has proved his worth as a fantastic destructive defensive midfielder.
A worrying stat however is that Southampton have only beaten Sunderland once in their last ten travels up North. But, with Pelle, Mane and Tadic all riding high in confidence and form, there couldn’t be a better chance to put that stat to bed.