“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved” – Sun Tzu
I feel like these wise words from Sun Tzu sum up Ronald Koeman’s recent situation perfectly. Everybody can see the tactics that he has deployed in the past few Premier League fixtures, but no one apart from Ronald Koeman himself can fully understand his thoughts. The critics can all criticise (I’m looking at you Trevor Sinclair) but none will know his true intentions. Starting off with what is quite clearly a sore point for Southampton fans, the 0-0 draw away to Watford. Is that the game that could bring us back to basics? The start of the Koeman master-plan?
After conceding five goals in the opening two games of the Premier League season, with defending has been incomparable to last season it’s difficult to believe that this is the same side that had one of the best defences in England last season, let alone Europe.
But… upon closer inspection, such poor displays could be understood. Most notably, four of the back five that built the base in Koeman’s army are unavailable through departure and injury. Could the side really expect to kick on in the same manner when fielding an out of depth Matt Targett, a back up in Maya Yoshida and two whole new faces (Marteen Stekelenburg and Cedric Soares). It seems some have forgotten that it will take time to gel and for everything to settle down, the Dutchman has said it himself.
Once the so consistent Ryan Bertrand returns from injury – after the international break – and our mystery big money centre back (Virgil Van Dijk) partners Jose Fonte, our leaky defence can be boarded up once again. But for now, and certainly in the Watford game, Southampton didn’t have that luxury of added quality.
The 3-5-2 formation that was blasted as ‘naïve’ by the aforementioned Trevor Sinclair added defensive solidity, making Southampton hard to breakdown. For the first time this season, Southampton looked sound and confident that they could keep a side out. Steven Caulker added to this, winning the majority of his aerial duals and bringing confidence to the side; he was fantastic.
Although, in the decision to return solidity at the back, the formation was a sacrifice in attack. This bluntness going forward was certainly not helped with Sadio mane having to go of with slight concussion. Mane is a true game changer and has the ability to produce something special in the dying moments of a game; many would argue he is the only Saints player to hold such traits.
Had Mane stayed on, we could have been discussing the tactical master-class to put Southampton’s first win on the table.
However, because of this unforeseen eventuality, I believe that Koeman wasn’t too far off getting his tactics spot on. The idea was to sit back, hit Watford on the counter and run play through Mane. Southampton could have easily won the game, but that’s football. The game wasn’t about smashing Watford out of the park, the new boys who were apparently there for the taking (which I believe to be quite an offensive stance) are an organised squad that have the ability to cause an upset at the scent of complacency. Despite the outcries of ‘we should be beating them easily’ etc etc, this is a side that drew 2-2 with the same Everton team who beat Southampton 3-0 at St.Mary’s. The game was about getting back to basics and ensuring that Southampton kept a clean sheet.
Moving on from the Watford game, what does Koeman need to do in order to move forward?
The key to success with the current crop of players is to revert back to the 4-2-3-1 formation with two defensive midfielders. The reason being is that Southampton hold a strong central core which acts as the focus in all stages of play. This strong core is the reason Southampton held such a tight knit defence and penetrative attack last season; the midfield pair act as a second wall in front of the defence whilst also encouraging full back overlaps, plugging the gaps of those who push forward. Not to mention that with a fully fit squad, Southampton will hold variations of the formation for particular games; Jordie Clasie being the option for games in which you expect to dominate in possession and Romeu acting as the destructive midfielder for those hard battling fixtures against the elite.
The problem in recent games however, is that with the loss of Schneiderlin, Koeman has been playing Steven Davis alongside Wanyama and this has caused chaos in a subtle fashion. Davis is required to carry out roles that simply aren’t a natural part to his game, a square peg in a round hole so to speak. Yet with Romeu – a natural defensive minded midfielder – the balance is restored.
Well… kind of. Its no mystery that Southampton place great importance on the impact of their full backs, but perhaps we didn’t realise quite how important they really are. With Ryan Bertrand injured and Cedric Soares struggling to play back to back games, we’re weakened in quality and the team are less familiar of their surroundings. Not only are our full backs required to keep Skekelenburg’s gloves squeaky clean, they are also a key figure in freeing up space for the forwards and wingers – neither tasks have been carried out in Southampton’s difficult start to the season. Its clear for even the simplest of football fans that Matt Targett, Maya Yoshida, Steven Caulker and Cuco Martina offer half the options that Cedric and Bertrand provide at both ends of the field. Upon return of both full backs starting, I’m certain that Southampton will improve in every department.
For the moment however, Koeman is having to make do and every point gained is a very good one. We cant really tell just how good (or bad) Southampton will be until everyone is back fit and there is the full use of the squad. Only once the option of a fully fit squad arises, can we see our most dangerous front line and strongest defensive showings; then of course everyone will be saying Koeman is The Messiah once again and the best thing since chips and Mayonnaise.
All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. – remember them when Southampton are flying once more, never question Big Ron , EVER.