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.