5 Reasons For Southampton’s Early Season Success
1 – A good managerial appointment
Mauricio Pochettino’s spell at Southampton was peculiar. It’s widely agreed he performed a good job at St Mary’s, but most Saints supporters weren’t particularly keen to see him arrive, weren’t entirely devastated when he left, and the league finish of eighth in his only full season was solid rather than spectacular. There are circumstantial reasons for these anomalies, but it was a strange 18 months.
What Pochettino unquestionably brought to Southampton, however, was a defined playing style. The side became accustomed to pressing in midfield and defending high up the pitch, pushing the opposition away from goal. It was vital Pochettino’s successor would replicate that approach.
Ronald Koeman was a shrewd appointment. The Dutch coaching school is all about pressing and playing high up the pitch, as well as bringing through youngsters, something crucial at Southampton. Koeman has won numerous titles as both a player and a coach, has communicated with the supporters far more effectively than Pochettino, and had put his own stamp on the side without ripping up a broadly successful formula.
2 – Shrewd signings
Southampton lost a variety of stars in the summer, but they didn’t panic and replaced them with some excellent young players. Although it feels like they overpaid for Shane Long, a supremely talented but frustratingly inconsistent forward, the other purchases upfront look excellent. Graziano Pelle is a good all-round striker, an aerial target in the box but also clever with his link-up play, while Sadio Mane has a burst of pace to get beyond the opposition defence.
Dusan Tadic, too, appears a real star. Effectively a replacement for Adam Lallana, he’s another who brings acceleration to the side, particularly over short distances. He loves twisting and turning away from opponents, and can play either on the left or the right, although he prefers to use his left foot.
At the back, Fraser Forster, Ryan Bertrand and Toby Alderweireld were less spectacular players, but they’re all good fits. They work with the system, they’re experienced in European and international football, and, perhaps most crucially, they have a point to prove.
3 – Defensive understanding
When picking your ideal Premier League back four, you wouldn’t nominate any of Southampton’s defenders. They wouldn’t be in the back-up defence, either, and in truth they’d probably struggle to get in the fifth-choice backline, with Nathaniel Clyne the closest to that status.
And yet Southampton have – by a distance – the best defensive record in the league so far. They’ve conceded just five goals – four fewer than Chelsea, five fewer than Manchester City, and, for example, 12 fewer than Everton.
The secret is cohesion. Not just amongst the back four, who hold a reliable defensive line, but amongst the team as a whole. Southampton have the highest tackling figures in the division, a result of their energetic pressing, but pressing is only a successful strategy when it’s replicated across the side, and this is the particularly impressive thing about Southampton’s play without the ball – it’s simultaneously structured and dynamic. No player is ever closing down solo – it’s a team effort.
4 – Midfield play
Southampton’s regular three-man midfield were all at the club last year. In a team that has witnessed lots of changes both in defence and upfront, this familiarity has proved particularly crucial.
Morgan Schneiderlin wanted to leave in the summer, but ended up staying and remains one of the most effective defensive midfielders in the league. He’s a great all-rounder – both intelligent with his positioning and fierce in the tackle, plus capable of distributing play neatly and storming forward into attack too.
He has a great relationship with Jack Cork and Steven Davis, two solid and reliable players. Again, these two are both technically proficient and hard-working, and capable of varying their position according to the movement of their midfield colleagues.
This area of the side hasn’t received much attention, with individual brilliance upfront and an impressive defensive record, but Southampton have dominated the majority of their matches, which summarises the good play in the centre of the pitch.
5 – Simple fixtures
You can only beat the opposition put in front of you, of course, and Southampton have done that very effectively. Ultimately, however, we can’t forget the fact Southampton have enjoyed a gentle start to the season.
Of last season’s top seven, Koeman’s side have only played two – Liverpool and Tottenham. They actually have three more games against bottom-half sides: Hull, Leicester and Aston Villa, over the course of November.
Then, however, things start getting tough. Southampton play Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United over the course of ten days at the start of December. After that Villa game, seven of their next nine matches will be against last season’s top 7.
That’s where Southampton fell down last season – they solidly defeated bottom-half teams, but their only victory against a side higher in the table was an early-season victory at Liverpool. To achieve a European spot this time around, they’ll have to start beating their direct rivals.
October 30th, 2014 by Michael Cox
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