So it's Southampton this Sunday, a match chock full of #narrative if there ever was one. It's a match at White Hart Lane where we haven't played well yet this season, against Mauricio Pochettino's old club, which is currently sitting second in the table, coming off of a frustrating Europa League match where we derped away a one-goal lead.
Yeah, we got this in the bag.
Did you know that SB Nation now has a Southampton blog? It does, and one of the writers at the new St. Mary's Musings is our old friend Connor Armstrong, who we spoke to last spring when the Pochettino-to-Spurs rumors were hotting up. I was able to pose some questions to Connor about the Saints' surprising run of relevance and solid play after an off-season of turmoil.
Cartilage Free Captain: This is, obviously, the first time Pochettino has managed against Southampton since leaving for Spurs this summer. Is this a "revenge match" for the Saints? How do the fans feel?
St. Mary's Musings: That's certainly how a lot of our fans are viewing it. It's not so much down to his relatively short spell at Saints, but more to do with the stories that have emanated from the club and knowledgeable people surrounding the club that have reported on various bits of questionable conduct from Pochettino after he had made his decision to leave Saints before the season had ended. That relates back to what I said in a previous piece about him talking to the family of Jay Rodriguez about a move before he had even resigned from Saints, as well as the way he supposedly mislead the board.
The best way to sum it up is probably through a common chant toward the end of games this season...
"Who the f**k is Pochettino? Who the f**k is Pochettino? Who the f**k is Pochettino? And the Saints go marching, on on on!"
CFC: After all of the off-season drama and the departures, you must be at least a little surprised to see Soton second in the table right now. Do you feel this level of performance is sustainable, or to put it another way, what do you think is a reasonable table position for Southampton this season?
SMM: We're all a bit surprised! However, Ronald Koeman has acted smartly in the market and recruited some really fine players for fees that are just a percentage of the fees the club managed to bring in through sales of like-for-like players. I don't think it's realistic for us to be challenging for the Champions League at all, not yet. However, if we can keep things together with less disruptive actions from the board and manager this time around, who knows where we could be in a couple of seasons' time. But for this season, we should be aiming to equal or better what we achieved last season, although most fans would be happy with a finish of anywhere from around 12th upwards, with signs of improvement.
CFC: Perhaps it's too early to say, but what are the early feelings about Ronald Koeman? How have the tactics and team style changed in the early stages and do you foresee any additional tactical changes in the future under Koeman as opposed to Pochettino?
SMM: Koeman himself stated that the most prominent change he has implemented is a change in pressing style. Just last week, prior to our 2-1 win against QPR, he explained that he wanted the team to press when it was right to do so, and at the right intensity, as opposed to Pochettino's more consistent approach of pressing hard and often for the duration of the game. Ronald is already very popular at St. Mary's, he's very much a straight-talker whose brutal honesty can sometimes upset others (like Artur Boruc, when he announced that Fraser Forster was our #1 the moment we signed him). This is quite well-received with the fans, though. After years of cliché's and very little information from Nigel Adkins and 18 months of sleep-inducing translations under Mauricio Pochettino, it's quite nice to have someone answer each and every question straight up.
In terms of tactics though, we've switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a standard 4-3-3. This has basically meant greater width, with the previous existence of a 'free role' for Adam Lallana in behind the front man and ahead of the central midfield unit made obsolete in favour of a third central midfielder. The midfield three generally rotate, which has seen us scoring more often from the centre of the park this season, with both Victor Wanyama and Jack Cork netting their first goals for the club.
CFC: Saints made some key signings in the offseason and early returns are that they have all bedded in quite nicely. Out of the newcomers, which one player has impressed you the most? Which now-departed player do you miss the most?
SMM: Our most impressive new signing has certainly been Dušan Tadić. At £11.8m, he'll have had Koeman and our Sporting Director, Les Reed, laughing all the way to the bank. Prior to the start of this season, many inside and outside of the club expected that Saints would struggle without Adam Lallana's creativity, but he's not been missed in the slightest. Dušan's impressive close control, acceleration and crossing ability has created a vast array of chances and already seen him secure a place as one of the most exciting and popular players on show at St. Mary's this season.
The player we miss the most? Well, that's difficult. I thought it would be Lallana, but then Tadić arrived. I then thought it'd be Lovren, but we managed to sign both Florin Gardos and Toby Alderweireld, and they both look more than capable as replacements for Lovren. So I'm going to say Rickie Lambert, just because I feel he isn't getting a fair crack of the whip at Liverpool and they're wasting him on the bench. I had always hoped he'd retire here, and because I miss 'LAMBERT' appearing on the vide printer next to our score, I'm going to say Rickie.
CFC: Southampton's academy has always been fantastic, developing players like Gareth Bale, Wayne Bridge, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Luke Shaw. Are there any youth players in the current setup that we should watch out for?
SMM: James Ward-Prowse is our highest profile academy graduate at current, although he has just been sidelined for 12 weeks with a fractured foot, which has required surgery. Him aside, Matt Targett has entered the first team fold this season with starts against Millwall and Arsenal in the Capital One Cup and a league debut against Queens Park Rangers, he's tipped for big things. Notable mentions for central midfielder Harrison Reed, a pint-sized ginger ball of energy and Josh Sims, a tricky winger in the U18 and U21 sides who is very reminiscent of a certain Adam Lallana.
CFC: Knowing how Pochettino likes his teams to play, what do you expect to see from Spurs this weekend and how will Koeman set up to counter?
SMM: I've been slightly surprised by Pochettino this season. For one reason or another, he hasn't quite carried his tactics from Saints on at White Hart Lane as I expected him too. Perhaps he's decided it's time to become more pragmatic as he'll view this as his first (and potentially last) shot at a 'big club', in his own words. I expect him to set out to dominate possession, but Koeman dealt well with this away at Arsenal. On that occasion, Saints stayed compact behind the ball and only pressed within 40 yards of their own goal. They then used the midfield rotation to break on the counter quickly, utilising the pace of wide players Dušan Tadić and Sadio Mané, partnered with their full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand on the overlap. The presence and strength of Graziano Pellè is also crucial in allowing Saints to hit their opponent quickly on the counter, and I'd expect Koeman to take this approach again on Sunday.
CFC: Score prediction?
SMM: Spurs 0-2 Saints