The Season So Far
Southampton’s 2016-17 has so far been somewhat up and down. This was to be expected: another cycle ended on the South Coast over the summer, with manager Ronald Koeman departing for Everton and the likes of Graziano Pellè, Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama leaving the club for big fees. Just as things were destabilised when Mauricio Pochettino, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Luke Shaw left at the same time, the boat has been rocked and Southampton have needed time to resettle.
As ever, the Saints have recruited cannily and maintained their existing management and coaching structures off the pitch so as to ensure continuity and keep upheaval to a minimum. The hiring of new manager Claude Puel was something of a coup, showing just how far Southampton have come since their return to the top flight, while the acquisitions of Nathan Redmond, Sofiane Boufal and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg are smart, long-term buys which will stand them in good stead. The youth setup has provided more players for the first team and there have been some eye-catching wins.
The highlights of the season so far have been the comprehensive wins over West Ham and Bournemouth, in which Southampton looked every bit as good as they did in the past under Pochettino and Koeman. However, the lows have been particularly low: losses to Hull and Crystal Palace don’t look good on anyone’s record, less still when the collapse at Selhurst Park was so embarrassing – and the less said about their Europa League campaign, the better. Generally speaking, though, they’ve beaten the teams you’d expect them to beat and lost to the ones you’d expect them to lose to.
The Season Ahead
With the season nearing its halfway point, Southampton sit 8th in the table, miles away from the relegation places and a safe distance away from qualifying for Europe. The objectives for the season were presumably to finish in the top half and consolidate their place as an established Premier League club and maybe have a good run in the FA Cup if the opportunity presents itself. So far, so good – if the rest of the season continues like this, everyone will be happy.
That said, it would be very useful if their strikers started staying fit and/or scoring more goals. Charlie Austin bagged six from ten starts before going down injured, while noted long-distance runner Shane Long is goalless and Nathan Redmond has scored three goals from 41 shots. The return to form of Jay Rodriguez, scorer of two very admirable goals in the Saints’ recent victory over Bournemouth, is very timely indeed. After a rotten few years on the sidelines, Rodriguez scoring goals and smiling again is very good to see.
Puel began the season using a 4-4-2 diamond formation with an orthodox striker partnered by a winger, with the idea seemingly being to dominate the middle using four central midfielders while allowing for overloads in wide areas with the nominal second striker drifting wide to combine with the overlapping full-back. However, this experiment didn’t really work out and, of late, Southampton have mostly played a conventional, if rather narrow, 4-3-3.
This suits the spine of the team, with strong centre-backs Jose Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk protected/assisted by the classy holding midfielder Oriol Romeu. Either side of Romeu are the very able and rounded Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Steven Davis, the latter of whom must surely be one of the most underrated players in the division. James Ward-Prowse and Jordy Clasie have also been needed regularly, but neither have impressed as much as their talent should require.
Southampton’s strong, sold spine allows full-backs Cédric Soares and Ryan Bertrand to get forward at will and put balls into the box, and this in turn allows the wide forwards to come inside and overload the centre. Nathan Redmond has been a regular all season, while the number nine spot was occupied by Austin and Long until the more complete Rodriguez found his shooting boots. Left-winger Dušan Tadić is still not quite living up to his potential, despite recently being named Serbian Player of the Year, and a recent injury opened the door for Sofiane Boufal, who has snatched the opportunity with both hands.
It’s not the most revolutionary plan ever, but it’s a good system which suits the players, and Spurs must be at their best to get anything from the game.
Ever since Pochettino turned Southampton into one of the continent’s best pressing teams, the Saints’ major strength has been their defensive work-rate. This season they have made a ferocious 19.3 tackles per game, 14.5 interceptions and 11.4 fouls, while no Premier League team has blocked more passes. This is all extremely impressive – especially so when it’s considered that they’ve averaged 54% possession.
This means that it’s far from easy to get to Southampton’s penalty box and chances to work Fraser Forster don’t come along very often: only five teams have allowed fewer shots on their goal so far this season, and no team has allowed fewer shots on target. In short: Spurs won’t find it easy to make chances here.
They’re as effective with the ball as without it, averaging 15.3 shots per game and working the keeper with an average of 5 of them, both comfortably above the league average. Spurs’ own press could go some way to stifling the Saints’ play, but it bears repeating that this is a side full of tidy players, and the likes of Boufal, Redmond, Højbjerg and Davis can open pick just about any lock.
Also, Virgil Van Dijk is an absolute monster.
Above all else, converting their chances is a problem. While only five teams have had more shots on target this season, only three teams have actually scored fewer goals. They need better strikers, badly.
If there’s an obvious weakness throughout this Southampton side it’s a lack of consistency. Although they have the talent to achieve great things, they do on occasion forget they’re a very competent football team and decide to play like Hull. The defenders can be caught flat-footed and ball-watching, and they’re especially vulnerable to low balls driven across the goal.
Additionally, Forster hasn’t had a great season: his jaw-dropping mistake against Crystal Palace was the most eye-catching gaffe of the campaign so far, but more worrying is his low save rate: 64.4% is well below the league average. Southampton generally do such a good job of limiting their opponents that Forster isn’t worked often and that may be for the best.
It’s always difficult to predict the lineups at Christmas time, but here goes anyway.
Southampton are so inconsistent it’s hard to know what to expect. Most logically, a very scrappy stalemate should be in store, with both teams relentlessly pressing the game out of existence. That said, another off-day for Southampton would see Spurs take all three points.