The Season So Far
Southampton’s 2016-17 has, unsurprisingly, been inconsistent. New manager Claude Puel has not been without notable success, but he has found it hard to hit the ground running in the way that Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman did. Perhaps it’s harsh to criticise him for not working miracles, but after the last few years it feels odd seeing a Southampton side with so little that sets it apart.
That said, it hasn’t been a bad season. Most Saints fans would happily have accepted a top-half finish and a Wembley cup final before the season started. If this team is some way short of other recent Saints units, there is good cause: there has been considerable squad turnover and several reconfigurations of the playing style, and while the acquisitions of Nathan Redmond, Sofiane Boufal and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, along with January signing Manolo Gabbiadini, are smart, long-term buys which will stand them in good stead, they remain buys for the long-term: the present side is undeniably a work in progress.
The highlights of the season so far have been the comprehensive wins over West Ham, Bournemouth and Sunderland, in which Southampton looked every bit as good as they did in the past, as well as the run to the Carling Cup final, in which the Saints eliminated Arsenal and Liverpool. However, the lows have been particularly low: losses to Hull and Crystal Palace don’t look good on anyone’s record, and the run of four straight defeats in December/January was miserable.
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 good news for Spurs is that we expect Southampton to lose to Spurs.
The Season Ahead
As the season enters its final two months, Southampton are comfortably safe from relegation and nowhere near qualifying for Europe. It would be easy for them to do a Pulis and put their feet up and start planning their summer holidays, but given that Puel’s biggest problem has been finding consistency in his side, the last couple of months will presumably be seen as very important: if he can get the team to gel and to play to its potential regularly, that will bode well going into his second season on the South Coast.
The players also have plenty to play for: the colossal Virgil Van Dijk has been out since January and has a summer move to earn, should he be able to return before May; Dušan Tadić should be looking to cement his place as Southampton’s chief attacking force; Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal have lots to prove on the wings; Manolo Gabbiadini seems to have solved the Saints’ striking problems and will want to maintain his unbelievable goalscoring form and really settle in.
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 then Southampton have mostly played a conventional, if rather narrow, 4-3-3. This seemed to suit the spine of the team, but momentum soon ran out and personnel changes in January necessitated another switch. Now the Saints are playing an orthodox, if still narrow, 4-2-3-1 – a much more familiar style for the fans at St Mary’s.
Southampton’s strong, solid spine has for years permitted their full-backs to overlap and become key attacking players, and Cédric Soares and Ryan Bertrand are still excelling in this field – Spurs will have to be careful of them. This wide overload in turn allows the wide forwards to come inside and occupy central positions. It’s not the most revolutionary plan ever, but Puel is a flexible pragmatist and once again he’s found a coherent system which suits the players.
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 19.1 tackles per game (the league’s third highest figure), 13.8 interceptions and 11.7 fouls, while no other Premier League team has blocked anywhere near as many passes. As ever, they’re very impressive off the ball – and especially productive when it’s considered that they’ve averaged 53.7% possession.
This means that it’s very difficult to play through Southampton from front to back, and that breaking through the lines takes great effort. Chances to work goalkeeper Fraser Forster don’t come along very often: only five teams have allowed fewer shots on their goal so far this season, and only three teams have allowed fewer shots on target. That said, if you can get a shot away there’s reason to expect success – more on which below.
They’re as productive with the ball as without it, averaging 15.3 shots per game (the league’s 5th highest figure) and working the keeper with an average of 5 of them (7th highest). Their wingers and full-backs are very useful attacking tools: only Swansea have made more chances with crosses this season, while only Swansea and Crystal Palace have had more headed attempts on goal.
Although Gabbiadini’s unbelievable shooting has helped hugely in this department of late, Southampton’s biggest problem remains converting their chances. While only six teams have had more shots on target this season, only five teams have actually scored fewer goals and only Manchester United have a lower conversion rate. It’s not an exaggeration to say that had Gabbiadini been signed in the summer, the Saints could be five or six places higher in the table.
Additionally, Forster hasn’t had a great season: his jaw-dropping mistake away to Crystal Palace was the most eye-catching gaffe of the campaign so far, but it’s obvious now that opposition players are aware that he’s vulnerable to shots from range, moving his feet very slowly and getting down to one side with all the speed of a carefully felled redwood. Only Sunderland have recorded a lower save percentage than Southampton’s 55.8% this season. They generally do such a good job of limiting their opponents that Forster isn’t worked often – that may be for the best. Expect an upgrade in the summer.
It’s also worth mentioning that, although they generally have a high level of quality from back to front, the Saints’ central defence is extremely vulnerable. Virgil Van Dijk is still out injured and Jose Fonte is now playing for West Ham, and recent weeks have seen Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens in central defence. At this level Yoshida is a fairly decent back-up but no more, and Stephens is probably not going to last beyond the summer. It was no surprise to see goal-shy Watford score three against them last time out.
There shouldn’t be any surprises in store.
If Harry Kane were fit this would be a comfortable home win and a possible landslide. It’s still fair to expect a home win but it will probably be narrower than it could have been. Barring any suicidal Spurs mistakes, a 2-0 home win.