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What to Expect From Koeman’s Kids at Southampton

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It’s difficult to know quite how to summarise Southampton’s summer in just a few, accurate words. On the one hand, the Saints have lost half of the team that achieved a record high Premier League finish of 8th, and has made them such an attractive prospect to new arrivals, from the manager – now Ronald Koeman, after Mauricio Pochettino ditched the South Coast club for Tottenham – to new signings alike (even if, until recently, there weren’t many). Yet from another perspective, the new squad that Koeman is assembling is an interesting one, and, given a bit of time to gel, could easily hold its own in the upper mid-table of the Premier League, where they finished last year. A season which once looked a chance to consolidate the club in the upper reaches of the normal Premier League clubs quickly shifted to one where the main aim seems to stave off relegation, but given the ambitious purchases – with more left to come, surely – will Southampton do deceptively well this term?

It’s hard to tell; to do so, we’d probably get a better idea of how Southampton will line up. With Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Rickie Lambert, Dani Osvaldo (remember him?), Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren all leaving the Saints – all stalwarts (perhaps Osvaldo aside) of last year’s successful side – it’s quite hard to tell who’ll start where and where business needs to be conducted. So far, the most exciting purchase is probably of Dusan Tadic, a Serbian winger signed from Twente, who has been touted as a potential step-up from Adam Lallana, whose versatile attacking midfield role in the Saints side is perhaps not quite the same as what is reported of Tadic’s play, but is comparable nonetheless. Alongside Tadic, Saphir Taider (on loan from Inter with a view to move), Ryan Bertrand (likewise, but from Chelsea) and Graziano Pelle, who Koeman worked with to great success at Feyenoord over the past few years have also signed up. Links persist with further defensive reinforcements – Virgil van Dijk and Marcos Rojo utmost among them – while Fraser Forster has been touted with a move south of the border, too; though his club, Celtic, suffered a catastrophic Champions League qualifier (and went through thanks to a Legia Warsaw mishap), it’s still likely that Forster will leave, and van Dijk is a potential goer too; completing these three moves, or moves for three similar players at the very least, would leave the squad at a similar level to last season – indeed, the defence would probably be slightly better if van Dijk and Rojo came in, while Forster is quite rightly higher rated than Artur Boruc.

But what of Ronald Koeman himself? The former Barcelona and Netherlands defender, renowned in his time for his threat from set pieces, has been around the block – often successfully, it must be said – in his managerial career, starting at Vitesse Arnhem fourteen years ago. His CV speaks for itself – he has been at big clubs both in his native Netherlands and around Europe, becoming the first man to manage and play for all three of the traditional big Dutch clubs (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord). He’s followed this on with trophy success too, but, given that he’s not had much success abroad – only winning a Cup with Valencia and a Super Cup with Benfica – the jury may still be out a little. Koeman also tends not to stay in one place for too long, which could mean he won’t be aiming to build some sort of a dynasty at Southampton, but nevertheless, his attacking football will be interesting to watch and should bring the Saints some good results, and (less importantly, if we’re being cynical), plaudits from neutrals. Given that Southampton have been synonymous with good football over the past few years as well, it’s perhaps the perfect replacement for Mauricio Pochettino, which is potentially a good sign moving forward – if nothing else, the Saints board know their type.

Keeping Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez will also be vital to any hopes of a good season for the Saints, too. While Schneiderlin may not be flavour of the month at St Mary’s, he was the vital player in Southampton’s engine room last season, and even if he’s playing for a move, would surely be motivated to continue playing at a great level – after all, the rumours are that he wants to be playing for a top club to consolidate his place in the France squad. Rodriguez is also at a vital stage in his England career, as he looks to become an automatic choice, which, really, is something very achievable for the former Burnley forward – having only missed out on the World Cup squad to a knee injury. Chairman Ralph Krueger has assured fans that the pair will be staying – whether this promise is kept remains to be seen, but considering the size of a PR gaffe either player leaving would lead to, you’d hope Krueger is true to his word – which, for the next season at least, leaves circumstances significantly more rosy than they first seemed. What has perhaps also been overlooked is the fact that key performers – Nathaniel Clyne, Jose Fonte and Victor Wanyama among them – have stayed at the club without any (reported) problems.

Clyne, like Rodriguez, will be pressing for a place in the England squad – two impressive seasons at Premier League level can’t have passed Roy Hodgson by – while Jose Fonte isn’t quite a top level centre back but is a fan favourite at St Mary’s, thanks to his dedication to the cause, and rising to the top with the club, having joined when the club were mired in League One. In fairness, Fonte is still a solid defender at Premier League and has no qualms at filling in in different positions – he was, surprisingly, a reasonably good right back against Aston Villa in November, for example. His unfussy style in defence will definitely help his new defensive partner (or Maya Yoshida, either one) get to grips with the Southampton system quickly. Victor Wanyama, meanwhile, had a very impressive debut season in the Premier League, and realistically should be one of the players that the club should be building the team around, providing the Kenyan sees his immediate to mid-term future on the South Coast. Despite being riddled with injuries, Southampton looked a much better team with Wanyama in the team, going most of the tail end of 2013 without conceding a goal. Incredible stuff. Wanyama struggled a little to get back into the team thanks to Jack Cork’s imperious form, too, and Cork should also return to the fray this year, too. Indeed, the centre midfield looks like a really exciting proposition for Southampton fans, with a number of players who would potentially be starting for half of the bigger clubs in the league.

On a final note, the young guns – James Ward-Prowse chief among them, with the England U21 captain tipped to rise in the ascendancy this season and being to stamp his authority in midfield – but also Matt Targett, touted as Luke Shaw’s long-term replacement, Sam Gallagher, who broke through the ranks last season, scoring his first senior goal against Yeovil in the FA Cup before starting the home draw with Arsenal, and Harrison Reed, who like Ward-Prowse is a midfielder who has been impressive for the England youth teams and featured in flits last season. It’s hard to overstate how much talent there is in the Southampton academy, and it is an oft-stated opinion that most Premier League academies should nurture youngsters in a similar way – Southampton’s alumni speak for themselves in terms of success. This is probably one area which we can expect to stay the same long term for Southampton, and so can be an area they use to rebuild this season and build upon over the years to come, too.

Overall, Southampton should probably not aim to even come close to equaling that wonderful season last time out; while they’re unlikely to go down, based on both the strength of the squad and strong management, it must be said that expecting too much, too soon of Koeman and his young, fledgling squad is probably the wrong way to go about following this Saints team and, really, this season should be looked at more as a transitional year than anything else, and anything above a run of the mill, standard mid-table season will be a bonus.

FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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