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Five reasons why Southampton should be concerned after their start to the Premier League season

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On the face of things, Southampton enjoyed a good year last year.

They finished eighth in the Premier League, ending the year in the top-half for the fifth consecutive campaign since earning promotion to the top-flight, and they reached the EFL Cup final at Wembley.

Despite only being denied by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last-gasp antics on that occasion, Claude Puel’s short but sweet reign at St Mary’s came to a rather abrupt ending when he was sacked in early June.

It was a decision based around the lack of ebb and flow in Southampton’s play, often criticised for being too defensive and tepid, and in came ex-Alaves manager Mauricio Pellegrino to mix things up.

However, it has not proven to be a worthwhile appointment after seven games of the new season, and the Saints have work to do if they have ambitions of improving on their eighth-place finish last time out.

The Boot Room assesses why Southampton’s season hasn’t quite clicked into gear so far.

Where have the goals gone?

The main source of frustration around the south coast at present is the lack of potency in front of goal, and Southampton are in the midst of a barren spell that they desperately need to break soon.

The Saints have scored just five goals in their opening seven matches, failing to find the net in four of these, and to put their troubles into perspective there are currently four top-flight forwards that have scored more (6) by themselves (Romelu Lukaku, Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Morata and Harry Kane).

It is a problem that dates back for a far while though – much to the rising concern of Southampton supporters – with the Saints having more goalless draws (seven) than any other side last season.

Taking the end of last year into account they’ve scored just seven goals in 12 league games since the end of April, and the atmosphere at St Mary’s all of a sudden has an air of little expectation about it.

There is no denying that Pellegrino made a huge oversight over the summer by not investing in his striking options, particularly considering that he allowed Jay Rodriguez to leave for Premier League rivals West Brom, and his inability to put this money straight back into the attack has proven costly.

It says everything that, of Southampton’s five goals this year, two have come from the penalty spot and two have come from corners, and it’s becoming increasingly pertinent that they find answers very soon.

It is worrying times. Nonetheless, with a favourable run of fixtures to come against Newcastle, West Brom, Brighton and Burnley, there’s no better time for their strikers to find a bit of form and try to turn fortunes around.

Virgil Van Dijk continues to be a thorn in Mauricio Pellegrino’s side

Just when you thought it was all over.

The summer transfer window – now known as the ‘Virgil van Dijk window’ – somehow saw the Saints keep hold of the Dutch defender for a little while longer at least despite his open pleas to let him leave with Chelsea, Manchester City and over-riding favourites Liverpool interested in him.

Since then he’d returned to full first-team training, made his first full appearance of the season at Stoke City and it seemed like his frayed relationship with Pellegrino might have a shot at salvation.

However, Van Dijk has had other ideas over the international break, with BBC Sport reporting comments made from him that hint that he could make another drastic attempt to leave the Saints when January comes.

It once again leaves the Argentinian boss with a dilemma over whether to freeze him out again or keep playing him – and it’s one he could certainly do without considering Southampton’s lacklustre start.

Individual performances haven’t been up to scratch

There is no denying that with the likes of Dusan Tadic, Nathan Redmond, Sofiane Boufal and Gabbiadini at their disposal, Southampton possess some technically gifted individual players.

However, it seems that none of them have turned up so far this season, and the lack of an individual figure standing up to be counted and lifting the side when they need a boost has perhaps been a main reason as to why the Saints are struggling to kick-start their campaign and looking a little uninspired.

You could go through almost every Premier League side and identify their main man but, with Southampton, it’s hard to say who’s indispensable in their squad and who they couldn’t be without.

For a team that are striving for the top-half, and looking to fight for the European spot that comes with finishing seventh, it’s simply not good enough after nearly ten games of the 2017-18 campaign.

Strength in depth runs thin to the ground

The worrying thing about the absence of sparkling individual displays means that the Saints’ threadbare squad is exposed too easily, with Pellegrino’s side not having the best strength in depth.

Their options in the centre of defence and the centre of the midfield are relatively strong but, with regards to players that can be introduced and influence the course of matches, they are lacking quality.

Boufal, Tadic and Redmond are their primary attacking outlets, with James Ward-Prowse a more traditional midfield option, whilst it’s Charlie Austin and Shane Long who are frequently rotated alongside Gabbiadini in a forward position – but that’s pretty much the extent of the Saints’ squad.

It once again all comes back to a wasteful summer transfer window, where new manager Pellegrino simply didn’t recruit in the right places, and it could be a long wait now for January to come around.

Missed opportunity to make statement of intent

All of the above has contributed to Southampton missing a massive chance to make a statement of intent of their top-eight credentials, playing just one so-called ‘big team’ in their first seven matches.

It was arguably against Manchester United where they put in their best performance of the year to date, being unlucky to not find a way through after they completely dominated proceedings in the second-half and had Jose Mourinho’s side on the ropes, but they’ve slipped up in their other, winnable games.

Failures to beat Swansea City, newly-promoted Huddersfield Town, Watford and Stoke City could prove costly when May comes around and Pellegrino should reflect on these games as ten points dropped.

The tests of Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and United (again) all come in the space of 40 days over Christmas, and the Saints need to be careful not to lose sight of that top-half.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

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English Premier League

Southampton 0-2 Liverpool: Deadly Mohamed Salah in-form once again

Jake Jackman

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Liverpool

Liverpool consolidated their position in the top six with a comfortable win against Southampton. They were quick to take the lead through Roberto Firmino and that was followed up before half-time with another goal from Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian now has 22 Premier League goals for the season as he continues to prove that he is one of the leading players in the division. Although the home side didn’t look like a team in the relegation zone, their lack of quality in the final third was a concern. Here are three talking points from St Mary’s Stadium:

Liverpool’s attack is not missing Philippe Coutinho

It was a huge blow to lose Philippe Coutinho during the January transfer window, but the side have continued to impress and it looks like he wasn’t as important as many first thought. Since the sale of the Brazilian, the Reds have scored two or more goals in all but one of seven matches that they have played. Against Southampton, they were at their free-flowing best and it was two of their front three that shone.

Salah was regarded as a good signing when he joined from Roma, but his achievements will have surprised even his biggest advocates. The Egyptian forward is one of the favourites to win the Golden Boot come the end of the season. He currently trails Harry Kane by one goal. Considering that he isn’t a natural striker, his form in front of goal is massively impressive.

Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino continues to perform to a high standard. The 26-year-old has contributed 12 goals and six assists. That is a great return for the Brazilian.

Mauricio Pellegrino is under pressure

Southampton have been one of the best teams outside of the top six during recent seasons. During the last campaign, they finished in 8th position and reached the League Cup final. Despite those achievements, Claude Puel was given the sack due to his style of play. It was seen as dull in the stands, but their decline this season has shown that decision to be a mistake. On Sunday, they slipped back into the relegation zone and they are in huge danger of being relegated.

There is only one point that separates them from 17th, but it is a big mental barrier to be in the bottom three, as it leaves the team with no margin for error. A lot of the teams in the bottom half have changed their manager this season. There is no sign that Southampton are close to pulling the trigger, but it is an option that remains open to them if they want to try and give the club a boost in the relegation fight.

The Saints have a good run of fixtures to come in Burnley, Stoke City, Newcastle United and Swansea City. These matches will shape their season and Pellegrino hasn’t shown enough to suggest he can deliver the results required. If they struggle in the first couple, a change of manager is inevitable.

Virgil van Dijk was excellent on his return to St Mary’s

The Dutch international was always likely to be the focus of attention during the match, as he left Southampton to join Liverpool in January. His actions during the summer did little to warm him to the Saints’ supporters and they let their feelings known on Sunday. Van Dijk was roundly booed every time he touched the ball.

It is a huge test of a player to rise above the atmosphere, but Van Dijk did superbly and delivered an assured performance. He was one of the best performers on the South Coast and played a key part in the visitors keeping a clean sheet.

His aerial presence is known and it was evident on Sunday as he won five aerial duels. Defensively, he rarely put a foot wrong, as he completed four ball recoveries and made seven clearances. Van Dijk showed himself to be a leader as he regularly shouted instructions and made sure that the side remained organised. Liverpool lacked that at the beginning of the season and they look a lot more solid as a result.

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English Premier League

Will the signing of Virgil van Dijk make Liverpool title contenders?

Jake Jackman

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Van Dijk

Liverpool have finally completed the long-awaited signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton for a world record fee. They have agreed to pay £75 million for the Dutchman, which makes him the most expensive defender in the history of football. The last few months have seen the Reds’ defensive woes get worse and they are now willing to pay an extra £15 million to secure the services of their primary centre-back target. Saints deserve credit for holding strong and denying a sale in the summer, as they have made more money as a result. They have agreed to a sale at this early stage in order to give Mauricio Pellegrino the time to spend the money.

For Jurgen Klopp, it was imperative that they improved their defence in the January window. They already have one of the best attacks in Europe, but they can’t be relied on to keep goals out at the other end. Poor collapses against Sevilla and Arsenal have shown their limitations as a team. Van Dijk is unlikely to be the sole solution, but he will come in and improve the defence. His arrival could lead to the rest of the back-line upping their own game. If it does, the Reds could be a force to be reckoned with during the second half of the season.

Despite their failure to land Van Dijk in the summer, Liverpool didn’t drop their interest and that shows huge faith in the defender. He is clearly the player that Klopp wants in his defence and the 26-year-old’s own commitment to the move means there will be a great deal of trust on both sides. This turbulent saga could prove to be a good thing for the club in the long-term as both parties will be desperate for it to be a success. It would have been easier for the Reds to move on to other targets after escaping punishment for alleged tapping-up, but they didn’t and they have now been rewarded for their persistence.

Since the initial rumours surfaced, it became evident that Van Dijk wanted to move to Liverpool over other interested clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea. A lot of pundits have suggested that the defender is too good for the Reds, but he has been wooed by Jurgen Klopp and his comments after the transfer were announced reflect that. BBC Sport report the following quotes from the defender:

“Delighted and honoured to have agreed to become a Liverpool FC player. Today is a proud day for me and my family as I join one of the biggest clubs in world football.

“I can’t wait to pull on the famous red shirt for the first time in front of the Kop and will give everything I have to try and help this great club achieve something special in the years to come.

They may not be winning major honours at the time of writing, but Liverpool remain one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Van Dijk’s comments underline how attractive they are to potential targets and they are now beginning to build a team capable of living up to their standing. In the current game, the media and supporters alike can be obsessed with instant success. Pep Guardiola was criticised a lot during his first season, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and there are signs of development at Anfield.

At the age of 26, Van Dijk is approaching the peak years of his career and he has decided to join Liverpool. That is a huge backing of support for what Klopp is building at the club. They play attractive football and they are close to becoming a force once again. Van Dijk believes in the project and he is the perfect centre-half for the style of play that the Reds’ manager has implemented. He is excellent on the ball and excellent at launching attacks from deep. The Dutchman can be a playmaker from the heart of the defence and that will allow the team to play higher up the pitch.

A weakness for Liverpool this season has been their inability to deal with quick counter-attacks and set pieces. There have been too many occasions where Dejan Lovren has been left in a one-on-one situation and he isn’t good enough to come out on top. Van Dijk is a huge upgrade in this regard, as he is an intelligent reader of the game and is a physical beast. He is quick across the ground and capable of anticipating what the forward is going to do ahead of time, as shown by this season’s average of 2.61 interceptions per ninety minutes.

There are few better players in the air that Van Dijk. The 26-year-old has won an impressive 73.75% of his aerial duels this season. Liverpool have been regularly criticised for their lack of organisation and quality at defending set-pieces. The aerial presence of their new centre-back will go a long way in remedying that.

The signing of Virgil van Dijk alone will not solve the defensive woes of Liverpool. He is an excellent defender and he will improve the starting eleven hugely, but Klopp can’t see this as a sole solution. A new goalkeeper will need to be next on his transfer list as it has become clear that Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius are not good enough to start for a team with title ambitions.

The rest of defence has further problems, but there is potential and the addition of Van Dijk may accelerate their development. Joel Matip deserves the rest of the season alongside the Dutchman to see if he has the quality required. He has shown encouraging signs, but there have been problems. That said, he has played with players that aren’t good enough to start for Liverpool and that may have caused his struggles. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson will all benefit from the leadership of the Dutch international.

Van Dijk will be a great addition to the Liverpool starting eleven and it is commendable that the club have got a deal done quickly, but they need more additions in January to be considered a contender for major honours.

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Match Reaction

Tottenham 5-2 Southampton: Three talking points from Wembley

Rob Meech

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Tottenham
Photo: Reuters

Harry Kane rewrote the record books with his second hat-trick in three days as Tottenham Hotspur made light work of Southampton at Wembley Stadium. The 24-year-old needed just one goal to surpass Alan Shearer’s milestone, which he had set for Blackburn in 1995.

The magic moment came on 22 minutes and it was followed by two more as the prolific Kane finished 2017 as he had started it. Dele Alli and Son Heung-min added gloss to the victory for fifth-placed Spurs, while Sofiane Boufal and Dusan Tadic replied for Southampton, who are now just two points clear of the drop-zone. Here are three talking points…

Record-breaking Kane is in a league of his own

Until very recently, it looked like Kane would fall short in his quest to break Shearer’s long-standing record. But, as quick as a flash, two hat-tricks in a matter of days against Burnley and Southampton ensured there was clear daylight between him and the legendary England forward.

It really is an astonishing achievement. Kane has bagged 39 in 36 top-flight appearances this year, among which there have been no fewer than eight hat-tricks. But more than just domestically, the Tottenham striker now stands alone in Europe. With 56 goals in 52 outings in all competitions, Kane has outscored Lionel Messi in 2017.

Can we begin to speak about the Englishman in the same breath as the multi Ballon d’Or winner? The statistics say so. While he may not possess the artistry of Messi, there is no doubt Kane is one of the most valuable players in Europe and is as important to Spurs as the Argentinian is to Barcelona. Simply put, Kane is a phenomenon.

Pressure is mounting on Mauricio Pellegrino

It’s now seven games without a win for Southampton, who continue to tumble down the Premier League table at an alarming rate. Although they will not have been the first team to receive a Kane-inspired drubbing, boss Mauricio Pellegrino will have been extremely disappointed by his side’s lack of fight.

Without the injured Charlie Austin, Saints lacked any attacking threat while the game was still alive. But defensively they were all over the place too, allowing Kane two of the easiest goals he will score. It really was schoolboy stuff at times. Southampton’s 4-1 victory over Everton now seems a long time ago and Pellegrino’s position is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Once again, the want-away Virgil van Dijk was omitted from the match-day squad, suggesting he will be leaving when the January transfer window opens, amid reported interest from Liverpool and Manchester City. Could the manager also be following him out of the exit door at St Mary’s Stadium?

Alli shows his class in return to form

Understandably, the media will focus on Kane’s landmark afternoon. But it should not go unnoticed that Alli turned in one of his most impressive performances in a Tottenham shirt this campaign. His goal, a perfectly placed shot from the edge of the area that curled past Fraser Forster, added to three assists.

It’s no secret that Alli has struggled to replicate the form of last season that made him one of the hottest properties in Europe and he has cut a frustrated figure in many games, mirroring Spurs’ travails. But there were signs in the victory over Burnley at the weekend that he was getting back to his best and he continued that trend here with another assured display.

It’s a timely boost for boss Mauricio Pochettino, who had relied heavily on the Kane/Alli axis to provide the bulk of their goals as they finished runners-up last term. It’s also a positive sign for England manager Gareth Southgate, with the World Cup in Russia only months away.

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