Southampton have arguably been the most overachieving team this season. They currently lie in 7th place and are competing for European football, potentially Champions League. Only four teams have a better goal difference in the Premier League, and not one team in the whole of the football league has a better defensive record having, conceded just 20 goals in 28 games. But many have been wondering what would account for this? Especially since they don’t appear to be a team happy to sit back with 10 men behind the ball all game and “park the bus”. Therefore, I will be discussing the major components to what makes The Saint’s defence so formidable.
Since it’s rise to success in 1970’s Kyiv, pressing has become an integral part of any defence. The notion of reducing the oppositions time and space on the ball is a crucial factor of modern football, and one Koeman employs at Southampton to great success. This requires great stamina from his players in order to keep up the high work rate throughout the game. Even strikers, such as Shane Long, have covered great distances in order just to make the opposition less comfortable in possession. However, it all proves to be worthwhile as it makes it extremely difficult for even the best opposition to get any real “flow” going.
Many spectators of Premier League football will see Allardyce teams willing to sit back and invite opposition on to them, whilst keeping defensive structure, and believe this is the most effective way to keep the ball out of your net, even if it doesn’t get the adrenaline going. An idea Koeman laughs in the face of, willing to push his side forward leaving space in behind for opposition strikers, in order to reduce the space the opposition play in and to regain possession. They are able to deploy a high defensive line, in part due to the fact that the likes of Clyne and Bertrand posses immense pace, and are able to sweep up if a ball is played behind them.
We can expand upon the importance of Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand further. Despite technically being defenders they play a strong part in Southampton’s offense(as many fantasy football players ought to know by now). Their willingness to push forwards has not only created goals, but prevented them as well. Since Clyne punished the Liverpool defence on the opening game of the season, teams have been keen to ensure their wingers drop back and be wary of the threat the full-backs posses. This allows Southampton to acquire territory and reduces the likelihood of an opposition counter-attack.
Another key player for The Saints this season is Morgan Schneiderlin, a player who receives a lot of attention over transfer rumours, but not enough for his ability. He’s brilliant at breaking up play, averaging 3.3 tackles and 2.4 interceptions a game(whoscored.com). But an even more important statistic is his passing accuracy; at 89.3%. His ability to retain possession is just as important as his ability to make a tackle when trying to keep the number of goals conceded to a minimum.
Since the rise of ‘tika-taka’ football the idea that possession is just as important in scoring goals as in preventing them has become increasingly more apparent. This could be seen when Spain went through a period of dominating international football. However, in the 2010 World Cup they only managed 8 goals over the whole tournament, compare this to Germany’s 18 goals in the most recent World Cup. Despite this they won the tournament, seemingly quite comfortably. The reason being, since they kept vast amounts of possession, they only conceded 2 goals over the 7 game period. Therefore the fact that Koeman’s side go into most games expecting to have the majority of possession is crucial. This reduces the oppositions opportunity to create chances and ultimately score goals. Although, when it comes to facing the likes of Chelsea this weekend, Southampton will have to accept that they won’t be able to control the game as much as they would prefer. In situations like these Koeman has to consider damage control as the threat cannot be erased completely.
Like a car has crumple zones in case of a crash, in order to reduce the risk of critical damage, Ronald Koeman’s defence has similar safety mechanism built in. The positioning and angling of the central midfield (mostly Wanyama and Schneiderlin) pushes incoming attacks wide and away from the goal. This is done partly by the midfield pairing compressing the space just in front of the defence and making it near-impossible to play in. But also forming a diagonal line in order to shun them in the direction of the full-back. As readers might shape their bodies in order to make attackers go where you want them to during a Sunday league match, Southampton do this on a larger scale, which takes practice and organisation.
By designing a system based on key principles such as space compression, forcing opposition wide and retaining possession;which highlights the strengths of his individual players. Ronald Koeman has got his side defending at a level of quality that is, in my eyes, equal to or better than almost any other side in Europe this season.