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Why keeping Schneiderlin has been crucial to Southampton’s top four challenge

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On July 29th 2014, Southampton midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin publicly posted a tweet, which read “6 years of an amazing journey #saintsfc DESTROYED in 1 hour !!”. This almost forgotten outburst was in response to Southampton denying Schneiderlin the chance to follow former manager Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham Hotspur after their mass summer exodus. Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren had all left for Liverpool, and two of their brightest prospects, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers, had also left the club for hefty fees.

There was clearly a rebuilding project to be undertaken by new manager Ronald Koeman, and Schneiderlin staying at the club was seen as integral to the regeneration of the team. He was persuaded to stay and play for the Saints for the 2014-15 season, and it has proved to be their most vital piece of the business they conducted all summer.

Southampton started the season as many people’s relegation candidates. This was always unlikely, despite the loss of players, but their clever signings and intelligent appointment of Ronald Koeman as manager never really made this a creditable claim. However, with Schneiderlin in the team, they are challenging for Europe, flying high in third place in the Premier League rather than sitting in mid-table.

Schneiderlin’s influence over the Southampton midfield is clear to see when observing their performances this season. When attacking, Schneiderlin finds pockets of space, keeping the ball moving from a slightly deeper position, drawing defenders out, and allowing more space for the creative players ahead of him such as Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane. When Southampton defend, Schneiderlin is excellent in cutting out opposition attacks at an early stage, with an exceptional tackling ability and a crucial ability to read the game that allows the French midfielder to intercept passes and regain the ball for his team.

These abilities that Schneiderlin possesses, which are complemented by an almost perfect central midfield partner in Victor Wanyama, make Southampton look a much better and more balanced team. In the FA Cup fourth round defeat to Crystal Palace, where both players were missing, Southampton were destroyed by Palace’s fast counter attacking, which could have been prevented had the French midfielder been on the pitch to cut them out at an early stage.

This effect on the team is heavily reflected in their results throughout the season. Southampton’s dip in form in early December followed the injury he picked up in the first half against Manchester City, leading to a four game losing run. This is no coincidence, without the protection given by Schneiderlin, Southampton were more open at the back, as well as being less able to score, as this table below shows:

Southampton’s league form with Schneiderlin

15  10  3  L 2   29 8  Pts 33

Southampton’s league from without Schneiderlin

3  0  4  8  8  Pts 9

The table clearly shows that Southampton lose more, and win less, when Schneiderlin is missing. Taking the home defeat as a game missed due to his early removal, Southampton have lost four times without Schneiderlin, whereas they have lost just twice with him on the pitch, in over double the amount of matches. This is as a result of the protection that the defence lose from Schneiderlin’s absence.

Southampton gain 2.2 points per game when Schneiderlin on the pitch, which is form that would allow a title challenge, and certain qualification for the Champions League. Without him, however, that figure drops to just 1.29 points per game, not relegation form, but that would leave Southampton languishing in mid-table. Having Schneiderlin in the team allows Southampton to push on from an average side to one that could potentially compete in the Champions League.

The evidence of Schneiderlin’s importance is supported further by comparing the amount Southampton both score and concede from when he is playing and when he is absent. In the 15 full games Schneiderlin has competed in, the Saints have conceded just 8 goals, at a rate of 0.53 per game. The next best in the league is Chelsea, who have conceded 0.86 goals per game. Without Schneiderlin, Southampton have conceded 1.14 goals per game. This shows that the protection offered by Schneiderlin turns Southampton into not only a better defensive team, but by far the best in the league.

Schneiderlin’s presence also makes a marked difference in Southampton’s strike rate. They have scored 1.93 goals per game with him, up from a meagre 1.14 without their star midfielder. This supports the idea that by sitting deeper and drawing opposition midfielders out, he creates more space for creative players such as Dusan Tadic to exploit, contributing to Southampton’s impressive goal tally. Other players who can fill in Schneiderlin’s position such as Jack Cork and Steven Davis just don’t have the positional awareness or passing accuracy to have this effect on opponents.

In conclusion, Schneiderlin is the player that makes Southampton tick. He may not be the flashiest, or the one that gets the most credit, but his intelligent reading of the game and impressive tackling abilities markedly shore up Southampton’s defence, whilst his ability to pick up pockets of space in deeper positions allow more space for Southampton’s attacking players. His football brain contributes to all aspects of Southampton’s team, and is the driving force behind their battle for European places. Whether he remains at Southampton after the end of the season is another matter, with Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool all rumoured to be sniffing around. For now, though, he is playing for Southampton and quietly pushing them towards the Champions League, and should they make it, he might just stick around for a few years.

John is a history graduate from the University of Southampton, and will soon be completing a Master's degree in Journalism at Cardiff University

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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Arsenal

Three talking points from Arsenal’s late draw against Southampton

Jake Jackman

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Arsenal

Arsenal failed to capitalise on several of their rivals dropping points this weekend as they could only take a point from their trip to Southampton. The home side took an early lead through Charlie Austin and although the Gunners started to dominate possession, Saints continued to offer a threat when they did have the ball. It was a frustrating afternoon for the visitors and it looked like they would leave the South Coast with nothing, but a late Olivier Giroud goal meant they secured a point. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud has a role to play over the Christmas period

The Premier League’s festive period is famous across Europe and regarded as the most exciting part of the season for many. It will be a new experience for Alexandre Lacazette and it will be important for Arsene Wenger to rotate his strikers to ensure they remain as fresh as possible. Olivier Giroud has cut a frustrated figure during the opening months of the season, but he came up with the equaliser on Sunday and reminded everybody of his value to the squad.

It was an excellent header, as he guided Alexis Sanchez’s cross past Fraser Forster to spare his team’s blushes. The result remains a disappointment, but it would have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the Frenchman’s goal. There has been speculation regarding his future at the club, with a loan move a possibility next month. However, for the next few weeks, Arsenal will need to rely on him as Lacazette won’t be able to play every match.

Charlie Austin is building momentum

Southampton started the season with Manolo Gabbiadini as their starting striker after the impact he made last season. It was thought that the Italian would be able to score 15+ over the course of a whole season and lead the team to another top-half finish. However, the former Napoli player struggled and that gave an opportunity to Charlie Austin. The Englishman has had good spells in a Southampton shirt, but he is now beginning to emerge as the team’s best strike.

In theory, the 28-year-old should be at the peak of his powers and a recent good run of form supports that. The striker has started only three matches this season, in which he has scored four goals. His goal against Arsenal was well taken, as he timed a run in behind the defence and finished smartly past Petr Cech. It is too soon to get carried away, but he could be an outsider to make the England World Cup squad if he continues to score on a regular basis.

Laurent Koscielny looked shaky

During the last few seasons, the French centre-back has been regarded as one of the best defenders in the league, especially by Arsenal supporters. However, he looked shaky against Southampton and nearly gifted them with a second goal. There was a phase of play that saw Koscielny make three or four mistakes, resulting in a chance for Nathan Redmond.

There were some good touches from Koscielny, but he didn’t look like a player that was one of the best in the Premier League. It didn’t help that Per Mertesacker lacked confidence alongside him as he was having to do a lot more defensive work than usual. Arsene Wenger has been loyal to the 3-4-2-1 formation since the end of last season, but it is beginning to cause problems. There aren’t enough good centre-backs in the squad to play the system effectively. This wasn’t a game to remember for Koscielny and a change of system back to 4-2-3-1 could be the solution, especially in away matches.

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