In a Premier League season of more unexpected twists and turns, Southampton have had one of the more ‘normal’ campaigns.
The Saints’ sixth-placed position may be a little higher than expected, but after finishing eighth and seventh in the past two seasons, they aren’t experiencing the kind of fluctuations experienced by Leicester City and Chelsea this campaign.
After crashing out of the FA Cup to Crystal Palace, Southampton were in a real rut; just one win in ten, conceding sloppy goals and any idea of getting into top six was bordering on insanity.
But their 1-0 win away at Swansea, coupled with Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat to Sunderland, has seen Ronald Koeman’s side suddenly only one point behind Louis Van Gaal’s stuttering stars.
What will irritate the Man Utd manager even more, perhaps, is that Koeman has turned Southampton’s season around using three centre-backs, a tactical idea that Van Gaal tried at Old Trafford.
But whilst the Red Devils’ three centre-back experiment really didn’t take off, the Saints look very comfortable. Changing from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2 is a huge change in terms of positioning, but the Southampton defence looks far more secure.
Whereas captain Jose Fonte’s first half of the season was blighted by errors, the centre-back looks far more secure in the middle of a three. Virgil Van Dijk was impressive since joining from Celtic in the summer, but his performance has pushed on even further since Koeman’s switch.
But it is Ryan Bertrand that has really surprised since reverting to three centre-backs. Considering he won a huge number of plaudits as a flying full back last season, having to go to a more reserved left centre-back role may have been a real challenge.
Yet he has flourished. As left wing-back Matt Targett goes forward, Bertrand shifts over into his more natural left back position and Saints go to a more conventional 4-3-3 shape.
But the former Chelsea left back’s pace means that the space behind Targett is covered, a stark contrast to when teams could counter Southampton with ease, and means that Bertrand can start attacks with a run up the pitch of his own.
Koeman has used 3-5-2 before at Feyenoord. In a similar situation with the Dutch giants conceding goals with ease, the Barcelona legend made the switch to three at the back and it recovered a faltering season.
With Feyenoord defenders Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan De Vrij and Daryl Janmaat all looking at ease in that formation, and a lack of Kevin Strootman in midfield, Van Gaal even copied the blueprint for the World Cup.
It may not have been sparkling football, as 120 minutes with no goals against a reserved Costa Rica side demonstrated, but it helped Van Gaal’s Dutch side to third place even with an inferior squad to the rest.
The shock 5-1 dismantling of Spain is the result that everyone remembers, however, and the setup is very similar tactically to Southampton’s version. The pace of Arjen Robben ripped the world champions apart, taking full advantage of space in behind the defence.
Whilst Sadio Mané and Shane Long aren’t in the same bracket as the Bayern winger, their pace has caused problems; Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker will remember the former pair tormenting them on Boxing Day for a long time.
Indeed, Long has benefitted a lot from Koeman going with a front two. In Koeman’s favoured 4-3-3, the Irishman was either on the bench covering Graziano Pellè or out on the right wing.
But in a strike partnership, it brings the best out of him. Long will never be the most technically gifted player, but he can now run into either channel in the knowledge there will be another striker in the box he can cross to.
It is arguably the man he replaced, Pellè, who has the most to lose. As a lone striker, the team was built around him and played through him to his strengths.
However, in a team now set-up to counter, his pace limits his effectiveness. A limp display against Swansea means he hasn’t scored since November, and a goal drought is the last thing he needs if he wants to cement his place in the Italy team for the Euros.
Yet Koeman won’t worry about Pellè faltering if the other players are performing well and the team is not suffering. The Saints are now gaining points and results at places like Swansea where they may not have as recently as December, and a quiet march up the table could see Koeman’s men spring a last gasp surprise after all.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Ian Johnson