Despite a mass exodus and seemingly inevitable implosion over the summer, Southampton have continued to defy everybody and remain in the fight for a Champions League place after the halfway stage.
Ronald Koeman replaced Mauricio Pochettino in the St. Mary’s hot seat,who departed the club along with key players such as Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Dejan Lovren.
The Dutchman has managed to work wonders and rally his troops to sustain an unlikely push for Europe’s elite competition, for a club who were in League One just four years ago.
The first reason the Saints have kept on progressing from last season is Koeman’s tactical nous. Unlike under Pochettino, the Saints have prospered from the 51-year-old’s flexibility based on who they are playing. The fluidity of his 4-3-3 system means that Southampton can employ high-pressure possession football but can also switch to a counter-attacking style against stronger opponents thanks to their attacking full-backs in Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne.Also, the flexibility of the wide positions means that it can easily revert to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 system, depending on the situation.
Koeman’s most-used 4-3-3 system offers numbers when both attacking and defending. Davis, Ward-Prowse, Tadic and Long can all operate either on the flanks or in the middle, meaning there is plenty of room for manoeuvre should variety be required.As you will see below, Schneiderlin is also able to play in both an expressive box-to-box role or as a more disciplined anchor man.
In this 4-2-3-1 system which was used in the Saints’ 1-0 win against Manchester United at Old Trafford (although Tadic came off the bench), Schneiderlin is able to sit deeper alongside Wanyama which gives the front four more freedom.The system also allows Koeman’s men to pack the centre of the field, with the more advanced three tracking back to retrieve possession along with the freedom of the wing-backs.
Tactical fluency is the biggest reason they have been able to take points from the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Man. United.No plan B was severely hampered their progress last term, as Pochettino’s stubbornness meant they played the same way against teams like Chelsea like they would against the sides at the basement such as Norwich.
The Dutchman’s summer recruitment was also incredibly underrated. The South Coast outfit made almost £100 million from the sale of their star players and invested impressively in the likes of Tadic and Pelle along with the loan additions of Toby Alderweireld and Ryan Bertrand. Both look an upgrade on their predecessors,Shaw and Lovren. Koeman also strengthened in areas of weakness, bringing in goalkeeper Fraser Forster from Celtic to replace the ageing Artur Boruc. All have gelled astoundingly with the remaining core of last season’s successes, while the club managed to spend just a fraction of the money they raked in.
The biggest of those sustained successes from last season is undoubtedly Morgan Schneiderlin. Despite being denied a move away before the start of this campaign, the French international has responded brilliantly in a more expressive box-to-box role which has allowed him to be massively influential at both ends of the pitch.
Another who was heavily tipped for a summer exit is right-back, Nathaniel Clyne. The former Crystal Palace man has again been given a more expressive, attacking role and his dazzling performances have earned him a first England cap after years of knocking on the door.
Meanwhile, Steven Davis looks stronger than ever after being a more important role to his previous one of back-up and the experienced Jose Fonte remains on his way to club folklore, keeping his place at the heart of the back four. He is one of the few remaining bodies from the South Coast outfit’s days in the third tier.
Not only have the men in red and white been a revelation in 2014/15, they have done it while holding onto their traditional values. Continuing is the successful upbringing of youth policy, which has seen the likes of Theo Walcott and world-record transfer Gareth Bale become superpowers of the game. James Ward-Prowse looks to be the next in line, notching up another 14 senior appearances this time around. The youngster has now featured over 55 times, all at the age of just 20.
Whether or not Southampton run out of steam again during the season’s second half will depend massively on if Koeman’s men can steer clear of injuries. While the first XI now looks stronger than last season’s, The Saints are disadvantaged by their lack of strength in depth compared to their rivals.
They have done a fantastic job to do so far. Bearing in mind the likes of Manchester United have suffered over 50 this season, it is a testament to the former Feyenoord boss and his staff for deploying a training regime which has allowed his top stars to perform consistently without burning out thus far. Having played every team in the league at least once so far, there is no reason the South Coast revolution can’t keep going from strength to strength.