Southampton's unexpected evolution under Ronald Koeman
Eight months ago, it was inconceivable to many outsiders (myself included) that Southampton would be in a position to challenge, strongly too, for European football this season. Despite falling away slightly in December, their blistering form at the beginning of the season and at the turn of the year has put the Solent-based side in great league position. Saints lost key players last summer, and the very essence of Southampton seemed to be disappearing. The nucleus of the side that rose from the third tier to 8th in the Premier League was taken away. In total seven players were sold and a further six released. The vanguards of the consecutive promotion winning campaigns moved to “bigger” clubs amidst a media fanfare, hardly helped by inclusion in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad. This has been well documented, but rather less so has been the personnel tasked with filling these boots.
Changes were not limited to the pitch either. Mauricio Pochettino left to take over at Tottenham and was replaced by Ronald Koeman. Koeman came to Hampshire with a vast array of experience managing in the Netherlands, with Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord. Spells in Western Europe with Benfica and Valencia would have also done his learning no harm. However Koeman remained unproven in the Premier League, and in that respect represented somewhat of a gamble by the Saints board. The man from Zaandam has acquitted himself well in this debut campaign in England’s top flight. His tactical prowess, as shown at Feynoord, has also been brought to life at St. Mary’s. Bar a brief spell playing a 3-5-2 formation in an attempt to shore up the defence, Koeman’s Saints line up in a 4-2-3-1. This balance between a strong core of centre back and central midfielders – Schneiderlein and Wanyama, coupled with the wide players of Elia, Mane and the full backs – is a harmonious one. Koeman’s playing experience for Ajax in the immediate decade after the infamous “total football” era, and playing for Barcelona at the genesis of “tiki taka”, can shine through, at times, when watching Southampton this season. What is also poignant about the Dutchman’s start to life in the Premier League was the instantaneous nature with which he won games, in stark contrast to his fellow countryman and nemesis, Louis Van Gaal. Van Gaal clearly required a period of adjustment at Manchester United, whilst Koeman took to Saints like a duck to the water of the river Itchen.
This exodus last summer, whilst very disruptive and no doubt traumatic for Saints fans, did provide a welcome cash in-flow, and supporters are already seeing tangible evidence of this being invested. Multi million pound deals were completed for, amongst others, club top goal scorer Graziano Pelle, Sadio Mane and Fraser Forster this summer, with Eljero Elia and Filip Duricic joining in January (the latter on loan). This spending spree, enabled by the numerous departures, conveys the seismic shift underway at Southampton. The backbone of the side of recent years has been replaced in a new-look Saints outfit. These players may well have quality, but what was nurtured in Southampton for years was lost in one cruel summer’s harvest. Academy graduates Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Calum Chambers epitomised everything Southampton FC stood for. Does this mean Saints have sold their soul? I think not, actually; it’s more a rather sad indictment of modern football. Gone are the days of Matthew Le Tissier, chalking up hundreds of appearances for their local team, and here are the days of journeymen and agents looking for the next signing on fee and wage increase.
If we accept the previous statement, and assume it is here to stay, then Southampton have done some good business. If we compare last year’s old Saints with this year’s new Saints, the new boys are ahead. After 30 games last season, Lallana and co. had 45 points and sat in 9th position. With one less game played, Pelle’s early net finding exploits have earnt Southampton 50 points and 6th position. This season is even better considering how long St. Mary’s was home to a top four side. All this has been achieved without England international Jay Rodriguez, still on the treatment table from his ACL injury sustained in April 2014.
The side Koeman built over a few weeks this pre-season (and is continuing to build) emulates the Southampton of old, as this took years to come to fruition. Solent legend Le Tissier recently claimed Saints would finish above Van Gaal’s United. This is unlikely, but his optimism shows how much Southampton have progressed. Despite the recent dip, Koeman’s men are on course for the best Southampton league finish in a generation.