Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Chelsea marked Southampton’s first defeat in seven games. A key component of that impressive run of form has been the defensive solidity with Southampton conceding for the first time in seven matches when Cesc Fabregas’ cross eluded everybody and found its way into the back of the net. To not concede in six games is something special considering the amount of chances that get created in the Premier League and the competitive nature of it.
Despite not keeping a seventh consecutive clean sheet, Saints still broke a record in the game against last season’s champions. When the clock hit the 34th minute, Fraser Forster beat Paul Jones’ top flight record for the longest time without conceding a goal for Southampton of 666 minutes. And the former Celtic ‘keeper has played a crucial part of Saints’ recent run of form and deserves heaps of credit. To return to top flight action after almost 10 months out injured and keep six consecutive clean sheets immediately and break Saints’ longest time without conceding record is remarkable. The 27-year-old’s presence has a calming influence on the defence. In some of the games he hasn’t had a thing to do, apart from the odd simple save, but the presence of the 6’ 7’’ Geordie fills Southampton’s back line with confidence knowing that if they are beaten, they have one of the best ‘keepers in the country behind them.
But there’s one man who has had as much of an impact as Forster has in this recent run of form. He deserves as much credit as Forster for his remarkable return and as much credit as Ronald Koeman for changing the tactics and formation. And that man is Ryan Bertrand.
When Saints were in a so called “meltdown” a year and a half ago and there was a mass exodus of first team players, it was the signing of Ryan Bertrand that reassured captain Jose Fonte that they were going to have a strong season and that the club still had ambition.
Bertrand has spent much of his time on the south coast as a full back that likes to bomb up the pitch and contribute as much to the attacking efforts as he does the defensive efforts. It was his defensive capabilities and his offensive threat that put him into last season PFA Team of the Year. He was the perfect replacement for Luke Shaw and his lack of playing time at Stamford Bridge made him arrive at St. Mary’s with a hunger for game time and a desire to showcase his talents.
His form for Southampton has earned him a return to the England setup and is one of a handful of left backs that is giving Roy Hodgson a headache ahead of the Euros. But it could be Bertrand’s versatility that puts him ahead of some of the others that are vying to be on the plane to France this summer.
After a poor run of form over November, December and January, Koeman looked to changing Southampton’s shape in the hope of changing their fortunes around. The Dutchman switched from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-5-2 setup with Bertrand operating as the left sided centre back and the Chelsea academy product has excelled in that position.
With Koeman keen to stick to Saints’ possession based philosophies, Bertrand’s flexibility has been the key to the new formation functioning successfully. With Bertrand on the left hand side of the back three, he is able to start offensive moves confidently and, along with his fellow centre backs, he is comfortable on the ball to play out from the back. The security of having an extra man at the back has allowed the centre backs to venture forward a bit more freely, enabling them to create and join attacks. That was showcased at the weekend with Virgil Van Dijk posing a threat against Chelsea.
One of the criticisms amongst some Saints fans this season has been the lack of academy talent getting first team game time but Bertrand’s inclusion as a centre back has allowed Matt Targett to get a run in the first team. Targett operates as a wing back in the new setup and has shown his best form for the club since being moved into the more offensive role. The security of having the pace and tactical awareness of Bertrand behind him means that he can advance freely knowing that the Champions League winner has the space behind covered.
There are a lot of components to Southampton’s recent run of form to consider; Fraser Forster’s return, Ronald Koeman’s tactical expertise, Shane Long’s tireless performances, Jordy Clasie’s outstanding shifts in midfield. But for me, the one that makes all of it tick is Ryan Bertrand. He’s the one that has meant that the change in formation is possible and works.
It’s strange to think that he is a Champions League winner and he’s playing for Southampton. It’d be interesting to see how good Bertrand would’ve been if he wasn’t starved of opportunities at Chelsea but that seems to be the trend when you’re a product of the Chelsea academy machine. But selfishly, I’m glad he was starved of opportunities because it’s brought him to my club and boy, what a difference he’s made.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Mike Beales.