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Despite all the selling that took place at Southampton, the side looks in pretty good shape with an experience head at the helm. Andrew Thompson analyses Ronald Koeman’s start to Premier League life with Southampton.
Football truly is the Beautiful Game, but what makes it beautiful is not just it’s simplicity, it’s its variety; after all, is variety not the spice of life? Much in the fashion, variety is the spice of football. Each nation, has it’s own footballing identity (or what I like to refer to sometimes as footballing DNA), and in that identity, lies regional specific footballing traits, and even further still, variety at the club level.
With the influx of foreign managers into the Premier League that truly started with Arsene Wenger in 1996 when he came to Arsenal, the Premier League would become a conglomeration of similar and contrasting languages and styles. As the league has grown, it has become the benchmark for managerial supremacy; succeed in England, and surly, you can succeed anywhere.
This summer has certainly been a torrid one on the south coast of England. On the back of magnificent season in the 2013/2014 Premier League campaign, Southampton would emerge as one of the most vibrant clubs in the league. Playing eye-catching, free-flowing attacking football under first year headmaster Mauricio Pochettino, the Saints would finish a highly respectable eighth, on the cusp of cracking the vaunted top-seven. But it would all come crashing down in two months time.
To spare the details that we’ve all seen all summer long (and ones that the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United would eventually benefit from), Pochettino darted off to Tottenham, and the Saints would lose the lion’s share of their key players. What was to be done? The answer would come in the form of Dutch legend Ronald Koeman.
Koeman, a Dutch legend as both a players and a manager, called time on his post at Feyenoord Rotterdam after three years at the De Kuip Stadium. During his spell, De Trots van Zuid would finish runners up twice, and third place once; Koeman had done a wonderful job to re-establish the club after a five-year hiatus from the top-three. With such success and pedigree behind him, why Southampton? Simple. Southampton is as close to a Dutch club as you’ll ever find in England; it’s truly a match made in heaven.
Though on paper the appeal of Southampton is massive (smaller club, brilliant youth system, not immersed in the spending culture that now infects the Premier League), the beauty of variety in football has already taught Koeman some harsh lessons in the early goings this season. So’ton would (ironically) open the league campaign away at Liverpool, and then host a tough, resurgent West Brom at St. Mary’s; they would fall 2-1 to the Reds, while they could only muster a 0-0 draw against the Baggies. Disappointing? No.
On the surface, let’s look at the base-line statistics (via WhoScored.com) from both matches;
Stats against Liverpool at Anfield
44% possession, pass success of 76%, aerial success of 38%, 10 dribbles, 35 tackles, 12 total shots (6 on target, 4 off target, 2 blocked)
Stats against West Brom at Home
58% possession, pass success of 81%, aerial success of 59%, 3 dribbles, 20 tackles, 8 total shots (2 on target, 4 off target, 2 blocked)
Clearly, the numbers do not lie, and if you had not been able to see the matches, you could take the following away in your initial analysis:
With that being said, that is more or less exactly what you would expect from any Premier League side; counter when you’re away, possess and dictate proceedings when you’re on your home ground. But the question is, is Koeman truly comfortable with doing that, and more importantly, does he have the right personnel to be able to be effective in both deployments?
In classic Dutch fashion, Koeman has brought with him the 4-3-3, which is contrary to the 4-2-3-1 that was seen much of the time under Pochettino. Koeman’s tactical approach offers more flexibility than seen the previous season, but it still has it’s draw backs.
Against Liverpool, So’ton were happy to sit back and offer up the majority of possession to the home side. The likes of Vincent Wanyama, Morgan Schneiderlin and Steven Davis would clog the middle, and hope to cut off the supply lines to Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. A moment of sheer brilliance after Henderson did so well to regain possession in the midfield saw him play a perfect through ball to Sterling who would put Liverpool 1-0 up.
After the goal however, the match began to change a bit. Southampton’s ability to break on the counter through Dusan Tadic and James Ward Prowse came to the fore, with the England youngster happy to cut in centrally and look for the Serbian winger, or new striker Graziano Pelle; in doing so, space would open on the right flank for rampaging right-back Nathaniel Clyne to get forward and provide service – this was exactly how the Saints would find their equalizer through Clyne.
With renewed vigor, Southampton would go on to try to find a winner as they were in the ascendency and having a real go at it, but Liverpool (the best in the business at the counter in the country currently) would break on their own and Sturridge would eventually find the winner. The lesson to be learned by Koeman against Liverpool is that you are always ruthlessly exposed to the counter when you’re the ones doing the countering. While he will have known this from his days in the Netherlands, the massive rise in quality once he stepped on to English shores meant that it’s far less likely that even a decent team will muck up a chance on the counter.
Against West Brom, he would run into a tactical nightmare, one that you see very rarely in your opponents; playing ten men behind the ball. In the Eredivisie, even the lesser teams play far more open, it’s just part of Dutch footballing DNA, but in the Premier League, you sit back and you don’t press, you force your opponent to break you down.
The Baggies deployed in a 4-4-1-1, and while they would look to break down the flanks through Saido Berahino and Chris Brunt, two banks of four plus Graham Dorrans would always be ready and waiting in the defensive third. Saints would have possession, but this is where the preference of Ward Prowse always looking to come centrally would hurt. Against a team happy to congest the middle, you need players to stretch them open so you can access the middle channels, or take the space they give you out wide and dump service into the box.
With James Ward-Prowse largely neutralized, much of the creative responsibility would once again fall on Tadic (who as brilliant in his debut against Liverpool). While he would again play well, he was isolated far too easily, and the pair of them would find it difficult to give service to Pelle in key areas or even properly support him, as the Italian striker was always hounded.
Koeman’s second lesson of the season thus far, is that possession does not equal the full three points come the end of ninety minutes (all you have to do is ask Arsenal about that fact, which pains me to admit). While it usually does in a smaller league, the Premier League has written the book on the ability for possession to be meaningless.
Despite only fetching one point in his first two matches at the helm, there is still plenty of promise. A spirited 2-1 loss at Anfield (a match where they deserved a point, if not better) is quite admirable on your debut after the club you took over was ravaged for it’s top talent. A 0-0 draw at home to Brum is frustrating, but it’s all very new at Southampton right now, and better teams have lost to the Baggies in the same fixture.
Firstly, Koeman must stick to what he knows, the 4-3-3. But what he mut consider however, is buying additional players that fit the formation and the tactical system, rather than bringing in players that he can only hope will adapt. In Tadic, Pelle, Shane Long and Saphir Taider (who has yet to feature), he has those players at the club; creative, mobile and hard working individuals that can switch from defense to attack immediately. Coupled with the added quality of Ward-Prowse, Wanyama and Schneiderlin, So’ton are still in good shape, but they could still be better.
In the aftermath of the 0-0 draw, Koeman himself stated that the club still needed another attacking player to come in. Recent reports have linked the Saints to a move for Tottenham’s Andros Townsend, and while they may not capture him, a player of that type would be ideal for what Koeman and his Dutch tinkering can hope to achieve.
In comparison with the current tactical make up at the club, the simple addition of a wide player with pace opens up other new doors on the pitch. Now, with a right-winger who can choose to either tuck in centrally, or continue to run deep, that creates additional distractions and potential tactical outcomes in Southampton’s favor. If the player keeps going wide, the defense must adjust to compensate for that, which then opens up central channels for Clyne or JWP to float into – it also allows Tadic and Ryan Bertrand more space on the left, as the back-line would have to shift to cover the stretch on the other flank. If the right-winger comes in centrally, it still allows Clyne to gallop forward and whip a cross in or lay it back on the edge of the box for a look at goal from distance.
In short, one more transfer, could truly see Koeman’s ideal set-up at the club realized. Naturally, there will always be work and tactical adjustments needed given the quality level, and he will know that his new players will need time as well, but that is all part and parcel of the game, and entirely normal.
The notion that Southampton is in trouble and in danger of being relegated is not only silly, but it’s also an uninformed opinion as well. After the player exodus, the club surely had to get the managerial appointment spot on, and with Koeman, they did. With the similarities that the club and Koeman’s footballing upbringing and mind share, Southampton are in good hands, they just need time.
Written by Andrew Thompson