After the initial phase of the transfer window saw them lose much of their core from last season, things were looking bleak for Southampton, and yet two months later they seem well equipped to challenge. Andrew Thompson looks at their latest piece of business, analysing how Sadio Mane & Toby Alderweireld fit in.
Monday’s Transfer Deadline Day business done by Ronald Koeman and Southampton was the icing on the cake of a brilliant rebound by the Saints, after it all could have turned into a catastrophic set of events that would have set the club on their way to a state of pure bedlam. Their well-documented struggles in the transfer window with losing the majority of their influential players were dealt with in a very calm and collective way.
The business before today saw So’ton replace target man Rickie Lambert with an equally talented target man in Graziano Pelle, a creative wide player in Adam Lallana with an even more creative wide player in Dusan Tadic, the expected loss of Luke Shaw responded with a strong loan deal for Ryan Bertrand, and the loss of Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers buffed with the addition of Florian Gardos. Further additions of Frasier Forster and Shane Long, two experienced players in their prime, produced a side that (at least on paper) you can argue is just as good as their side from last season. Their business on the final day of the window only built on their brilliant summer, and has put them in a place where Ronald Koeman could make Southampton an even bigger club over time.
In Sadio Mane and Toby Alderweireld (both full internationals for Senegal and Belgium), Koeman has brought in further quality that makes Southampton a shoe-in for another top-ten finish once the Dutch headmaster settles to the Premier League. After losing their opener against Liverpool and drawing against West Brom, Southampton have responded with a Capital One Cup victory over Millwall and an impressive 3-1 win against West Ham at Upton Park, and all before the further additions on the last day. Let’s take a look at So’tons last additions, and how they’ll fit in to Ronald Koeman’s plans moving forward.
SADIO MANE | LEFT WINGER
Still just 22-years of age, Sadio Mane has it all to prove on a bigger stage than Lique1 or the Austrian Bundesliga. Mane was a first team player at Metz three years ago, where he made 22 appearances and scored 2 goals as a 19-year old. Two years on after that before his move to the south coast, Mane scored a total of 31 goals in just 63 appearances for Austrian giants Red Bull Salzburg – granted, it’s 31 goals in a league that is no where near the standard of the Premier League, but Mane has European experience in the Europa League during his time there, and he’s done well there for himself in those appearances.
Mane brings power and bags of pace for a player who is just 1.75m tall (a shade under 5’10). While he’s not the right-sided player that Saints may have been hoping for, he’s more left sided but does come with tactical flexibility. With Jay Rodriguez still crocked, Mane’s purchase affords Koeman the ability to deploy two proper wide players in his 4-3-3 system, rather than using Shane Long out of position.
Where Dusan Tadic is a brilliant creative player, Mane is a goal-scoring winger that will bring an eye for goal to take the pressure off the likes of Graziano Pelle and Shane Long. His pace allows him to stretch the defense, while his eye for goal also allows him the option to cut in from the right on his favored left foot and have a sniff at goal, which is exactly what Andros Townsend does. The club could not go out and get their top target in the England man, so they went out and bought a near identical player who is hungry to succeed in a top league – it’s an excellent piece of business.
More to the point, Mane was a part of a tactical system at Salzburg that was very much a high-flying, direct and creative one; his fellow attacking players included Valentino Lazaro, Massimo Bruno, Marcel Sabitzer and the highly rated Jonatan Soriano. With the similarities between where he is coming from and where he has gone, Mane should settle nicely to expectations that Koeman will have for him, and while he’ll need to step up to the learning curve of the Premier League, he should bring that added attacking spark that Southampton were in the market for.
TOBY ALDERWEIRELD | CENTRE-BACK/RIGHT-BACK
Alderweireld has been on the front lines of top level European football for the entirety of his professional career. He came through the vaunted Ajax youth system and went on to become integral for the first team, making 128 appearances in five seasons, including many appearances in European competitions. Last season he moved to Atletico Madrid, where he would go on to win the La Liga title and help the club in their unexpected run to the Champions League final. While this deal is only a one-year loan, the capture of the Belgian international is a massive transfer coup by the club, for a player that garnered interest from bigger clubs such as Arsenal.
It is unclear where Ronald Koeman see’s Alderweireld fitting in just yet, but his presence in the first team affords the Dutchman options. Naturally it is highly unlikely that he’ll prefer him ahead of Nathaniel Clyne at right-back, but Alderweireld is quite capable there – the move for him certainly signals competition at center back however, with the current first choice pair consisting of Maya Yoshida and club captain Jose Fonte; Alderweireld though, is better than both.
With Fonte currently in possession of the armband, it certainly will be Yoshida to make way, giving Southampton a highly experienced center-back that brings even more pace to the back-line, very solid aerial ability, a player who is excellent in the tackle, but one who also is very good at kick-starting the attack from the back with his passing ability at both short and long distances. Still at just age 25 and hungry to rebound after only making 12 appearances for Atletico Madrid all of last season, this is a move where, if he becomes a success at St. Mary’s, it is likely that Koeman will try to bring him in on a full deal next summer.
While it usually takes defenders time to adjust to the standard of the Premier League, Alderweireld has already featured in La Liga and has played almost 40 times for his country, making his adaptation less of a concern. Why is this beneficial? Apart from the obvious reasons, Southampton’s glaring weaknesses at the back comes from it’s inability to defend against through balls efficiently enough, as well as defending well against players that are technically gifted – the beauty of Alderweireld, beyond his experience, is the pace he has that can counter act through balls, and his ability to recover if he is in fact beaten.
Truthfully, this is a signing that has no reason why it should not work out for the best – after all, how many players have come from Ajax where they have not ended up being a player of actual quality?
With business concluded, let’s take a look at the strongest XI Southampton can field (and could well do so against Newcastle in their next Premier League fixture), and what it means tactically for the Saints.
With Mane inserted into the XI, it gives those two or three options that Southampton were hoping to use on the right flank – he can either tuck in centrally, make a diagonal run into the box, or his pace can allow him to continue out wide to stretch the back line, creating space for Morgan Schneider in and James Ward Prowse to make late runs into the area. More over, Dusan Tadic will do much of the same on the other flank, which means they can easily swap flanks throughout the match to keep the opposition back-four guessing as to what comes next. This gives Ronaldo Koeman the desired tactical flexibility for not only himself, but also the amount that is required to be a successful attacking side in the Premier League.
As for how Alderweireld fits into the tactics board, he will slot into the center-back role, purposefully with Nathaniel Clyne to his right. With Clyne’s ability to get forward and provide service in the final third or even have a look at goal, there is naturally an increase risk of him being caught up the pitch; this is where Alderweireld comes in to play. With his experience at right-back that he has on his CV, the Belgian is quite capable of sliding over to cover the hole left by Clyne’s forward rampaging run, and if need be, Vincent Wanyama could track back to fill in the middle hole left by Alderweireld’s shifting.
On the attacking side of things, Alderweireld’s ability to pass means that he can by-pass the option of giving it to Wanyama with the short option and play a direct ball straight to Southampton’s attacking options who are chomping at the bit to get forward.
Tactically, for me, Southampton are actually in a much better state than they were last season under Mauricio Pochettino, and if you would say that to any Saints fan after last season’s success, they were likely to laugh you out of the building. Not only does So’ton have more options than they had the previous season, but they are far more flexible in their ability to easily transition to a 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-4-2 (with Shane long a very capable striker) as well.
With their recent performances coming good on their promise shone in the first two matches of the season, and their solidarity in all areas of the pitch, there’s no reason to think that the Saints will not finish in the top half of the table, and yet again make a decent shout at a chance at a Europa League place come next season.
Written by Andrew Thompson