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Ross Bramble looks at the reasons for the Saints’ current slump, and has some suggestions on how they should go about fixing it.
This season has been a rich tapestry of successes and failures. From the elevation of Leicester, Watford, Stoke and Bournemouth, to the fall of Aston Villa, Swansea and Chelsea, it’s been a season of maddening stories. At the turn of the year, the current side on the slide is Southampton. On Christmas Day 2014, the Saints were nestled in the top four and the pundits were asking if they could stay there come April. One year later, the 31st of December saw Southampton sat in 12th. Not quite Leicester’s fairy tale, eh?
Last season Southampton were the toast of the town – after their record high Premier League points tally and a transfer rebound story that impressed the nation, it’s all fallen away at a painful pace. But where did it all go wrong?
After what felt like the window from hell in 2014, it was important that Southampton learned from their mistakes the next year. When Southampton lost Lambert and Lallana to Liverpool and Rodriguez to injury, the front line that replaced them still suffered from inconsistency at times. Ultimately it cost the Saints the points it may have taken to push them in to the top four. The saving grace was the back line – solid and dependable, with two speedy wingers and a centre back pairing the likes of which St. Mary’s hadn’t seen since it Lundekvam and Svensson. Fonte and Alderweireld were a solid duo, and the protection of Wanyama and Schneiderlin made their job all the easier.
The losses of Morgan Schneiderlin to Manchester United and Nathaniel Clyne to Liverpool were big ones. Having lost two key players in the back line, it was imperative that at the very least, Toby Alderweireld’s move from Atletico Madrid became a permanent one. However, Tottenham and a legal mix up saw to the end of that dream. Now it was vital the Saints could mimic their previous year’s window and replace the talent as seamlessly as they had the year before. In Jordy Clasie, Cedric Soares and Virgil van Dijk, Southampton had their men – but they just couldn’t make lightning strike twice.
Clasie’s first few months on the south coast were blighted by injury, giving the Dutchman no time to acclimatise to the Premier League as Soares and van Dijk did. Cedric’s start was a little shaky, but continues to grow in to the role with every passing game. Van Dijk hit the ground running at first, and it seemed Alderweireld wouldn’t be missed after all. What became apparent as the games went on however, was that while van Dijk was the better footballer, Alderweireld was the better defender. Costly mistakes and poor positioning have cost the Saints goals at important times this season, including against Toby’s new employers in December. Van Dijk’s wild and aimless swing to try and deny Harry Kane’s run through three red and white shirts will live long in the memory. Simply put, the loss of three key figures in Southampton’s incredible back line has been crippling. In time, all three will come good, but the short term effects have been profound.
Earlier I spoke of the inconsistency amongst the Saints front line back in Koeman’s first full season. Lest you think I’m mis-remembering, I of course recall scoring eight against Sunderland, four against Newcastle and five against Villa, but those who didn’t watch Southampton every week will not know of the amount of games that slipped through their fingers because of poor finishing. Indeed the club suffered a dry spell back in the Christmas 2014 which seemed to hang over across the second half of the season. Saints fans had begun calling for a new striker before Sadio Mane began to find his shooting boots, which ultimately papered a crack.
What’s concerning about Southampton this season isn’t the lack of opportunities. The team is still creating enough chances to win any game of football. What’s lacking now is the killer instinct that carried us through at the start of the 2014/15 campaign, and emerged on occasion nearer the end. While the inconsistency cost us a genuine challenge on the Champion’s League places last year, it has cost us more profoundly this. Games we were drawing last season, thanks to our defence, are becoming defeats this, thanks to our attack. The lack of goals has again highlighted a need for a new striker, but Koeman appears hesitant to add to the front line. With Pelle, Long, Rodriguez, Juanmi and Seager, it’s understandable that the Dutchman may be reticent to throw money at the problem, but with only two of them registering a goal in the Premier League this season it’s a position that’s growing harder to justify.
Koeman’s first season was defined by great individual performers. Pelle, Tadic, Mane, Schneiderlin, Alderweireld, Wanyama and others could be counted on to turn a game when one or two weren’t enjoying their best days. This year, however, the tables have turned.
Maya Yoshida’s position at Southampton has been a matter of debate among fans were some time now, and with every shaky performance at full back, under hit back pass or lapse in concentration, his moments of assurance and stability are entirely undermined. His mistakes had led to a clutch of goals already this season. Van Dijk has been equally as culpable, but his technical ability and aerial presence seem to counter balance the criticisms. Mane and Pelle’s early season tandem has stuttered once more, but perhaps most alarming has been the decline in Victor Wanyama. It seems that Arsenal fans have been enjoying the media speculation that Arsene Wenger is ready to move for the Kenyan in the near future, and on the basis of his performance against the Gunners in December the move would be justified. His performance against Norwich, however, was much a much more appropriate example of his season so far. Sloppy, reckless and unfocused at times, Oriol Romeu seems to be a more controlled and sturdy hand than Victor this campaign. Perhaps his head has been turned by last summer’s transfer fiasco after all – or perhaps life without Schneiderlin has revealed a few unfortunate cracks in the mighty Kenyan’s game, as it did Dejan Lovren.
Considering how quickly the anti-manager bandwagons gained momentum this year, it’s a little surprising to me that Koeman hasn’t felt the media glare just yet. Dick Advocaat, Tim Sherwood, Garry Monk and even the great Jose Mourinho saw their positions become untenable this season, and Louis van Gaal appears to be clinging on by his fingertips, too. On the back of seven goals scored, eleven conceded and only one clean sheet in the last eight games (as of the 1-0 defeat to Norwich), and now with the dissention of star attacker Sadio Mane stealing the headlines, it can’t be long before the magnifying glass hovers over him.
It wouldn’t be right to sack Ronald Koeman, and there are no rational fans seriously calling for the axe just yet. But certainly there are problems that Koeman must address at his own doorstep. His persistence to play Yoshida at full back has already proved costly in a couple of occasions, as have tactical misplays such as the formation and play style that saw the Saints eliminated from the Capitol One Cup and the Europa League. His openness to Juanmi and Gaston Ramirez is all very well for the players as professionals, but neither seem to be ready to appear consistently in the Premier League, not yet at least. The bench looks weak and lifeless these days, but Koeman is still not eager to dip in to the transfer market this January. The Dutchman says that only a striker would encourage him to engage in the window, but that would entirely depend on the severity of the injuries to Pelle and Rodriguez – but shouldn’t something be done in spite of those injuries? Seven goals in eleven games doesn’t sound awful, until you remember that four of them came against a superbly sup-par Arsenal. Discount that game, and it’s three in six. A far cry from the Southampton side of last season.
Some pundits have suggested that there’s a clash between Koeman and Head of Football Development Les Reed, and while I’m not convinced of that myself, the story still lingers. Add to that the Dutchman’s recent comments about his contract situation – that he would only sign on if Southampton showed the same ambition that enticed him to sign on in 2014 – and the current bust up with Mane, and one has to wonder if Koeman is getting uncomfortable. This is predominantly baseless speculation, of course, and the majority of fans still seem to be putting the blame on the players rather than the management, but it will all intensify the scrutiny if the media decide to turn on Koeman.
It’s not a hopeless situation, though. Unlike a club like Aston Villa, who seem in need of the cleansing waters of relegation to finally steady the ship, Southampton can fix their problems internally. The choices seem clear – the first of course, is wait it out. Keep playing (certainly the performances haven’t that bad, just individual errors and inconsistency) and ride it out, which is after all what we did during last season’s blip. It appears to be the favoured plan right now, at least.
The next, and unbelievably rash idea, is to make a change at the top. But is anyone in favour of that? I can’t imagine so. Ronald Koeman has been a fantastic manager for Southampton so far, combining the honesty and likability of Saints icon Nigel Adkins and the tactical nous of Mauricio Pochettino. Sacking him is beyond reasonable possibility so far, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to be in favour of it – much less the board at Southampton.
The third option is the one I’ve been calling for for weeks now – re-integrate the youth talent. Last season saw Jason McCarthy and Jake Hesketh make their first team debuts, along with appearances from Ryan Seager, Sam Gallagher and Dominic Gape. Harrison Reed and Matt Targett found themselves enjoying consistent spells in the first team, too. Now they’re lucky to even make the bench, and those younger are either out on loan or resigned to the U21 side. The energy of Reed, Sims, Seager and McCarthy could be just what the doctor ordered with Wanyama, Mane, Pelle and van Dijk stuttering at times and still remaining a fixture in the first team. It won’t fix the problems, but the fans at Southampton can be quickly appeased just by giving the kids a chance, and who knows who might step up. They surely can’t do any worse than Juanmi, Ramirez or Yoshida.
The final option of course is to dip in to the market, and certainly it does need exploring. What has to be considered, of course, is not just incomings but outgoings. Juanmi is screaming out for a loan, perhaps to the Championship with a Brighton or a Middlesbrough, Wanyama seems ready to go and Yoshida isn’t cutting the mustard. On the more exciting half of the window, there are three possible signings that entice me – Charlie Austin of QPR, Solly March of Brighton and Sam Byram of Leeds. While they certainly wouldn’t fix the issues unilaterally, their energy would be refreshing. All three already have experience of English football, and one has experience of Premier League football – not to mention a proven goal scoring record at that level. It would also be great for the fans to see some more domestic talent coming in to the side, which would give the stadium a much needed boost.
All in all, the Southampton slide has been a long time in coming. With Schneiderlin, Alderweireld and Clyne gone, the defensive structure has tumbled in a manner unimaginable on the evidence of last season. Combine that with poor offensive form and individual performances across the pitch, and the Saints’ position isn’t a surprising one. Whatever happens from here on out, Southampton are not one of the worst three teams in the Premier League this season, but lessons must be learned at player and board level. Another important summer looms at St. Mary’s – but there are still some very choppy waters that need navigating first.
Written by Ross Bramble