The Season Just Gone
Given that almost every (stupid, insular, uneducated) pundit predicted certain relegation for Southampton before 2014-15 started, it has to go down as one of the greatest campaigns in the club’s history. Smart selling and even smarter buying enabled them to fly under the radar as one of the Premier League’s best and most underrated outfits.
The likes of Sadio Mané, Dušan Tadić and Graziano Pellè arrived from minor European leagues and announced themselves as major talents, while the key players they were apparently certain to miss – Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert – bombed elsewhere. Former manager Mauricio Pochettino endured a testing campaign at Tottenham, while new boss Ronald Koeman hit all the right notes all season long. It was a masterclass of forward planning and good governance by those in power at St Mary’s.
The close season predictably saw another set of stars moving on or trying to, with Nathaniel Clyne hopping aboard the sinking ship at Liverpool, Morgan Schneiderlin choosing the megabucks on offer at Manchester United and Mané and Victor Wanyama trying desperately to engineer moves as well. Despite once again losing their outstanding performers, there can be no way any Saints fan looks back on the season with anything other than fondness.
The Season Ahead
While many predicted doom for Southampton (again), they’ve continued pretty much where they left off. A tough run of injuries has disrupted their start to the season, but performances have been very good and, as we’ll see later, their underlying numbers suggest that they’ll soon be rising rapidly up the table.
There are reasons to be optimistic beyond the statistics, chiefly that once again they’ve sold and bought really well. Nathaniel Clyne’s loss appeared to be a big blow but they went out and recruited Cedric Soares, a cheaper and arguably better version of the same player. Morgan Schneiderlin left a big hole in midfield, but Jordy Clasie is a smooth operator and should fit right in when he returns from injury. In goal, Maarten Stekelenburg is a huge upgrade on the sidelined Fraser Forster.
With such an effective playing style, a well-coached squad and evident harmony in the dressing room, there’s no reason why Southampton can’t maintain their high level of performance and cement a place in the top seven.
One of the keys to Southampton’s success in recent years has been the stability of their system. The personnel may change but the way they plays doesn’t, and, unlike most Premier League teams, they sign players who fit the pre-assigned system, rather than accumulating a squad of famous names and then wondering how to fit them together.
That said, the ideas are hardly unique or innovative: they play with the same high-pressing 4-2-3-1 that everyone else does these days, with two attacking full-backs, two dynamic, physical central midfielders, a smart presser in the hole and creative wide men cutting inside from the flanks. They just do it better.
Perhaps their most intriguing tactical trait is their faith in crosses, a method of attack popularly regarded as outmoded and embarrassing among fans of bigger sides. When you’ve got a target man like Pellè, however, it makes sense to use him. No team creates more chances per game from crosses than Southampton and only one team wins more aerial duels. Chelsea will have to be careful.
Their biggest strength at the moment is their ability to outshoot their opponents. Only Manchester City and Arsenal are taking more shots per game than Southampton’s 16.4 at the moment, and a great proportion of the Saints’ are hitting the target (5.6). This is because they’re shooting from good areas: 11.1 shots per game from inside the box is the Premier League’s second highest figure.
At the other end, they’re generally limiting the opposition. Under Pochettino, their pressing system was much-lauded but by their former standards they’re now pretty reactive: only two sides have made fewer tackles per game this season than Southampton. They’re making up for it with interceptions, however: only Leicester and Watford have made more so far. Whatever they’re doing is certainly keeping the opposition away from their goal: only Man Utd have conceded fewer shots on goal.
If there’s one glaring weakness in Southampton’s side, it’s a lack of goals. They’re simply not a team of clinical finishers: given their attacking numbers and general domination of games, 10 goals from 7 matches is a very poor return. In fact, further scrutiny reveals their raw shooting numbers to be slightly misleading: 4.3 of their 16.4 shots per game are headers – by far the highest number in the division, and one which shows that although they’re creating lots of chances, they’re not necessarily creating great ones (given that headers are relatively hard to score).
Additionally, they’re somewhat error-prone at the back. As previously mentioned, the defence has had a disrupted start to the season, with Ryan Bertrand out injured, Cedric Soares settling into the ropes and the hapless Maya Yoshida racking up minutes – but they’ve still given away a lot of goals that could have been prevented. The manner in which they donated three goals to Man Utd two weeks ago said it all, while soft goals were also conceded against Newcastle and Everton.
It might be harsh to say they’re questionable defensively given the fact that they’ve kept three clean sheets in seven games, but two of those were against non-scoring West Brom and Watford. If you’re not shutting the opposition out in those games, you’ve got big problems.
Southampton will likely field an unchanged lineup as they bid to find some consistency after an up-and-down set of results, while Chelsea’s starting eleven is depressingly predictable. It will be a huge surprise if Branislav Ivanović or Cesc Fàbregas is finally dropped, and equally so if John Terry returns to the starting line-up in place of the worryingly poor Kurt Zouma. There’s an outside chance Radamel Falcao will play after being rested midweek, but it will surely be Loïc Rémy up front.
Every week I predict a Chelsea win and they f**k everything up so I’m gonna say 5-0 Southampton and watch as Rémy smacks in seven.