As so often happens with teams who are carefully built up over time and rise above their expected level, Southampton’s core was suddenly torn apart over the summer. Mauricio Pochettino left to manage Tottenham, five very important first-team players were lured away, and many others were courted in an exodus which appeared to resemble something of a crisis according to many in the mainstream media. Fast forward a few months, however, and it has proved to be anything but that.
It’s impressive enough for a team to retain their general position after suffering from a raiding of their best players, but to largely improve as a result of it is almost beyond comprehension. A clever managerial appointment in Ronald Koeman combined with a number of talented signings (mostly from abroad) has seen them rise to third – and whether you have doubts over whether they can sustain it or not, Champions League qualification really is a genuine possibility for them right now.
Perhaps the biggest reservation over their European credentials in the last few months has come when playing against the bigger teams, with the majority of their early season wins being games in which they would be expected to pick up full points. Of their games against any of the seven teams who finished above them last season Southampton lost the first five consecutively, prompting understandably significant concerns, but that all changed over the Christmas period. A 3-0 win at home to Everton (albeit Roberto Martínez’s side are struggling massively) ended that streak, and that was swiftly followed by a draw to Chelsea and a reasonably comfortable 2-0 win against Arsenal.
That run was extended further to four unbeaten against that set of teams in their latest league game, and the performance against Man Utd in the 1-0 win at Old Trafford was, though not indicative of the attacking qualities which Southampton have, right up there as one of their best tactical showings under Koeman.
Even if the results haven’t necessarily followed (against harder opponents where this is more relevant and they can’t control the game, that is) the good performances up until this run they’re on, their continued displays of organisation and an ability to adapt to different game situations and opponents has been one of the highlights of their season so far. That can be clearly seen in their defensive record, which has been staggeringly consistent this season: having let in a league low of 15 goals at a rate of just 0.71 per game.
With a set of disciplined players and a great understanding of the game at his disposal, Koeman can easily set up his team to counteract an opponent’s strengths or benefit from one of their weaknesses. In the game at Old Trafford it was mainly the former – where the Dutchman deployed a team capable of shutting off the service to Man Utd’s talented individuals in attacking areas.
“You know that they have difficulties to build up with three centre-backs… they have a lot of qualities from the midfield to the attack. Fantastic players so you need really good players to stop that.” – Ronald Koeman in his post-match press conference following the Man Utd game
Despite Louis van Gaal’s efforts to instigate it, the deployment of a back-three for Man Utd has been severely flawed in numerous ways; with one significant issue being the personnel they have at centre-back. Beyond Marcos Rojo (who has regularly been absent with injuries) none of their natural defenders are truly comfortable in this set-up with the ball, due to deficiencies in both their technical ability and understanding of how to play the system, and that has caused big problems with their build-up play and how attacks develop.
That has been a very common issue for them and one which Southampton could look to build around, but the difference in this fixture was that – whether due to injury problems or as an attempt to solve the lack of progressive passing from the back – Daley Blind was utilised in a more unorthodox role for him as the wide centre-back on the left. Given his technical ability and comfort of carrying the ball forward into the channels, there was now a specific outlet from the back which was potentially dangerous for Koeman’s side.
However, by containing Blind as well as Michael Carrick, their key builder of play in deep areas from holding midfield, Man Utd’s slow development of possession could remain one of their weakest points. The ever-organised Southampton did that very effectively, in particular by using James Ward-Prowse and Steven Davies to press the two of them and limit their time on the ball. This restricted their influence and with both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones (the other two centre-backs) lacking the ability to sufficiently build play, Man Utd were stopped at the source.
Though these were the two most ‘dedicated’ instances of man-marking, it was employed by Koeman throughout the whole midfield area: something which was both enabled and enhanced by the lack of any sufficient tempo to get the ball into Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata. This meant the pair at the heart of the midfield were forced to drop deep to find space and collect the ball, completely isolating the attack; and without any service the attackers can hardly be expected to have much of an influence – which was exactly what Koeman intended from the off.
If Ander Herrera had played a larger part then perhaps his energy and ability to connect play between the deeper players and the attackers may have made a difference (as it often has this season when he’s played), but his absence until the hour mark meant that Southampton could comfortably maintain their man-marking without much of an issue – especially as one of Morgan Schneiderlin or Victor Wanyama were constantly screening behind in case anything did get through, with that pair rotating very effectively together as always.
With the lack of threat centrally the biggest problem Southampton had was out wide, where Elia was given the freedom to attack on the left and Davies assigned to move infield to block the inside channel and suffocate Carrick on the right, meaning that Man Utd’s two wing-backs often had a lot of room to move forward into up the line. This was an issue, but with crossing being an extremely inefficient way of scoring it was of much greater preference to have the open space there rather than allowing build-up to occur through the middle. Given all this and how effectively it was done, in hindsight it’s of little surprise that Man Utd had no shots on target in the 90 minutes.
Restricting strong opponents to very limited chances has been a common thing for Koeman’s side to do in the last few weeks. They’ve conceded just one goal in that run of four fixtures against teams that finished above them last year (Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal and Man Utd), an impressive feat. Perhaps even more impressive however, just to remove any doubts about that being a somewhat lucky achievement, is that if you combine the amount of shots on target recorded in those matches then the figure is only 11 – with four of those being against Everton and six against Arsenal.
A large part of Southampton’s brilliant defensive record can be put down to their ability to simultaneously combine great compactness with a measured but intense level of pressing. There were concerns when Pochettino left that the pressing would decline drastically, which would be a worry given how important that was to them defensively during his time at the club, but Koeman has helped to find a more sustainable balance between that ferociousness under the Argentine and the maintenance of shape which was lacking on occasion.
That new-found (or, at the very least, increased) stability can be evidenced in a few ways statistically, as well as just by watching events and paying attention to shapes on the pitch: they average the most tackles per game (22.6), the fourth highest amount of fouls per game (12.5), and, the best indication of all, the lowest amount of shots conceded per game (9.3) of all teams in the league. If that doesn’t suggest that this really is a sustainable first half of the season then it’s hard to think what could.
All in all, as evidenced in particular by their latest display at Old Trafford, Southampton’s defensive performances this season have been nothing short of tremendous. By being organised, disciplined and compact without the ball, as well as effective and talented on it, the Saints have got themselves into a position which was beyond unthinkable at the start of this season. If they can continue playing as they are now, then converting this extremely promising start into a truly memorable finish really is a possibility.