BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
The focus of this Premier League preview on Fan Fuel is Southampton, as Mauricio Pochettino embarks on his first full season in charge of the Saints, with the aim of establishing the team in mid-table while maintaining a progressive brand of football.
The off-season didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts, as chairman Nicola Cortese, who has been at the forefront of Southampton’s rapid rise back into England’s top division, was on the brink of being removed by the board of the Liebherr trust. Mauricio Pochettino was rumoured to be leaving along with Cortese, and just as matters were about to get really perilous, the board came to their senses and accepted the importance of the chairman and his philosophy.
Pochettino came in halfway through last season to replace the popular Nigel Adkins, and despite a lot of initial cynicism about his appointment, the Argentinean manager quickly won over the fans with a style that featured continuous pressing off the ball, and some beautiful attacking football in the final third. Yet, the reality is that Pochettino remains unproven in England, and his supposed attraction for big names from the continent has yet to materialize. Pre-season has been steady rather than spectacular and more signings are certainly needed. Nonetheless the prevailing sentiment amongst the fan base is that the club is on the right track.
On defence: Defence was clearly the weakest suite for Southampton last season, with the 60 goals they conceded tied for the fifth worst record in the division. Artur Boruc veered from the spectacularly good to the inept from one match to the next, and Kelvin Davis was solid for a few games but could not be trusted to make important saves. Boruc retains the number one jersey for now, but will have to cut out the errors from his game or Southampton might have to enter the market for a new goalie in January.
The centre-backs in the squad were all equally culpable of some of the worst defending seen in the league last season. Harmless balls over the top became through balls for forwards as centre-backs incorrectly judged the flight of the ball, while calling their positional sense comical would be generous in the extreme. Maya Yoshida did improve towards the end of the season, but José Fonte and in particular Jos Hooiveld were simply not up to Premier League standard throughout the season. Pochettino has rectified this problem to a certain extent by bringing in Croatian international Dejan Lovren from Olympique Lyon, and while the centre-back is certainly an upgrade on the incumbents, Southampton really need at least one more reliable option in the position.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that under Pochettino’s directive of pressing all over the park, the responsibility of defending falls on the team as a whole. Southampton’s two fullbacks are an outstanding example of the successful implementation of this philosophy. Nathaniel Clyne proved an excellent acquisition at right-back, always comfortable on the ball, and great at breaking through in attacking areas with his pace and dribbling skills. However, Clyne was eclipsed by 18-year-old Luke Shaw, as the left-back played with a composure and pedigree that belied his tender years. Shaw possesses fluidity in his game that is more prominent in mainland Europe, immediately marking him out as a future England left-back. His positional sense is excellent, and his comfort on the ball in attacking positions is unparalleled for someone his age. His excellent delivery of crosses into the box only further enhances his repertoire. It’s a frightening how good Shaw can still become, but even more frightening for Pochettino is the fact that if the teenager succumbs to injury, his only other option at left-back is Danny Fox.
The midfield: Pochettino has a fair amount of options in midfield and the manager certainly hasn’t shied away from exercising them during pre-season. The midfielders are arguably going to have the most important role in implementing Pochettino’s vision this season.
One of the most tactically astute midfielders in the Premier League last year was Morgan Schneiderlin. The Frenchman deservedly won the Saints player of the year award for his stellar performances last season. Schneiderlin keeps Southampton’s midfield ticking with his metronomic passing and subtle movement into spaces that others simply can’t find, and proves that a defensive midfielder doesn’t necessarily have to be overtly physical to succeed in the league.
Alongside Schneiderlin, Jack Cork enhanced his reputation. Cork goes about his business with little fuss, and manages to find short passing options in difficult situations that keeps the Saints play moving forward at all times. How Pochettino fits in Cork after the arrival of Victor Wanyama from Celtic is going to be one interesting tactical dilemma for the manager. Unless Pochettino opts for a midfield five, it’s hard to see the three playing together in an attacking 4-3-3, notwithstanding Schneiderlin’s effectiveness from advanced positions. Wanyama was the star of Celtic’s stellar Champions League campaign last season, and his signing was quite the coup for Southampton. The Kenyan is an excellent defensive midfielder, adept at shielding the centre-backs or covering for them when dragged out of position, as well as being a veritable scoring threat from set pieces.
The experienced Steven Davis will also be called upon during the season as back up, as the Ulsterman can perform a variety of different tasks in the centre of the park. Finally, expect Pochettino to give talented teenager James Ward-Prowse significant opportunities to stake a claim for a first team place this season. Ward-Prowse is adept at beating with players with smart shimmies and a quick turn of pace, although his most exciting asset is his ability to craft accurate short passes in the final third to release the team’s forwards on goal.
On the attack: Rickie Lambert spearheaded the attack for Southampton last season, and did an absolutely superb job while doing so. Lambert is not the traditional big man up front. Instead, he uses intelligent movement and calmness on the ball to almost always find the right option, either finding a teammate in space or finishing with aplomb. Of course his physicality allows him to win many aerial battles, but Lambert often uses this trait as a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Furthermore, Lambert is extremely good at scoring from free kicks, equally capable of generating power from short distances and generating just the right amount of dip and curl from longer distances.
Lambert is far from being the sole attacking threat for Southampton. The Saints best moments in attack generally come when Lambert engages in triangles with captain Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez. As an Englishman, Lallana would certainly command more attention if he was playing for a bigger club. Not only is the skipper extremely powerful, rarely hustled off the ball, but he also possesses brilliant technique and executes sublime turns that have caught many defenders flat-footed. Rodriguez had many doubters in the Premier League, but the forward has taken his game to a higher level under the tutelage of Pochettino, mixing deft touches and short passes with a nice turn of speed to evade defenders in the box. Pochettino’s commitment to improve can be seen in Rodriguez’s greater assurance in finishing, and if the forward can contribute more goals it will ease the pressure on Lambert.
Pochettino will also count on Gaston Ramirez to contribute more consistently now that the Uruguayan record signing has had a full season under his belt to acclimatize to the league. If Ramirez finds his best form, then the Saints will have greater variety in attack, and will serve to further increase the fluency of the team in the final third. Southampton should still look to enhance their forward options as Jason Puncheon, Guly do Prado and Emmanuel Mayuka cannot be relied upon to consistently deliver in case of injuries or suspensions to any of the aforementioned starters.
Conclusion: There is no denying that in terms of style and philosophy Mauricio Pochettino has already proven to be an upgrade on Nigel Adkins. The harsh reality however is that football is a results oriented business, and the history of the Premier League is awash with managers who played intricate and pleasing football but fell by the wayside because they didn’t have points in the bag. Reinforcing the defence will go a long way in bringing home more points, while the cover for the starting forwards isn’t of the requisite standard either.
However, before getting too pedantic about the Saints lack of transfer activity, one should remember that when Pochettino gets it right and the players are switched on, Southampton are capable of beating the best. Consecutive home victories against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea last season can testify. Nicola Cortese is an ambitious chairman and Pochettino an ambitious manager. If that ambition can be carried into the transfer market, Southampton should reach the relative comfort of lower mid-table this season.