Southampton fans weren’t quite as spoiled this weekend as they were the week previous as Stoke City turned up at St Mary’s in a typically diligent and disciplined mood. The workmanlike approach of Mark Hughes’s team meant there would be no repeat of the 8-0 drubbing that did for Sunderland the week before and for all those turning up in hope of a repeat of last Saturday’s goal-glut, there would be an element of disappointment.
There was just the one goal this time, Sadio Mane’s first in the English game after his strike against Sunderland last week was chalked off by the dubious goals panel, but for Southampton and manager Ronald Koeman it was the same result. Another win, their sixth in the opening nine games, and another clean sheet, their fifth of the season, leaving them with the meanest defence in the Premier League with just 5 goals against their name.
It has been an astonishing start to the season from a team that in the summer found itself tormented by the departure of last season’s manager Mauricio Pochettino as well as five players who were integral to the Argentine’s success on the South Coast. Following the exit of Chairman Nicola Cortese in January after a dispute with the club’s elusive owner Katerina Leibherr, who generated rumours she was gearing up to sell the club, Ronald Koeman was inheriting a club shrouded with dark uncertainty.
In retrospect, Koeman’s summer work has been exceptional, signing a group of players that has made the departures of Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Callum Chambers a mere irrelevance. Koeman, boasting 14 years managerial experience across a handful of Dutch clubs as well as Valencia and Benfica, used an impressive scouting network to deliver Saturday’s £11 million match-winner Mane from Red Bull Salzburg, the scorer of 45 goals in 87 games with the Austrian champions, who already looks well-suited to the Premier League.
Koeman’s most recent job was with Feyenoord and from there he brought with him Graziano Pelle for £8.8 million, the Italian who, with 6 goals already to his name, has begun to kill off fears that he may be another prolific Eredivisie striker who can never quite produce the same form in England, a la Mateja Kezman or Alfonso Alves. Former FC Twente midfielder Dusan Tadic was also picked up from the Dutch league and for £12 million represents a real bargain, the Serbian playmaker was brilliant in the win over Sunderland and has so far made 7 assists, creating an average of 3 chances per game.
Despite the over-inflated £13 million price-tag that Shane Long carried, his boundless energy and tireless running has been a real asset in attack while Fraser Forster has been a solid performer in goal after arriving from Celtic for £11 million. The loan signings of defensive duo Ryan Bertrand and Toby Alderweireld have been extremely shrewd, the latter striking up a solid centre-half partnership with Jose Fonte, who has himself stepped up since inheriting the captaincy from Adam Lallana and seeing his former partner Lovren leave for Liverpool.
The fate of another loan signing, Inter Milan’s Saphir Taider, meanwhile gave an insight into the high demands Koeman places on his squad. Ruthlessly sent back to Italy just a month into his season-long loan, the club cited a failure to “live up to the high levels of commitment expected of Southampton players”.
That the manager made his players watch their poor start to the demolition of Sunderland as he targets perfection was indicative of the importance he places on high-standards and it has even proven infectious. After the 2-1 win away at Arsenal in the League Cup, Koeman was asked if his team could have an extra training session, suggestive of the collective feel-good factor that is palpable in the team that currently sits second in the league.
The Dutchman has also overseen a slight change in style since taking over from Pochettino, easing off from the intense pressing that became the main focus of the Argentine’s team, to a more cautious approach, preferring to soak up more pressure before hitting with effective counter-attacking. They are now seeing less of the ball, averaging 53% possession compared to the 56.5% last season, while nobody makes more tackles than their 24.4 per game and only Arsenal concede less shots per game than Southampton’s 8.7 per game.
The system is now based around a solid midfield base that is provided by Steven Davis, Jack Cork, Victor Wanyama or Morgan Schneiderlin, from whom Koeman has produced another bout of excellent form despite it seeming almost certain he would join the summer’s exodus after Tottenham came calling. Their understanding allows for Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne, rewarded for his impressive displays with a call-up to the England squad, to join attacks, permitting Long and Tadic to move in-field in support of Pelle, positioned in the middle as a physical target-man.
“It is not easy to play against Southampton” said Koeman, an acknowledgement that despite not being at their best against Stoke on Saturday, the visitors still couldn’t break them down. A solid midfield, a watertight defence and a harmonious attack, a recipe forged against the odds by a manager entering a new country and a team in the process of having its squad dismantled. It is a refreshing Premier League tale, one that will be begrudged to Southampton and their Dutch coach by very few.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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