Ronald Koeman’s introduction to Premier League life would not have received the same extent of media examination as that of his former mentor Louis Van Gaal just 24 hours before him, but both the league’s two new Dutch coaches move on with similar problems but with very different campaigns lying in wait.
After Van Gaal, whom Koeman assisted at Barcelona, saw his Manchester United team lose 2-1 at home to Swansea, Koeman took Southampton to Liverpool where they lost by a similar score-line, but saw enough from a promising display to indicate the season ahead won’t be as tumultuous as first predicted. With Manchester United deeply ingrained in transition, Southampton are heading into a similar phase, albeit on an arguably much larger scale.
There is no demand for Champions League qualification or a significant improvement on the relative disaster of last year’s 7th place finish under David Moyes, but simply a request to remain in the Premier League and the access it grants to the new batch of eye-watering revenue streams. It’s a sizeable downscale in expectation for a side that finished 8th last season but one that follows a seismic summer of upheaval.
Citing an “irreconcilable rift” with club owner Katarina Liebherr, the resignation of Nicola Cortese in January sowed the seeds for a flurry of sales across a summer that now leaves the Saints almost unrecognisable from the side that bloomed under Mauricio Pochettino.
The innovative Argentinean coach is now at Tottenham and has since attempted to return to the south coast for Jay Rodriguez, last season’s top scorer, and Morgan Schneiderlin but has been met with stiff resistance, the club adamant that another name will not be added to an already bloated list of departures.
Following Pochettino out of the door have been the young defensive pair of Luke Shaw, to Manchester United for £27 million, and Calum Chambers who heads to Arsenal for £10 million.
Dejan Lovren, so solid alongside Jose Fonte for Southampton last year, was settling into his new home in the heart of Liverpool’s defence on Sunday as last season’s player of the year Adam Lallana watched on injured from the stands as his new side emerged victorious via Daniel Sturridge’s late flick. Rickie Lambert would emerge for a late cameo against the club he joined in League One in 2009.
Southampton recouped £48 million for the trio, but on Sunday afternoon the change in era was stark. Lovren was hailed by his new manager Brendan Rodgers for his fine display of distribution as well as for managing to keep Graziano Pelle, Lambert’s replacement, quiet.
Romanian Florin Gardos has been signed from Steaua Bucharest to take Lovren’s place but his absence at Anfield meant a spot for Maya Yoshida who appeared hesitant against the running of Raheem Sterling. Behind them the performance of Fraser Forster, signed from Celtic for £10 million, would have greatly encouraged Koeman as he looks for a more consistent alternative to Artur Boruc and Paulo Gazzaniga.
There was enough from the movement and flair of Dusan Tadic to suggest the Serbian will prosper in the Premier League after moving for £10.9 million from Twente, the 25 year old laying on a sublime back-heel for the excellent Nathaniel Clyne to rifle home an equaliser.
James Ward-Prowse and Steven Davis were both full of intelligent running and a fluid move created an opening for the Northern Irish midfielder but his tame shot was saved by Simon Mignolet. Ward-Prowse in particular impressed and the 19 year old is aware a big year looms as he steps up to replace Lallana.
“The new management team has come in and done very well and we have all warmed to them,” said the English midfielder. “He is different in terms of how he wants to play but all the lads are really thriving under him and looking forward to playing under him. It’s not as intense as the last regime.”
The response to Koeman was clear at Anfield as Southampton responded well to the new 4-4-1-1 system which encouraged the full-backs forward. Ryan Bertrand was solid on the left as he begins his loan spell from Chelsea while Nathaniel Clyne set about building on an impressive campaign last term with a stunning goal. The right-back’s over-eager positioning for Sterling’s opener however suggested there is work still to do.
The improvements and fine-tuning will be in Koeman’s mind over the coming weeks but this was a hugely promising base for the new coach to build on. Shane Long, a £12 million signing from Hull City who came on late on to miss a golden chance to equalise in the dying minutes, and Saphir Taider who comes to the club on loan from Inter Milan, will feature more prominently in the coming weeks. Pelle, who scored prolifically under Koeman at Feyenoord, will also be afforded considerable time to adapt to his new surroundings.
Koeman should also receive plaudits for his handling of Schneiderlin who after looking short of match-fitness in the first-half emerged in the second to take control of midfield and nearly snatched a point with a late drive that rattled the cross-bar. As Spurs maintain their interest, the attentions of the combative midfielder still, for now, seem to remain on the south coast.
“That was one of the messages we gave the boys. We played an impressive second half and that is how we like to play. If we play like that, I don’t think we will struggle”, said Koeman after the defeat, still full of optimism after inheriting a club in the midst of bedlam this summer and who he himself lampooned on Twitter shortly after taking charge. “Have a bet about that (relegation) with me and you will lose” Koeman said before the trip to Merseyside. On the basis of Liverpool’s narrow victory, few will be making that risk now.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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