Connect in the back of the net

Southampton are fast becoming a quite extraordinary football club.

Summer after summer, the Saints feel inclined to sell their best players for substantially large transfer fees, and in the process, weaken a side that has spent considerable efforts enhancing its potential.

Yet it seems like the norm now that the club exceeds expectations during their time in the Premier League.

After finishing sixth last season, Southampton now lie eighth this campaign. Despite a difficult start, Claude Puel’s men have recovered, picking up 10 points from the last possible 12 in the process.

There have been several key factors behind the Saints’ return to form, such as the increasing creative influence of Dusan Tadic and the goalscoring emergence of Charlie Austin.

However, amongst all the threat that Southampton possess attacking wise, there are two players who are not only providing the solid base from which Saints can play, but also further evidence of the excellent recruitment system that has helped Southampton thrive despite the annual high-profile exodus that occurs at St. Mary’s.

They are Virgil Van Dijk and Oriol Romeu.

The first of whom, Van Dijk, has become the ever-dependent cornerstone of Southampton’s defence.

A £13 million pound signing from Celtic to replace the departed Dejan Lovren, Van Dijk has been instrumental in a backline that has conceded only seven times this season, the third least behind Tottenham (4) and Everton (6).

And in the process, the Dutchman has notched up some impressive statistics.

Since his debut in 2015, no Premier League defender has won more aerial duels than Van Dijk (189), with the next best being Bournemouth’s Steven Cook (157).

In addition, since arriving at Southampton, Van Dijk has also won 118 interceptions, the fourth highest for a defender.

The 25 year-old also averages 8.3 clearances per match this season, the sixth-best in the league, therefore underlining his influential presence at the heart of Saints’ defence.

Van Dijk’s importance was emphasised during Southampton’s recent 0-0 draw at Leicester, where he made seven clearances, four of which were headers, the second best total on either side.

Furthermore, he won six defensive aerial duels, the best on either team.

Standing at 6″4, Van Dijk’s height and strength, not to mention his impressive ability on the ball, an important asset to any centre-back in the modern game, means that he is forming an imperious centre-back partnership with Jose Fonte.

Saints’ fans are no doubt desperate that the club can keep the Dutchman who is bound to be in demand sooner rather than later.

Southampton took the first steps in keeping their key defender earlier this year, with Van Dijk signing a new six-year deal at the club. Saints’ executive director of football Les Reed noted the Dutchman’s qualities.

“Virgil has quickly established himself as one of the top centre-backs in the Premier League,” said Reed towards the end of the last campaign. “He (Van Dijk) has become an integral part of what has been another strong season for the team.”

The impression Van Dijk has created around Southampton is undoubted, proven by him scooping both the Fans’ and Players’ Player of the Season awards at the club. He is surely a player that the Saints’ will need to keep hold of as interest is bound to increase next summer.

The same can be said for defensive midfielder Romeu, who is a man who has completely turned his fortunes around.

The Spaniard, who was educated at Barcelona’s famous ‘La Masia’ youth academy, endured a difficult start to his professional career.

During a troubled period at Chelsea, in which he suffered a serious knee injury and was loaned out twice, Romeu only played 22 league games in four years at the club.

Romeu needed to fulfill his potential, and quick.

Southampton decided to spend £5 million to bring Romeu to St. Mary’s in 2015, a move many thought was a gamble. Yet down on the south coast, firstly under Ronald Koeman and now under Claude Puel, Romeu is thriving.

The 25 year-old is proving an excellent replacement for Victor Wanyama, who left for Tottenham during the summer, and is providing reliable protection at the base of Southampton’s midfield.

So far this season, Romeu has made 22 interceptions, the second best from any midfielder in the league. Moreover, the Spaniard has made 19 tackles, the best from any Southampton player so far.

Romeu is also giving excellent control with the ball, boasting an 89.8% pass success rate this season, the seventh-best from any centre-midfielder in the league, as he bossed the centre of the pitch on Sunday against Burnley, completing 64 passes, the most out of any player in the match.

However, Romeu’s improvement has not shocked his manager Puel. “I’m not surprised by his qualities because he is a very good player,” Puel said ahead of Sunday’s home game against Burnley.

“I think the system of the team is interesting for him because he is alone in front of the defence which is a good position for him. Now we know his work in every game is very important for the team. He plays with regularity – every time at a good level in his game. He is a technical player and also strong in the recovery of the ball and for the future, he will be a very good player for Southampton.”

Romeu, who believes he’s in his ‘best moment in terms of playing football’, was particularly imposing during the draw at Leicester, much like Van Dijk.

He was the best player on the pitch in terms of ball recoveries (18) and tackles won (6), shutting out an attacking Leicester side that came his way.

Van Dijk and Romeu are both excellent examples of how a good recruitment system can soften the blow of losing your best players to bigger clubs.

Southampton are currently benefiting from it and as the club plan to overachieve once more this season, their two latest success stories will likely be pivotal in helping the club defy the odds yet again.

 

Written by Sean Wilson

Follow Sean on Twitter @WilsonFC2012

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