Southampton have become the subject of a rather repetitive inquiry in recent years. How do they keep churning out results when they lose their best players every summer?
Though there of course many factors, the main reason is pretty obvious: they keep hiring excellent managers.
The latest, Claude Puel, has gone from relative unknown to right man for the job in no time. He achieved great things in France, but arriving in England from a club like Nice with no international playing career to boost his reputation made Puel a prime candidate for the sort of xenophobic cynicism Robbie Savage recently threw Bob Bradley’s way.
Unfortunately for the likes of Savage, Puel has been too good for doubts to fester. Southampton are in the top half of the Premier League. They’re on the cusp of reaching the Europa League knockout stages. Puel has seamlessly mixed established stars, new signings and young players to create an attacking side well capable of keeping clean sheets. It’s going swimmingly so far.
After six consecutive higher league finishes, Southampton may have been inclined to leave a memo for Puel stating if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, the Frenchman has been unafraid of change. Successful predecessors Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman mastered the 4-2-3-1 formation in their St Mary’s days, but Puel sets up Southampton in a 4-4-2 diamond that gets the best out of his new-look side.
At the base of the diamond, Oriol Romeu has stepped out of Victor Wanyama’s shadow to prove he is the man for the disrupting role at Southampton. Of midfielders to have played seven games or more, Romeu ranks fourth for tackles (2.55 per game), sixth for interceptions (2.64) and tenth for blocks (0.45).
Ahead, Puel has paired Steven ‘Never has a bad game’ Davis with either Jordie Clasie or Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Here, he could be more decisive. Højbjerg is comfortably outperforming Clasie in virtually every aspect, particularly going forward. More accurate, effective passing, more shots, more successful dribbles, more tackles won, more interceptions. Rotation seems key to Puel’s approach, but Højbjerg has surely earned his favour.
Puel’s divergence from Pochettino and Koeman’s methods stands out in attack. Previously, the strength and aerial prowess of Rickie Lambert then Graziano Pelle perfectly complemented two men either side, last season Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane. This year, Tadic has been relocated to the tip of the diamond while Charlie Austin, a similar striker to Lambert and Pelle, has Nathan Redmond alongside him.
Redmond and Tadic still pull wide but they also get close to goal as Puel takes advantage of Southampton’s biggest asset: the best full-back pairing in the league. Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand provide width and stability like no other Premier League duo, facilitating Redmond and Tadic’s varied approach. Sam McQueen has deputised impressively in Bertrand’s absence but the sooner the former Chelsea man is back the better.
Puel’s early comparison between Redmond and Thierry Henry seemed a daft exaggeration – seemed being the operative word. Redmond has backed that up with performances significantly up on previous years. With more shots per game (2.64), more chances created (2.09) and a better pass completion (89%) than Raheem Sterling, promotion to England’s senior squad is surely not too far off for one of the consistent stars of Gareth Southgate’s Under-21s.
Tadic has created the most chances without an assist (31) so far this season which demonstrates the potential for Saints’ attack to improve. If so, Austin is also likely to be in Southgate’s thoughts. At the back, Virgil van Dijk has stepped up his game considerably to become one of the league’s best centre-backs so far this season, as evidenced by Saints’ six consecutive clean sheets – a fine achievement for a new manager – throughout September.
But how far can Puel go? After six consecutive higher league finishes, with heavy-spending rivals above them in the table, continuing the pattern of progression is a tough ask. Unless, that is, the Europa League comes into focus.
Favourable results against Sparta Prague and Hapoel Be’er Sheva, who Saints beat 3-0 and held to a 0-0 draw respectively, will see Puel steer his new side into the group stages. The question then becomes how far can Southampton go? In this regard, Puel’s early days have given Saints fans every reason for optimism.
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