Are Southampton in contention for a top six finish?

It’s nearly a quarter of the way through the season, Southampton have started to climb the Premier League table and have now assumed their almost default position inside of the top ten. Having seen some of their best players depart for the third year running, as well as losing popular manager Ronald Koeman to divisional rivals Everton, many (myself included, though maybe with a little bias as a Portsmouth fan) believed that this could be something of a transitional season under a new coach and with new players who would need time to settle in.

While their start has been steady, if unspectacular, they have shown remarkable resolve to cope with renewed summer departures and continued picking up results, despite having what could easily be perceived as a weaker group of players. Indeed, after eight league games they actually have a near identical record to last season, with the same number of wins, draws and losses, as well as even having the same goal difference as this time twelve months ago.

So are they a genuine dark horse for a top six finish this season?

The first area of interest is how they have replaced the players who have departed. Over the summer they lost Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle, all of whom could easily be considered key players in their line-up from 2015/16, though Pelle did fall somewhat out of favour in the latter part of the season due to an off-field disagreement with Koeman. These sales brought around £50m to the club, but also led to frustration from supporters that they were simply becoming a feeder team for bigger sides. Those sides are seemingly able to poach players every year at a price, preventing Southampton from really challenging and building a standout team.

Still, in their place they brought in highly rated midfielder Pierre Emil Hojbjerg from Bayern Munich, Nathan Redmond from relegated Norwich City and Sofiane Boufal from French Ligue 1 side Lille (for a club record fee). Incidentally, my colleague Mark McAfee raised Boufal as a potential transfer target for the Saints last season, and was no doubt delighted to see this prediction come to fruition!

In all, the trio cost around £38m, though the concerns over squad quality remained, with neither Hojbjerg nor Boufal having played in England before, whilst Redmond was impressive in brief flashes during Norwich’s doomed Premier League campaign. Boufal is yet to make his league debut for the club after arriving with an injury, and though both Hojbjerg and Redmond have featured regularly, they are hardly setting the league alight. Redmond has looked bright but has just two goals in eight starts, despite being shifted to play as a striker by new manager Claude Puel.

So if new transfers haven’t proven to be a catalyst for results, what other reasons are there for Southampton’s continued success?

One of the other notable changes made by Puel when he arrived was to the shape of his team. Last season, Koeman was fairly rigid in using a 4-2-3-1 formation, often playing Steven Davis a little wider on the right of the attacking midfield three. Now though, minus the threat of Mane in behind or on the flanks, Puel has not attempted to force the system on the players, instead moving to a shape that suits the options at his disposal. His choice has been the same narrow 4-1-2-1-2 diamond that he used at Nice, which focuses more on being compact and well organised defensively.

What this has done is enable the team to continue picking up results, even if they don’t hold the same genuine attacking threat as last season. That’s not to say they aren’t a creative force though, with the team sitting in the top five of the league in terms of chances created. A more fluid system along with playing two outright strikers has helped, but it’s their defensive work that’s really impressing at this early stage.

After eight games Southampton have the third best defence in the league in terms of goals against. Conceding seven times in eight matches might not seem spectacular, but taken with the fact that four of those seven goals have come from the penalty spot, the numbers become far more significant. They have done a brilliant job of being organised from open play, giving up just six chances with an average conversion rate of 25% of above in eight matches, which is unsurprisingly the best total in the league to date:

alecpayne_blog_table_v2

One reason for this huge success is the settled defensive core that Puel has put in place. The new manager had to piece together a squad that was down on numbers compared to last season, while also having the additional burden of Europa League football, something that wasn’t the case last year when they were knocked out before the group stage.Of course, if they can sustain this incredible ability to deny big goal scoring opportunities from being created, then it will almost certainly put them in contention for a loftier league position.

Indeed, the Frenchman has managed his resources superbly at the start of the season and though he has made a rotation policy clear, more often than not he resists the temptation of making wholesale changes in league games, with cup competitions seeing far more in the way of line-up changes.

It should go without saying that line-up consistency can be a big factor, and one need only look at Leicester’s continuity last season as firm evidence of that, so it’s worth noting that eight players have started at least seven of the eight league matches played. This consistency allows partnerships to be built, benefiting the team in the long run.

Amongst the eight players are Fraser Forster (GK), Virgil van Dijk (CB), Jose Fonte (CB) and Oriol Romeu (DM). They form the spine of the team and have allowed for a very sturdy structure to be built in place around them. Keeping things settled defensively naturally has big benefits for a team, with rotation in more advanced positions a little less risky and actually having the benefit of keeping their attacking threat unpredictable from game-to-game.

It’s worth noting that none of the four players mentioned were new signings at the club, with the manager not seeing fit to really invest in the defensive side of the team despite the sale of Wanyama. They have promoted from within and are reaping the benefits. This is something the club has a history of doing, and though the centre back pairing of van Dijk and Jose Fonte was already well established last season, with the former now having a year of Premier League football under his belt they are becoming a formidable partnership with all the needed attributes. As a combination they have enough pace, positioning, aerial ability and organisational ability between them, as well as having the additional benefit of being capable of playing out from the back.

One player who has been rejuvenated is Oriol Romeu, a man so often overlooked last season, (although it is worth noting he was almost always included in the starting eleven in games where Southampton were considered heavy underdogs). He has filled the void left by Wanyama in front of the defence with ease, flourishing with the increased game time to become an automatic starter in both league and European competition. Puel obviously saw what he could bring to the team and, without spending any money, has made his line up more defensively solid purely with a minor tactical change.

Line-up consistency in key areas and a slight tactical change have certainly helped cope with the loss of key players, but I appreciate that a lot of this could seem circumstantial and just evidence of a team going through a good patch of form. While I am not suggesting that Southampton are capable of winning the league, their seamless transition between managers, tactical approach and adaptation with new signings has been impressive, and will almost certainly lead them to another top ten finish. They also surely have an outside chance of the top six.

Of course, it would be easy to look at Southampton’s fixture list and say they have achieved little more than people would expect from them, suffering defeats at Man Utd and Arsenal, before going on a run of six consecutive clean sheets in all competitions. These clean sheets encompassed notable results away at both West Ham and Leicester, with the former in particular turning a few heads (albeit against a very out of sorts opponent).

In contrast there is Everton, who have impressed many already this season and are being tipped for Europe. A little ironically they are now managed by former Saints boss Koeman and have had a softer schedule, which goes a long way to explaining their strong defensive record as well. Of the two clubs, Southampton appear to have a better overall balance and have picked up points from a tougher set of fixtures to date.

From an overarching statistical standpoint, they are proving they can mix it with the big teams. They currently sit fourth in terms of average possession, giving themselves control over games and meaning that by avoiding careless turnovers they can reduce the opportunity for opponents to build up consistent pressure. Their approach isn’t at all conservative though, and with a tip of the hat to Rich Huggan and Dave Willoughby who have touched on the subject before, Southampton sit seventh in terms of average “key entries” per game, just behind the current top six teams in the table.

While I won’t weigh in with my own opinion on that subject, it does appear that Southampton are well placed to be the biggest challengers to the status quo this year, though not to the same extent as Leicester last season. They certainly combine a well-structured defence with a functional attack, but probably lack the potency and individual brilliance of Claudio Ranieri’s mercurial team.

They could surely be a good outside choice for a place in the top six at current odds of 5.50, though admittedly for this to happen quite a lot would have to go right. Avoiding injuries will be key, which is something they’ve managed to do for the most part so far, particularly down the spine of the team. There have been knocks to full backs Bertrand and Cedric Soares, but centrally they’ve been at full strength throughout the campaign.

There will surely be movement on their odds with a trip to Manchester City on Sunday followed by a visit to St. Mary’s from Chelsea the following weekend, before a journey to Hull and then yet another international break. Depending on your opinion of how much the Man City result will impact on the price (anything other than a huge defeat should not sway it too much), this still looks like a decent time to enter the market. For those wishing to wait until after the Etihad trip, getting in before a visit of Chelsea would still represent a bit of a gamble if they lose badly to City, but you could bank on another poor result before entering ahead of the Hull game, where the odds could be as wide as 10.00.

In summary, Southampton have shown that they know how to make a push for Europe over the last couple of seasons, and having seen them maintain the base of the spine of their team from last year they should be in the discussion once again. It took people a long time to realise that Leicester were the real deal last season, so is everyone just slow off the mark with Claude Puel’s team this time around? Their underlying numbers suggest so…

Alec Payne (@Payney3)

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