Southampton go down, but not without cause for optimism 1

Liverpool were the winners at Anfield this afternoon, and their status will probably make the object of much of the analysis in the coming days, but Southampton were arguably the real story.

It’s been a miserable Summer at St Mary’s; the much-publicised exodus has broken up last year’s team and cultivated a doom culture around the club.  From accusations that Katharina Liebherr was sanctioning sales out of self-interest, to prophecies of relegation: Southampton have been whipped by the press at every opportunity and presented as a looted and holed vessel destined for the seabed.

It’s been melodramatic, unfair and, at times, disrespectful to the coaching capabilities of Ronald Koeman and the scouting of his support staff.

Today wasn’t a revenge for that, because Koeman and his players will travel back down south without any points, but it was a reminder that this is still a team rife with talent, long on heart, and who are evidently being coached extremely well.  One performance does not make a season and plenty of sides have performed well at marquee grounds one week before sinking into a malaise seven days later, but Southampton showed enough of themselves this afternoon to prompt their doubters into a re-think.

With new loanee Saphir Taider left on the bench and new permanent signing Florin Gardos not yet ready for inclusion, Ronald Koeman set out a Pochettino-like 4-3-3 with Victor Wanyama as the deepest midfielder, and Morgan Schneiderlin and Steven Davis alongside him in marginally more advanced roles.  Beyond them, Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle were given their first competitive starts, and James Ward-Prowse was used a shallow wide-midfielder.

On paper that forward unit seemed lopsided and Tadic’s preference for playing on the touchline combined with Ward-Prowse’s tendency to drift in-field hinted at a potential lack of balance, but it worked very well.  Sure, there were errant passes and occasional bad decisions, but for a new combination they were very promising.  Pelle recycled the ball and linked the play very well, using his feet neatly and winning plenty in the air against Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren.  Tadic’s execution in the final-third wasn’t quite what it can be, yet he still managed to back-heel gloriously into the path of Nathaniel Clyne for the second-half equaliser, and Ward-Prowse was just…outstanding.

What really got lost amongst all the Summer incredulity was just how many good players there are still at St Mary’s.  Ward-Prowse is one of those, and his prominence in a game of this size was a real statement about his progression during the last twelve months.  His set-piece delivery is outstanding and it has been from the moment he stepped onto a Premier League pitch, but his general contribution in the attacking areas was very good this afternoon and his understanding of how to construct offensive moves seems to have improved exponentially over a short space of time.  Beyond his distribution, he now possesses a real composure on the ball and his maturation is something that English football should be anticipating to en masse.

When Koeman reviews the tape today, he’ll naturally be disappointed with the two goals conceded.  Nathaniel Clyne left a chasm for Jordan Henderson to play Raheem Sterling into for the first, and Sterling should obviously never have won the header that led to Daniel Sturridge’s goal.  Beyond that, however, the Dutchman will take great pride in how infrequently Liverpool troubled his side.  Beyond picking the ball out of his net twice, Fraser Forster was relatively unemployed and the back-four - protected by Wanyama and Scheniderlin - prevented any kind of penetration.  Liverpool were not at their best, but it’s only fair to point out that they weren’t allowed to be; Southampton didn’t give them the chance to counter-attack, Philippe Coutinho was contained and prevented from ever picking a pass through the backline and into the channels that Sturridge loves to exploit, and Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling were irrelevant for long periods of the game.

What you saw today was something embryonic, but there was enough of that something for it to be a credible building block.  Once that front-unit develops more chemistry, when Taider and Gardos are integrated, and when the squad is inevitably added to before the end of the window, this side will be as competitive as everyone should have always assumed that they would be.

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