By James Mackney @JimMackney @TLE_Sport
Ronald Koeman’s appointment after a summer of upheaval was met with approving nods from Southampton fans. Koeman had steadied the ship at Feyenoord and taken them to new heights in his tenure there. He had won everything as player and been a part of Louis Van Gaal’s management team at Barcelona. The future seemed bright and in truth, more often than not this season, it has been.
1: Southampton 8-0 Sunderland
Koeman’s side had started the season impressively, including a 4-0 thumping of Newcastle. Graziano Pelle was in rich scoring form and Duscan Tadic look for all the world like the perfect replacement for the departed Adam Lallana.
Koeman’s direct (not long ball), attacking football had caught the eye and on a sunny October day it came together perfectly. Sunderland were outplayed and hit for a number of goals that usually leads to the sacking of a manager.
Yes, Sunderland were woeful, but Southampton were relentless. They had Sunderland on the rack as soon as Vergini scored an own goal in the 12th minute to start proceedings and didn’t take their foot of the gas until the final whistle. This win took Southampton to 3rd in the table and rumours of a meltdown that had seemed all too possible in the summer were banished for good.
2: Southampton 0 – 3 Man City
It may seem odd for a defeat to rank as a top moment in a season but the manner of the defeat was a huge learning curve for Southampton. In the run up to this game they had taken 13 out of a possible 15 points in the league, they were riding high in the table and, seemingly, nothing could stop them… then along game Sergio Agüero and co.
Manchester City didn’t get out of second gear and Southampton, for large parts, were victims of their own downfall; far too gung-ho in attack and disorganised at the back for the first time since Koeman joined the club.
This game was the first of a run of five straight defeats in League and Cup but with each subsequent performance Southampton got stronger: they should have claimed a point against Arsenal in the next game until injuries (after all three subs had been used) left them with 10 men for the final 10 minutes, they battered Man Utd and lost 2-1, they missed a penalty against Burnley and somehow lost 1-0 and in truth they bottled the League Cup Quarter-Final with Sheffield United. However, the 3-0 victory against Everton that followed saw the Saints kick start once more and take a further 15 points from 18 in the league.
Every defeat should be a learning curve and this one certainly was.
3: Southampton 2 – 0 Arsenal
Southampton welcomed the Gunners to St Mary’s on New Years Day and gave a masterclass performance in how to win at home against a top four side. Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez were nullified by Victor Wanyama and Steven Davis; Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand bombed down the flanks, and Sadio Mané put in a terrier-like performance in attack. Mané scored a sublime opening goal with a curling effort from an acute angle after a defensive error.
Mané has made a habit this season of scoring the first goal or the most important goal in games this season, something which has come in very handy for Southampton and in truth a vital part of what they were missing from their attack last season.
Fraser Forster saved brilliantly twice to keep Southampton ahead. His save from a Sanchez piledriver was a particular highlight.
Saints stayed fourth and Arsenal dropped to sixth – the proverbial glass ceiling was beginning to crack ever so slightly.
4: The signing of Ryan Bertrand and the dawn of new intentions
Ryan Bertrand had been on loan from Chelsea since the start of the season and he was Saints’ only permanent singing of the January transfer window when José Mourinho deemed him no longer part of his plans at Chelsea.
Bertrand’s career has been a stop-start affair. Long spells at a host of clubs including Aston Villa and Southampton came after he made his full debut in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
Bertrand looked unsure in the initial stages of the his loan spell at Southampton but following a good performance in the 3-1 win away to West Ham he hasn’t looked back and has been one of Southampton’s most consistent players.
His signature was also a sign of intention from Southampton. They never sign players from the Top Four in England, it just doesn’t happen, and although Bertrand may have been a minor outcast, it signaled a shift in perspective for the South Coast club and a welcome change from the lower-league or unknown prospects that usually enter the club.
5: Southampton 2 – 2 Tottenham
Neither side could lose. Neither did. Tottenham/Southampton should have won. – A fan’s assessment.
Erik Lamela’s handball ‘headed’ goal got Spurs back into the game after some good pressing work and bit of luck had given Saints the lead with Pelle’s opener. Pelle restored the lead with a brilliant header and then Maya Yoshida misread the game and Chadli squeezed in an equaliser.
The game itself was an end-to-end affair full of attacking play between two sides where there is very little love lost. Add an ex-manager into the equation and the stadium for the most part was rocking.
Why was this game a pivotal moment? Because it outlined the stature of both teams.
Southampton want European football and have played well enough all season to deserve it. Tottenham want Champions League football and, arguably, haven’t quite done enough to deserve it. The clubs are now on a very even footing with two young sides that play attractive attacking football with one of only a handful of small differences between them being Southampton’s superior defensive record.
The question is, would Mauricio Pochettino rather come seventh and see Aston Villa win the cup than play in the Europa League again? Debateable.
Southampton want to finish as high as 5th to secure the next stage of what has been meteoric rise from the depths of League 1.
The match eventually ended in a draw. It was always going to end in a draw. The season is going to the wire and if it takes beating Manchester City on the last day of the season for Southampton to steal European football away from Spurs or Liverpool, I wouldn’t bet against them succeeding.
It really has been a remarkable season.