By Mihail Vladimirov.
Klopp would have liked an easier opponent for his Premier League debut. Not that Southampton are one of the most in-form teams in the moment; but Koeman’s side have become one of the league’s most uncomfortable opponents. This clash has the potential to be much trickier for the Reds than it may appear on a first glance.
Koeman’s Southampton up to now
The Saints had a much worse start to this campaign than last season’s. By this time a year ago, Koeman’s side already had five wins and one draw from the opening nine games (the two defeats were away at Liverpool and Tottenham). In comparison, this year the team has managed to win only three games with the other six games seeing four draws and two defeats.
Results-wise there might not be much of a difference but the performances couldn’t have been more contrasted. Last season, especially during the first few months, Southampton had the best defence when it came to all the important metrics (goals conceded, clean sheets, big chances conceded, individual errors made, expected goals etc). This was the platform for their rise to the point of appearing as Chelsea’s only title contender before dropping to become ‘just’ a strong Champions League candidate for a long time.
This season, everything is different. The team has kept only three clean sheets in its first nine games, conceding 13 goals in the process. Defensive inconsistencies have crept in, showed by the high number of big chances conceded on a game-to-game basis – 1, 3, 1, 1, 0, 4, 2, 0 and 5 big chances being conceded in the games up to now. Similar inconsistency has plagued the team’s attack – 1, 0, 0, 4, 1, 3, 1, 3 and 1 clear-cut chances have been created.
Partially, such overall inconsistency could be explained by the fact that Koeman once again has had to replace first-choice players who had been sold or injured. Forster missed the last few months of last season, so Stekelenburg was brought in to replace him.
Ahead of the goal-keeper, Koeman has had only Jose Fonte starting the season from the back four unit that performed so well last season. Clyne and Alderweireld left the club, while Bertrand missed most of pre-season training and the first six games of the season due to injury. Targett deputised at left-back, while Yoshida initially partnered Fonte before Alderweireld’s long-term replacement came in, the former Celtic giant centre-back van Dijk.
In midfield, Schneiderlin was sold to Man Utd with his direct replacement Jordy Clasie also having the bad luck to start the season injured – he has just played some part in Southampton’s reserve friendly game as part of his rehabilitation.
It’s only in the attacking positions where Koeman has kept the backbone of last season’s team. Tadic, Mane and Pelle have all been ever-present, with the latter finally returning to form. The former Feyenoord player dipped for the second part of last season but is now back closer to his best form, scoring and assisting goals as well as having a key role in the build-up play and final third combinations.
With such a turnaround of players and the team initially still finding their feet after the loss of yet another batch of influential first-teamers, a shaky opening to this season could be excused. What would surely please Koeman is that since the end of the transfer window his side has gradually started to improve and gel together. In the five games since then the team was arguably unlucky to have only drawn with WBA and lost to Man Utd. The two wins that followed – against Norwich and Swansea – were totally deserved. It was only in the last game when Koeman’s side disappointed. They started the game well, ending the first half with a comfortable 2-0 lead before a combination of their complacency and yet another inspired Leicester comeback left them to scrape a 2-2 draw that could have easily end up as a 2-4 defeat.
How could Koeman line-up?
Apart from the long-term injured Forster, Koeman is only missing the centre-back Gardos and the versatile forward Long for this game. The Dutch manager confirmed Stekelenburg is in line to return at goal, while Jay Rodriguez has some ankle troubles and might need to be rested for this game if the latest fitness test suggests he wouldn’t be fit enough to take part in the match squad.
The biggest tactical question ahead of Koeman is how he decides to set up his team battle with Liverpool’s sheer numbers in midfield (assuming Klopp continues with the 4-3-2-1 or changes to a 4-diamond-2). As Tottenham showed, pressing isn’t the answer, at least from the start when Liverpool could also decide to press heavily. The Reds’ dual midfield block of three central midfielders and the advanced midfield pair sitting ahead of them is too dangerous to be left unattended.
The first variant the Dutch manager could opt for is to follow the script he used for the visit at Stamford Bridge a couple of weeks ago. Back then, Southampton started the game with two holding midfielders in Wanyama and Romeu with Tadic and especially Davis from the right flank tucked infield to make a narrow midfield quartet. This left Mane to slot in just off Pelle up front – a combination that seemed the perfect counter-attacking outlet due its complementary attributes.
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