Inside the Opposition: Southampton FC

Somehow this weekend’s game against Southampton has been allowed to turn into a vital, must win game for City. Uninspired performances over the last few weeks at home and in Europe have taken the wind right our of City’s sails. The early season momentum has dissipated.

Can Southampton continue piling the misery on City? We spoke to Southampton fan Alex Stewart for a bit more information. Alex has a blog called Put Niels In Goal and also writes for The Set Pieces, uMAXit and The Football Pink among others.

Hi Alex, thanks for coming on! For the second year in a row Southampton lost a lot of players who looked to make up the foundation of the team – how great an effect has that had on you this season? In defence specifically the loss of Alderweireld and Clyne looked from the outside to be significant. Is that the reality?

Yes and no, in short. But you said I could be verbose, so to clarify: the loss of very good players is always significant, but the recruitment of other good players can mitigate the weakness to an extent and, even, rejuvenate a team. We’ve been here before, of course; I think we see Liverpool especially as regarding us as some sort of proxy nursery for players, though Arsenal have also taken several strong prospects in the past and Manchester United took, then broke, Luke Shaw.

I think a certain amount of evolution in a squad is no bad thing, though the loss of Morgan Schneiderlin was always going to be tough to bear and has resulted in a certain stylistic transition in how we play. In terms of those players you’ve mentioned, it’s galling to see Toby doing so well at Spurs given the circumstances of our failure to secure his long-term rights, though that’s not a failure for which I blame our board. Nathaniel Clyne, whose name is usually misspell, is the outstanding English right-back at the moment but, I suppose to be both fair and realistic, we poached him from Crystal Palace and his move to a clearly larger club, even one that is underperforming, is understandable.

In terms of replacements, Cedric Soares has been less than convincing in defence, though he is an exciting attacking player, and I always get a little jittery when Yoshida steps in to ‘solidfy’ that side of the pitch as I suspect he will do against City. Alderweireld’s direct replacement, Virgil Van Dijk, has looked very assured though, which shows that sensible purchasing can offset the inevitable asset stripping that an upper mid-table club such as ours has to contend with every year.

Graziano Pelle has gotten himself suspended for your trip to the Etihad. How big a loss will he be? Who should we be keeping an eye on in his stead?

Aesthetically, if for no other reason, Graziano’s absence is always a blow. If there’s a more handsome man in the Premier League I have yet to see him, and I am less than convinced by the rabid attack dogs of Arsenal Twitter’s consistent advocacy of Oliver Giroud in his stead.

In terms of pure football, Pelle provides a focal point for our attacks and transitions, and the Saints’ playing style uses his ability in the air by looking to cross, especially on the overlap. He’s very good at holding the ball up on the ground before playing it back or wide to our more mobile, dynamic attacking players like Sadio Mane; one might almost be tempted to say that he’s good with his feet for a big man etc etc. He is also, of course, our leading goal-scorer, though six in 13 is not exactly killer form for someone who plays so regularly. Finishing, indeed shooting on target, is a weakness for us, so a proven goal-scorer’s absence will always hurt.

As far as replacements go, Shane Long, if he overcomes his fitness concerns (apparently the normally avuncular Ronald was quite put-out by his appearance for Ireland the other day) is hard-working and capable of threatening, especially driving from a slightly deeper position than Pelle would normally occupy. Juanmi isn’t bad in the air for a relatively short player, but he lacks Pelle’s presence and strength and is probably more of a poacher than a target man. Jay Rodriguez is, obviously, out again and I have real worries about whether he will ever recapture his form, a huge shame given what a talent he was when we first signed him.

I find myself particularly intrigued by the signing of Jordie Clasie but haven’t seen a lot of him yet. He arrived with a fine reputation… what are your thoughts on him? The real deal?

Oh very much so. My Dutch friends rate him very highly and his pre-existing relationship with Koeman, who is very keen on such things, will serve him well. He has a great range of passing and, while less assertive in the press than Schneiderlin, is still capable of setting a good tempo in an area of our play that is crucial. He’s one of those players who seem to crop up in the right place to break up attacks more than could be considered simply lucky. His injury at the beginning of the season was a blow because his integration into the side and our style of play was understandably hampered, but I’ve no doubt that he can become a central figure at St Mary’s, and his partnership in the two-man midfield with Victor Wanyama seems like a very natural marriage of two different skill sets.

The Southampton academy deservedly gets a lot of plaudits. What is it about the academy which makes it so good? Which of the young players would you say is the pick/are the picks of the bunch this season who we should be watching?

It’s the real jewel in our crown, no doubt. They just seem to have everything settled, a well-structured talent identification and development strategy and good people in key positions. Les Reed, a board member and Head of Football Development, has an excellent reputation for blending advances in scouting and player development using data analysis with having a good, old-school feeling for the game. The youth production line starts in part at a series of centres run by the Saints Foundation who identify young talent in what might be a difficult catchment area, but also works alongside various charities helping disadvantaged or disabled children. It might sound mushy, but I think that parents of young footballers look at the way Southampton conduct themselves and feel comfortable sending their kids to the club because it’s such a good environment, as well as having a great track record of producing players. Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are good players, Bale outstanding really, but they also come across as very decent, balanced young men and I think that speaks volumes about the club’s style and priorities.

There are number of good prospects, as usual. At the back, Jack Stephens and Jordan Turnbull look like very good potential centre-backs and Will Wood is a strong left-back or left midfielder. Jake Hesketh was around the fringes of the first team until he got injured, and Josh Sims, a quick, tricky winger and European U-17 Championship winner also looks very lively. Ryan Seager should get a chance up front at some stage this season; his goal-scoring record with the U-21s is excellent and he’s a more natural finisher than anyone else in the squad bar Mane.

Favourite City player?

Ever? Probably Georgiou Kinkladze, one of those diminutive magicians who seemed to love playing and entertaining. Don Revie was an intriguing figure, both in terms of his innovative approach to playing up front and then as a manager, especially in his clashes with Brian Clough. Joe Corrigan always makes a decent coach in Football Manager.

In terms of the current squad, it’s hard to look past Sergio Aguero, who has ability and commitment in great measure. I also have a soft spot for Richard Wright, a sort of Val Kilmer of football: he has been occasionally, largely by association, on the periphery of great triumph, without ever really have done much himself.

Predicted lineup and scoreline?

(4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Bertrand, Van Dijk, Fonte, Yoshida; Wanyama, Clasie; Mane, Davis, Tadic; Long.

I think it’s hard to see a Saints win here, though it won’t be emphatic. I’d go 2-1 to the home side. Meh.

Thanks again, Alex. Southampton have a lot to be proud of and I’m looking forward to the game tomorrow!

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Interview by Alex Timperley

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