FA Cup: Round Three
Capital One Cup: Quarter-finals
Europa League: Play-off round
The rise of Southampton just goes on and on. Whenever people seem to doubt them they seem to come up with the most emphatic shows of defiance and continuing to set new highs in the Premier League, led by the magnificent Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman was not expected to improve on the seventh position and 60 points he achieved in 2014-15, but proved just how good a manager he is by masterminding a storming second half to the season to finish a place and three points better off.
Once again the club had to deal with the loss of some key players over summer, although not to the extent of the previous year. Long-serving midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin was off to join Manchester United while England international right-back Nathaniel Clyne made the move to Liverpool. Meanwhile, another coveted duo a Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane did stay despite considerable speculation over their futures.
Many of the signings made were in defence as the powerful Virgil van Dijk arrived from Celtic to join Cedric Soares and Cuco Martina in committing to the Saints. Combative midfielders Jordy Clasie and Oriol Romeu both came in, while goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg was recruited to deputise for the injured Fraser Forster.
The season started in late July as they entered the qualifying stages of the Europa League and although they got past Vitesse Arnhem in their first tie, Southampton could not get the better of Midtjylland in the final round before the group stage, which represented a major letdown as they were seen by many to have a reasonable chance of going a fair way into the competition. Questions were also being asked as a result of an indifferent start to their Premier League campaign.
After just one win in the first six games where the only real positive was the goalscoring form of Graziano Pelle, they eventually hit form in late September with back-to-back victories against Swansea City and Chelsea. The latter was particularly eyecatching, and suggested that the team may be back to its best with Mane and Pelle firing on all cylinders.
Two straight wins to begin November lifted them to seventh and just five points off the top of the league, but from then until Christmas they suffered a worrying dip in form where the goals dried up and the defensive shape or cohesion normally marshalled by captain Jose Fonte was badly lacking. A 6-1 home defeat to Liverpool in the Capital One Cup was a chastening night, and they were also made to suffer by former boss Mauricio Pochettino, who led Tottenham to an easy win at the St. Mary’s Stadium.
A brief and spectacular reaction came on Boxing Day as a stunning Martina strike and a livewire performance from Shane Long saw Arsenal blown away 4-0, but that did not immediately fix the club’s problems as Koeman laid into his players after a bad day at Norwich City on January 2. Wanyama had just received his second red card out of three during the season, while Mane had been dropped after turning up late for a team meeting.
Something clearly had to change and Koeman decided that it was in defence, where he adopted a system of three central defenders with wing-backs on either side, although a major boost had come with the return of Forster from injury to keep goal. Almost like the flick of a switch, Southampton were a totally different proposition, showing a level of resilience that had been absent previously to bring about a run of six successive clean sheets.
Five of those matches resulted in victory as the renewed confidence seemed to flow throughout the team, with one of those coming at Manchester United as January signing Charlie Austin lived up to his clinical reputation by heading home the winner on his debut. Despite a run of one point from a possible nine in the week commencing February 27, they were becoming an almost unstoppable force and moving right into European contention.
Turning the tables on Liverpool by coming from two goals down to win 3-2 was as sweet a victory as they come, with Mane serving a reminder of his ability. The former Red Bull Salzburg striker would not look back for the remainder of the season, scoring several more including a hat-trick in another memorable success as Manchester City were swept away, while unsung hero Steven Davis netted both in a win at Tottenham.
Indeed, the Saints managed to win on each of their last four outings, producing some marvellous attacking football in the process to finish sixth and qualify automatically for the group stage of next season’s Europa League. Koeman is a highly sought after manager, but if he stays and can maintain the incredible form of the last few months, then the club be even more of a force to be reckoned with next term.
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