In a more normal Premier League season, the wider media would probably be spending more time rehashing the same clichés they’ve used for Southampton over the past couple of years. They’re hanging around the top eight having survived another summer of key departures (Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne) and there’s no real signs of danger as they’re once again above average in controlling shot numbers for and against. Perhaps the quality of attacking football hasn’t quite been to the standard of the previous two seasons but it’s still been satisfactory. Their goal difference is fine enough at +11 and in a year of chaos and turbulence, Southampton are being their steady selves.
And yet there’s a good argument to be made that this iteration is the worst one we’ve seen since 2012-13. Let’s start with the good: Southampton are still a good defensive side. They’re conceding the 8th least shots in the league, 5th least shots on target. Some expected goal models rank Southampton‘s defense highly while others don’t. Whichever one you roll with, the overall picture has been solid though not stellar. A rolling chart of Southampton’s shots conceded from Koeman’s entire tenure is that these last few games have been some of the worst.
Perhaps this is the consequence of constant retooling while rival Premier League teams snatch up members of their defensive core? In midfield, Jordy Clasie has had his share of injuries this season and that’s helped expose more of Victor Wanyama’s flaws as a defensive midfielder. On the plus side, Fraser Forster has been a really good shot stopper and a good goalkeeper can mask some flaws. Paul Riley’s shot model rates Forster as one of the best shot stoppers in the catalogue. There’s some conflicting data surrounding how his technique of saving shots isn’t too beneficial but to this point, Southampton have a good keeper and he’s certainly been a massive upgrade over Artur Boruc.
So Southampton are still good defensively even though it’s not quite to the standards of last season. If we transition to the attacking side, it’s also broadly fine. 54 goals was their tally the last two seasons and they’re on pace this season for 48-49. They’re in the top 8-9 in generating shots, and expected goals have them ranked in the 4th-8th range as well. Even though their shooting percentage is below the league average, it isn’t demonstrably behind.
Looking at the types of shots being taken though and it reveals a dirty secret: Southampton like to cross the ball a ton.
In comparison to clubs like Arsenal or Tottenham who value efficiency, Southampton are death by 1000 cuts. Crossing the ball on the whole isn’t an inherent evil that it sometimes is made out to be. Unwrap it more and there are different types of crosses. The type of aimless crosses we think of, like the ones seen in that famous Man United v Fulham match during the Moyes tenure, are by far the least advantageous because they’re against a team in a set defensive position. Cutbacks or even low crosses in a non structured environment are often much more advantageous because of their location, something Barcelona and Bayern Munich seem to complete in abundance.
Here’s why Southampton’s penchant for crossing can be so annoying though: they can be effective in other ways. You wouldn’t necessarily think of Southampton as a direct counter attacking side but they are. They rank very highly in metrics that describe counter attacking tendencies
If we attach expected value with these attacks, it rates them even higher
— Will (@WillTGM) April 5, 2016
Taking a look at their passing data and it also tells us that Southampton are slightly above average in controlling final third territory
There are a considerable amount of redeeming qualities about how Southampton play, which makes their tendency to lump the ball up to their target men all the more frustrating. This isn’t a one season mirage though because they’ve crossed the ball a lot since coming into the league and it makes some sense seeing as three of their strikers have been Charlie Austin, Graziano Pelle and Rickie Lambert; a trio that is capable with the ball at their feet but also they are natural target man who like crosses fed in. That being said there should be a Plan B or C when you’ve already attempted 22 crosses in the game and it’s gone virtually nowhere. For the reputation that they’ve previously garnered for playing attractive football, this year’s Southampton have been more prone to a pragmatic style than the champagne stuff.
One of the weird things about Southampton’s season has again been the use of their attacking midfielder Dusan Tadic. Despite the cold streak he went on in the 2nd half and how he seemed to waiver in and out of favour, last season was a good debut for Tadic in England. For half of Adam Lallana’s transfer fee, they got a more productive playmaker. It’s been weird this time around too. Fundamentally, nothing has really changed when he’s played. He still plays primarily on the left side and his production is still up there with some of his peers. but he still hasn’t played as much as he should. I compared Tadic’s minutes to other prominent playmakers in the Premier League season and a couple of things that stuck out were the amount of minutes he’s played as a sub and the disparity in total minutes:
The only reason why his minutes are comparable to De Bruyne and Silva is both City players have had extended injury layoffs, while Tadic hasn’t. The sub minutes can be taken one of two ways. On the one hand, there are clear benefits both contextually and statistically to coming on as a sub. Perhaps someone on Southampton is telling this to Ronald Koeman and he’s been using this more than other teams to beat up on tired defenses. On the other hand and this is the side I lean towards, Dusan Tadic is probably their best attacking player, and at the very least in the top 2-3. When it comes to his specific role as a playmaker, there’s no one on the squad that comes close to touching him and even with the dalliances to a back three, that shouldn’t mean that you can’t find room for Tadic to play in it most of the time. Surely it would make more sense if he was playing 60 minutes and coming off for 30 than the other way round? Regardless Koeman has been reluctant to field Tadic and Mane together and it has impacted on their ability to shine.
In the wider context of being a team still relatively new to the league, this has been another successful season for Southampton. Another top 8-10 finish means even the club can continue to be fairly profitable while paying off whatever remaining debts are still with them. Perhaps the slightly frustrating thing if you were a fan is that this club isn’t far off from another genuine top 4 challenge. They flirted with 4th place under Mauricio Pochettino in 2013-14 until around December and then the year after with a new squad, they went one step further and were sniffing the CL until late winter when a weird shooting stretch ultimately led to their demise. Ever since coming to the Premier League, they’ve been one of the best teams when it comes to conjuring a defensive structure. Whether it be the relentless style of pressing under Pochettino or the more subdued structure under Koeman, it’s clear that to this point, they can identify talent, recruit them and plug them into whatever system they favour.
Pundits keep talking about how the league is going to be tougher at the top next season, and some of it is probably true. While he may take time to incorporate all his ideas, Pep Guardiola still has a strong base to work with at Manchester City and it probably means they’ll be better. Liverpool have been frustrating in their own way but they have the makings of a really good side if they can have a relatively smart summer. In contrast, Manchester United have been expensively mediocre for three seasons straight and there’s little evidence that they’ll suddenly fix things up. Chelsea are staring at a possible total reconstruction and if that happens I’m skeptical that they can suddenly bounce back into being a dominant side. And then there’s Leicester who will have a tough time finishing top 4 again next year unless they keep riding their luck or quietly morph into a genuine contender again. It’s going to be tougher next season but I’d be wary of automatically thinking the Premier League will return to the static league that it was pre-2012.
Southampton have vacillated between being an average and pretty good side since their return to the Premier League in 2012. This iteration would be on the lower end of the scale but it’ll probably at very worst finish 10th. Are we approaching a point though where they might have to start becoming a bit more ambitious with their transfer recruitment? This doesn’t mean that they start spending money like drunken sailors because that’s antithetical to what they’ve accomplished through in house development and scouting, but it probably would mean taking a bit more risks on young and dynamic attacking talent. To illustrate that, here’s a list of attacking players Southampton have bought since 2012 and their transfer fee according to Transfermarkt.
This list isn’t an outright disaster. To borrow baseball lingo, getting Mane and Tadic would represent hitting on doubles, Pelle/Austin/Rodriguez/Long are singles. But on the whole it’s an uninspiring return and it has as many disasters (Ramirez, Osvaldo) as it does solid successes (Mane, Tadic). For a team that wants to take it to the next level, this won’t cut it. There’s a huge amount of young attacking talent that’s probably within Southampton’s price range. We can even highlight a few right now.
Those are just four players that would broadly fit. There are numerous other ones like Timer Werner, Domenico Berardi and Piotr Zielenski that you would like to think Southampton’s black box has targeted. Perhaps none of them will be a home run transfer but if you can hit on a couple of more doubles and have a side of 4 or 5 quality attacking players of relatively the same age, there’s not much more you can ask from a club with Southampton’s budget, which of course is on the increase.
Before this season, the road map to improbably challenging for the top 4 in the Premier League looked a lot like Southampton. Now that honor has been bestowed upon Leicester. Southampton have arguably built a more sustainable structure than Leicester and I don’t think that they are that far away from being a damn good team. We’ve already talked about how good their defense has been and the offense could be enhanced by bringing in 2- or 3 players who bring a little bit of spontaneity and variation to the club. It might help if Koeman didn’t have such a love affair for hard working players like Steven Davis and Shane Long but c’est la vie. If Koeman can soften up a bit, find more options in attack, get some positive variance on his team’s side, then that’s the recipe for a transcendent season. They are probably as well placed as any of the mid tier teams are to kick on again in 2016-17.
Southampton can fly and have flown for some time, but will they ever soar?