1. Fraser Forster’s Importance
Southampton’s league campaign ended with the club in sixth place on 63 points, the Saints’ highest finish and record points tally of the Premier League era. Yet with just an extra four points, Ronald Koeman’s men would have qualified in a Champions League spot.
It is easy to ask “What If?” in hindsight, but it would be hard not to wonder about whether those few points could have been gained had Koeman been able to call upon Fraser Forster’s services earlier in the season.
Some fans suggested that the giant shot-stopper wasn’t as important to the watertight defence last season as his clean sheet record may have suggested, but his absence after a nasty knee injury against Burnley back in March 2015 has shown just how good the England international is.
Southampton’s 14/15 season slumped somewhat as the retiring Kelvin Davis and flappy Paulo Gazzaniga failed to really impress, but whilst Maarten Stekelenburg has filled the gap somewhat, he was never more than an okay replacement.
His return in January against Watford was a nervous one. But any question marks over his recovery were quickly swatted away by six successive clean sheets with Forster back in the team, including a majestic display away at the Emirates in a 0-0 draw with Arsenal.
A five-year deal should stop any ideas that the former Celtic man is looking for a move away, and will be a key part of the Southampton backline for some time. It is a defence that came under real scrutiny last summer, especially.
2. The defence can survive change again
The loss of key stalwarts Nathaniel Clyne, Toby Alderweireld and defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, who performed a vital role in front of the back four alongside Victor Wanyama, unsettled from interest from his former manager Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, meant that one of the tightest defences of the previous season was under threat of being torn apart.
Yet Saints remained calm and simply replaced when needed. Wanyama’s strop a week before the season started caused problems and was arguably responsible for the Europa League exit, but the club remained firm and simply stopped him from going – at least for another season.
Whilst Schneiderlin has struggled, Saints have thrived. His most obvious replacement, Oriol Romeu, has been a revelation despite arriving as being one of many Chelsea’s reserves that are farmed out across Europe for a measly £5m – £20m million less than what Manchester United paid for his predecessor.
Cedric and Cuco Martina may not have fully replaced Clyne, and the right-back spot needs work this summer, but the same cannot be said for Alderweireld’s replacement, Virgil Van Dijk.
Celtic have been a good shopping centre for Saints recently, and the Dutchman has followed Forster and Wanyama in becoming key parts of Koeman’s side.
Alderweireld may have the tag of the Premier League’s best defender, but Van Dijk has meant Southampton haven’t missed the former Ajax man. Eleven million pounds may be more than what Southampton thought they would be paying for a centre-back after the farce of buying his predecessor from Atletico Madrid, but it has proved a bargain for Southampton’s star defender.
3. Better attacking threat pays dividends
While the defence has not been as watertight as the season before, conceding eight more than the previous campaign’s impressive effort of 33, that has been offset by the much more fruitful attack. Despite the “Goals Scored” column showing just five more goals with 59 this time round, digging a little deeper shows a big difference.
For starters, the 54 goals scored in Koeman’s debut campaign in England is inflated significantly by an 8-0 drubbing of Sunderland and a 6-1 thrashing of Aston Villa. This season the goals have been more evenly spread, and the Saints have reaped the dividends of a more direct approach.
From a league low of three headed goals in 2014/15, the Saints scored a league high of 15 with the noggin this time round. It shows the tactical change from Southampton under Koeman; the emergence of Shane Long has really helped in that respect.
Graziano Pelle may be the top goalscorer and on his day can be a dangerous weapon, as Liverpool and Stoke would testify from this season, with his mix of brute strength, vision and clever flicks a real hassle to deal with.
But Pellè blows hot and cold, with his goals often drying up during the winter, and his demanding attitude can wear thin when he isn’t pulling his weight. Long may be not the most deadly of finishers, but he’s a better fit for the team – on and off the pitch.
His pace and aerial power mean he scores his fair share of goals, but it’s the hard-working, never-say-die attitude that makes him a favourite of the fans and his teammates alike. He is the embodiment of the pressing game Saints favour, and he brings far more out of Dusan Tadic, Sadio Mane and the midfield behind him, given space by his willingness to run in behind that makes defenders drop a yard or two.
From back-up winger to starting striker, Koeman namechecked the Irishman as the most-improved Saints player this season. With Southampton’s strong backline, Long is a vital asset for an attack that will look to score more in 16/17 and marginal improvements in both boxes could see Southampton improve off an impressive end to the 2015/16 season.