Date: 7th May 2016 at 11:19am
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It was quite apt that on the 40th anniversary of Southampton’s FA Cup victory, their only major trophy win, that the class of 2016 would go onto beat a Manchester side.

It says a lot about Southampton since promotion back to the Premier League that the parallels end there. Not only was it City and not United that were defeated, but the whole manner of the 4-2 victory over the Sky Blues was different.

Whereas the Saints weathered a storm and struck with seven minutes to go through a volley from the late Bobby Stokes on that sunny day at Wembley, Ronald Koeman’s men were unlucky not to have won by more, such was the apathy of City’s play and Southampton’s verve going forward.

City may have played a weakened team, with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne on the away dugout bench, but the performance by Southampton was arguably one of their finest this season.

The front three in particular were dangerous. Sadio Mane’s hat-trick of goals and Dusan Tadic’s trio of assists demonstrated how good the pair can be at the top of their game, but it is Shane Long, the final part of the attack against Manchester City, who has been one of Southampton’s best players this season.

Long is a peculiar case in some respects. His pace and underrated ability in the air despite standing just short of six foot, partnered with an incredible stamina and work-rate, gives him all the physical attributes that he would need to be a striker capable of scoring plenty of goals.

30 July 2015 - UEFA Europa League - Third Round Qualifying - Southampton v Vitesse Arnhem - Shane Long of Southampton celebrates scoring the 3rd goal - Photo: Marc Atkins / Offside.

Shane Long has been one of Southampton’s top performers in the Premier League this season. Photo: Marc Atkins/Offside.

The criticism of him in the past has been that he has not done that. Compared to Tadic for example, his technical ability leaves something to be desired and his finishing can be frustrating.

But under the tutelage of Koeman and his coaching staff, together with Long’s professional approach, the striker has improved substantially since arriving from Hull two summers ago.

That was evidenced by the fact his opener against Manchester City was the first time he had scored over ten league goals in the Premier League. His somewhat lean spell in the top flight before needs context, however.

It should be remembered that at both West Brom and Hull, he was playing in two teams in the lower half of the table where chances came at a premium. Often doing the dirty work for another forward, Long’s goal tally was diminished as a result.

He has gone from being a back-up winger to arguably Southampton’s best striker this season. Graziano Pelle may have scored more goals but when Long is upfront, the Saints look far more dangerous.

Whilst Pelle can only play as a target man, his Irish team-mate’s versatility means he’s a valuable asset. He can play like he did against City as the central striker in the front three, as a partner in a front two, or on his own; for someone like Koeman who changes his approach to suit the opposition, Long is a perfect squad member.

Although Mauricio Pochettino is rather opposite in that respect, his favoured high-pressing approach being deployed whether Tottenham are playing Chelsea or Chester, that’s not to say the Spurs boss isn’t a fan.

Southampton had scouted Long for two years before buying him, so Pochettino and the head of recruitment he took with him to White Hart Lane from Staplewood, Paul Mitchell, are more than aware of his ability.

That has led to reported interest from Spurs and Liverpool, with Jurgen Klopp’s preference for high work-rate making the striker a good fit. But Long would be wise to stay put.

He is unlikely to be the first choice striker at either club, whereas now he finally has moved into that spot at St. Mary’s. At 29, playing second fiddle at a club is something that the forward will want to do.

Moving back down south was part of the reason the striker left Hull, and Saints are in some ways the perfect club for him. A real fans’ favourite even when not a regular starter, there is no reason why he can’t hit 15 goals in a full season.

The way that his Southampton career has gone from strength to strength, with a fair wind and a bit of luck, perhaps Long can lead the line at a Wembley final next season and make that wait for a major trophy a little less, er, long.

 
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