Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to Manchester United was one of real contrasts for many reasons for Southampton, with a few positives to be taken despite the nature of the defeat.
For many, that was Saints’ best attacking display for some time. Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle in particular caused the United backline all sorts of problems with their pace and power, with the latter grabbing an impressive brace.
But their good work mirrored that of the team, as their spells came in the opening and ending minutes of the game when Southampton were on the front foot. In the middle 55 minutes, United were in cruise control.
Whilst Juan Mata’s goal was eulogised by pundits for the way they strung 45 passes consecutively before the Spaniard finished the move off, the fact Saints just stood off their opponents during that two minutes is alarming.
The fact that the full-back positions were filled by two players playing out of position, the right-back being a back-up centre-back and the left-back the third choice right-back, is in stark contrast to last season even, when Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne prowled the touchlines with real quality and confidence.
Maya Yoshida grabbed the vocal critics once again with the poorly underhit backpass that allowed Anthony Martial to grab his second, but the fact that Koeman preferred him at right-back over Cedric has left plenty puzzled.
The Saints manager tried to justify the Japanese defender’s inclusion out of his natural centre back position by claiming that he picked his ‘defensive qualities’ over the more offensive Cedric. But then this raises more questions. Firstly, Cedric had been part of the team that had recorded three clean sheets, albeit against weaker opponents than United, but still there hadn’t been any real reason to drop him.
And why sign a right-back that Koeman feels isn’t as strong defensively as playing Yoshida out of position? That’s before you get to the signing of Cedric’s own supposed back up, Cuco Martina!
Director of football Les Reed claimed in the club’s own monthly documentary series on YouTube that Cedric was initially signed to be Nathaniel Clyne’s understudy, based on their confidence that the English international would sign a new contract. But instead, Clyne signed for Liverpool. By claiming that the transfer committee felt that Cedric was ready to be the first choice right-back, it indicates that Koeman didn’t quite agree with that decision.
It has been pointed out that whilst Saints have sold Clyne and Calum Chambers for around £28m, their replacements in Cedric and Martina cost just £5m. Toby Alderweireld was able to fill in at right-back last season, but he left for Tottenham in the summer.
Obviously the English premium and Southampton’s own financial security has to be taken into account, but many fans can see the drop-off in quality. The fact Saints bought a player in Martina many FC Twente fans felt had underperformed last season in the Eredivisie has confused many supporters.
Of course fan opinion isn’t always a great barometer in telling how a player will perform at their new club. Lyon fans were delighted when Dejan Lovren left for St Mary’s for £6m, only for the same Lyon liability to be sold for £20m to Liverpool a year later. A fair few Aston Villa fans were surprised when Ryan Bertrand was chosen to replace Luke Shaw when he signed from Chelsea on loan last summer, but he has turned into one of Southampton’s key players.
As defensively sound as Shaw, he also added plenty going forward and added another dimension to the Saints attack, and his absence has been far more prominent that plenty would have anticipated. His understudy, Matt Targett, has been heavily criticised, rather unfairly. Comparisons to Shaw when he was in the youth team has seen the spotlight put on Targett far earlier than he would have liked.
Through no fault of his own the young left-back is expected to possess the pace and power of Shaw, something that Targett may never have. The Saints fans impatience towards him borders on obscene. It has to be remembered that Targett is just 20, and has made just 12 Premier League starts. People need to judge him on his own merits, not on the merits of someone who became the world’s most expensive teenager before Martial smashed that himself.
Nevertheless, Bertrand’s imminent return should help Saints find their rhythm at the back, and help going forward. Targett needs to improve that part of his game, but even Shaw took time to really find his confidence in the opposition’s half.
If Cedric can adapt quickly there is no reason why he too can provide the same quality that Clyne gave Saints in his three seasons on the South Coast, and should give Koeman the width going forward he craves. With Jordy Clasie returning to fitness too, Koeman will have all but two of his squad available, with only Florin Gardos and Fraser Forster still missing.
But questions still remain over the Dutchman’s happiness in the recent transfer window and his options in the squad. The January window could give a few clues and, importantly, some much-needed answers.