Despite being known for his traditional calm nature, the fact that Ronald Koeman ran down the touchline to celebrate Sadio Mane’s late winner against Liverpool speaks volumes for what an important result it was.
His opposite number Jurgen Klopp may have won admirers for his excitable touchline demeanour, but it’s hard to not think that the Southampton boss may have been irked by the German’s over-exuberance. He got his own back, that’s for sure.
The dramatic turnaround was so inexplicable not just because Southampton found themselves 2-0 down after 20 minutes; the fact that the scoreline was the same at half-time really doesn’t tell how the game was going.
Bar a penalty shout being turned down by referee Roger East for a foul on Saints striker Shane Long by pantomime villain Dejan Lovren (one that should have been punished by a penalty and quite possibly a red card), Liverpool were dominant.
Like a slab of cardboard against a tsunami, Southampton’s defence showed their weakness against what was a very-fluid front four. Were it not for Fraser Forster and an offside flag, Saints looked likely to finish with a scoreline that not even Joe Root could have turned around.
But Liverpool’s defence is no match for their attack. Even with the amount of control they had, Lovren looked like a red card waiting to happen. He may have got away with the penalty shout after eight minutes, but it was clear that the Croatian couldn’t handle the St Mary’s pressure cooker.
His replacement at half-time Martin Skrtel found the going just as tough though. He may have not been subjected to the vitriol that the Croatian had suffered, but the Slovakian was tormented on the pitch instead.
If Klopp’s substitutes of Sktrel and Christian Benteke, plus Sheyi Ojo who came on with the game beyond Liverpool, had the effect that he desperately did not want, then Koeman’s had the opposite outcome, even if they were fairly straightforward.
As Sadio Mane and Kenyan powerhouse Victor Wanyama came on for the poor Dusan Tadic and Jordy Clasie, suddenly Saints were in much better shape. The aforementioned pair may not have hit the heights of last season, but the African duo demonstrated just why they are often included in the gossip column.
Wanyama gave Saints the solid base that the diminutive Clasie could not, even with Oriol Romeu alongside him, and this was not a game for the Dutchman. The former Feyenoord captain is a superb player, but he simply wilted when faced with the burning pace of the Liverpool attack.
But in Mane, Koeman’s side suddenly had speed in abundance. A missed penalty aside, the Senegalese winger showed the very best that his talent has to offer. His two finishes with his weaker left foot gave Simon Mignolet no chance.
The game did a very good job of summing up Southampton’s season in a 90-minute nutshell. For the first half of the season, and indeed Sunday, the Saints leaked goals and chances, and left dumbfounded as to how they could stop the opposition.
Yet with saves from Forster, who has made the same impact on his return to the first team as Koeman’s subsitutes did on Sunday, plus Wanyama and Mane playing at the top of their game, then the team are capable of beating anyone on their day.
The turnaround gives the Saints a springboard and real momentum going into the final furlong of the season. The run-in is pretty tricky, with trips to both title-contenders Leicester and Tottenham and a visit from Manchester City to come.
But at their very best, Koeman’s side have nothing to fear. They are organised and defensively strong enough to keep a clean sheet, whilst possessing players returning to form like Graziano Pelle and Mane. Shane Long is reliable too; he’s not the greatest finisher in the world, but in big games he’s invaluable.
Yet if Saints were to play like the first half against Liverpool, they have no chance of getting into an automatic spot for the Europa League. The squad is functional, and when Tadic and Mane aren’t on top form, they don’t look likely to score goals.
Sunday’s game against Liverpool, plus the victory in the week before against Stoke, outlines not just the ability to win games against their rivals for continental qualification, but the mental toughness the squad has; coming from behind or clinging on, the squad is more than capable.
But the frustration comes from the fact Saints are still in a hunt for the Europa League, and maybe even the Champions League, despite being poor for arguably two months in the winter. If Koeman’s men had picked up a few more points in that period, then the Dutchman may have had more runs down the touchline.