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Defensive discipline key to Southampton’s top four challenge

Southampton, 15/8 with Coral to crash the Premier League’s top four, are hanging in the hunt for a European place next term, as they sit third with 14 games to go.

A clean sheet, sensationally kept by Fraser Forster in their latest win away at QPR, brings their number of top-flight shut-outs up to 11 and, with just 17 conceded, Ronald Koeman’s Saints boast the best defensive record in English league football.

This got our football experts wondering what Southampton’s secret is. First-choice goalie Forster gave some valuable insight in the aftermath of that Loftus Road victory. “As a team we are proud. We defend from the front, work very hard out of possession and put teams under pressure,” he said.

“It’s credit to the team, and the back four have been so important in limiting teams’ opportunities against us. If you can keep it 0-0 as long as possible, with the quality we’ve got up front, we’re always going to score goals.”

Koeman has had the luxury of consistent selections in defence with England understudy stopper Forster and Portugal centre back Jose Fonte, who skippers the Saints, ever-presents in their 11 clean sheets. Full backs Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne, meanwhile, have missed just one of those matches.

Picking the same players week in, week out is no guarantee of success, though. Burnley fans can attest to that with Clarets coach Sean Dyche making no alterations to his starting XI for their last 10 league matches. The Turf Moor team have picked up just nine points from a possible 30, though are at present outside the bottom three.

While Burnley battle the drop, there is obvious quality in Southampton ranks. Even reserve defenders Florin Gardos (Romania) and Maya Yoshida (Japan) are regularly included at international level. Toby Alderweireld, meanwhile, has shown his versatility for club and country (Belgium) by operating at full back and in the holding role, as well as centre half.

Koeman also deploys a midfield shield, usually the highly-rated Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama if both are fit, that afford his back four and keeper extra protection. This clearly gives the front four plenty of freedom to go forward.

It’s also worth noting which teams the Saints are shutting out. While they have only kept two of their fellow current top six sides (Arsenal and Manchester United) at bay, they have won to nil against each of the four teams in relative mid-table comfort (Swansea City, Stoke City, Newcastle United and Everton).

Moreover, they have also shut out five of the bottom seven (West Bromwich Albion, who Southampton drew against and victories when facing four of the six outfits presently below them). This consistent approach when facing lesser Premier League teams is what their fantastic record is founded upon.

The Saints look dead certs for the top six at 1/4, so all that remains to be seen is if their defensive discipline will reap its own reward of Champions League football for 2015/16.