Saints still proving point ahead of Arsenal cup encounter
As Southampton (5/1 for a top four finish with Coral) prepare for their Capital One Cup clash with Arsenal, they will also encounter several faces from the past. Whilst Saints old boy Theo Walcott will miss out on meeting his old club through injury, ex-academy stars Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers could both star against the south coast club.
However, instead of wondering what could have been, Southampton fans should be feeling bullish about their chances and looking forward to the future, particularly after they were tipped to slip back down into the Championship.
After offloading top club-reared talents such as Chambers, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw over the summer, fans feared the writing was on the wall. It was not unreasonable to think that the Saints had sold their future, and their soul, by giving into overtures from the Premier League elite and replacing their homegrown heroes with cheaper buys from abroad.
The departure of manager Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham further dampened the mood, leaving Southampton seemingly rudderless, but new coach Ronald Koeman has done more than simply steady the ship.
A series of tweets over the summer summed up the atmosphere surrounding St Mary’s, with Koeman accidentally but aptly sharing a photo of his empty training ground, and another from then wantaway midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin. The Frenchman stated: “6 years of an amazing journey #saintsfc DESTROYED in 1 hour!!!”.
If anything highlights the turnaround of mentality at Southampton since then, it is Schneiderlin’s recent comments, following the Saints’ crucial win over fellow high-fliers Swansea City, a result that has lifted Koeman’s side to second in the Premier League. Speaking after the game, Schneiderlin said: “I’m happy here, I’m fully focused on ¬Southampton and there is no problem.
“The group is closer after the summer. A lot of people were saying we would struggle this season because we lost so many players. “
This desire to prove pundits and opposition fans wrong has evidently played right into Dutch coach Koeman’s hands, but the Saints will need to channel that fighting spirit for the rest of the season.
Signs, so far, are good though and Southampton can relish having lost only once in six games in all competitions so far this term.
There are indications that the south coast club are more capable defensively under Koeman’s stewardship, despite the loss of Chambers and Dejan Lovren. After the signings of former Celtic stopper Fraser Forster and on-loan Atletico centre back Toby Alderweireld were prioritised, Saints have conceded just three Premier League goals, with the latter in particularly impressive form.
The key to Southampton’s success has been the seamless integration of Koeman, who should be credited with bringing top quality players to St Mary’s after such a well-documented exodus. It is too easy to point to a number of Premier League sides that have spent big with little evidence of a long-term plan, and so far failed to make their hastily assembled teams gel.
Serbia playmaker Dusan Tadic is already performing as if he has been plying his trade at St Mary’s for much longer than a few months and, whilst still to break his duck, has been a crucial cog in the Saints offence. He is 7/2 to open his account anytime against the Gunners.
Italian attacker Graziano Pelle, who is 7/1 to fire home first against Arsenal, has perhaps been the most surprising success. With Rickie Lambert also exiting St Mary’s over the summer, replacement Pelle has stepped up to the plate, netting four goals in five appearances. His goal to game ratio has been exceptional so far, and at this rate the former Feyenord forward will be expecting to easily top Lambert’s 14 Premier League goals from last term.
Despite the new signings’ excellent efforts, fans can also take heart from remaining academy star James Ward-Prowse’s development. The 19-year-old has featured in all six Saints’ outings this season, starting five, providing an exciting snapshot of his potential. Koeman will now be anxiously awaiting news of the young starlet’s ankle injury, which could see him sit out of the upcoming FA Cup clash.
Whilst this encounter with the Gunners can be considered the first real test that this new-look Southampton side have faced, since an undeserved defeat to Liverpool on the opening day of the season, taking 10 points from 15 should not be dismissed.
It is unlikely, but not impossible, that the Saints can keep pace with the host of clubs competing for the Champions League spots, but it is more important for Koeman’s men to take points from sides that are likely to surround them at the end of the season.
With wins against Newcastle United, Swansea City and West Ham United, they have made an impressive start to doing just that. Now comes the opportunity to show departed academy products that the club has not lost their ambition, and silence critics with an away win over Arsenal.
Southampton are 3/1 to take the spoils against the Gunners, who are expected to reshuffle their side, and set off on what could be a cathartic cup journey.