The criteria for judging modern football managers entails their style of play, how they handle the press, tactical flexibility, blending of youth, ability in the transfer market, and results among others. Judging by his first season in England, Ronald Koeman ticks the boxes.
After a player exodus at the back of a wonderful campaign under Mauricio Pochettino, few people predicted Southampton to continue their progression and status as one of the most aesthetic teams in the division. Key players Lallana, Shaw, Lovren and Lambert departed as well as former coach Pochettino who had done wonders with the team technically, physically and tactically.
Lee Reed, the club’s director of football drew up a list of potential Pochettino successors and after analyzing the pros and cons of each manager, he made his decision. In the summer of 2014, Southampton took a bold decision and appointed former Barca star Koeman as it’s head coach. His appointment was seen as a huge step to maintain their proactive playing philosophy. Koeman carries a sort of aura which few people in the game have. As a footballer, he won every club competition and famously scored the winning goal in Barca’s first ever Champions league success. The Dutchman is an icon, the brains behind Cruyff’s build-up play and the highest scoring defender in European football. Despite all this, Koeman remains humble and made it a top-most priority to maintain squad harmony when he took over. Koeman jokingly said he was used to the situation Southampton were in when he tookover saying most Dutch teams usually sell their young talents to the bigger European teams. His first task was to replace the £91M talent which had departed during this summer.
Graziano Pelle was brought in to replace the departing Lambert who moved on to Liverpool. Pelle’s goalscoring record in the Dutch league was top class and is ability to hold the ball up combined with his good technical ability made him a good replacement for the role as Target man. Southampton’s other signing in attack was Shane Long from WBA. Long has a good leap which makes him strong in the air, however his main strength is using his pace to get behind defenses on the break. A good option for counterattacks, and is versatile enough to play as a center forward or on the right wing. Tadic and Mane were also signed by Koeman to bring creativity and end-product to the Southampton attack. Both are very good pressers of the ball and have good tactical discipline while in defense Bertrand who has arguably been the best leftback in the league this season was brought in to replace Shaw, with Toby Aldeweireld replacing Lovren at the heart of the defense. In the January window, the club signed Dutch winger Elia and Serbian attacking midfielder Filip Đuričić on loan, while the promising Jack Cork departed.
Few predicted the Saints to have a good season. Sky Bet made them 11/2 for the drop, explaining the loss to key players as the main reason. After Southampton’s first match, opinions started changing. They lost 2-1 away at Anfield, however their performance wasn’t that of a team which had been tipped to flirt with relegation. Koeman says that was their most crucial game;
“It might seem strange, but the crucial game was probably when we lost 2-1 at Liverpool in our opening match. The result went against us, but our performance that night was very good and laid down a marker.”
Ronald Koeman’s first game at Southampton saw the Saints use the 4231 formation that had served them so well under Pochettino. New signings Tadic and Pelle were immediately introduced with the former occupying a wide left role and Pelle as 9. Over the course of this season, Saints have often maintained their three man midfield oscillating between a 1-2 shape and a 2-1 shape in midfield. The 442 has also been used with a front pairing of Long and Pelle while the 352 was used temporarily mainly due to injuries.
Forster in goal is guarded by a very strong back four in Clyne, Fonte, Aldeweireld/Yoshida and Bertrand. A very athletic and physical double pivot of Wanyama and Schneiderlin sits ahead of thedefense. Elia/Tadic, Ward Prowse and Davis/Mane normally occupy the three spots with Pelle as 9“The physical part is important and we do a lot, maybe different than last season, but every manager has his own style to prepare the team. And we have good football players and it depends on the players you have, you have to play. We have physically good players but we have good technical players and that makes the philosophy.”
“The style of thinking of myself and Ronald will get good results against the style of top English teams. My opinion is that it’s easier to play against a top English club because they like to play football and they play open.
“They give a lot of space between the lines and when you use the total field, also the wings … when you make the pitch big, then you have a lot of space to touch and to play.”
“Koeman likes to add the extra man in buildup play; to stretch the game and work in between the lines, not only with the forwards but with the midfielders going “five steps in behind to make one line more”. – Dutch football analyst, Bruins Slot.
Koeman is a fan of playing out the back. His philosophy is to have good possession of the ball and match control in midfield. “For me as a coach the physical part is important but it isn’t more important than the session with the ball. I still believe in dominating the game, to have good possession play and that brings results.” “We like to press opponents, to play from behind and to dominate. The football philosophy will not change.” – Koeman”
Southampton vary their build up approach. A major aspect of Koeman’s philosophy is disclipine in position to make the team less vulnerable to counters. Southampton build up with short passing but may vary and go long into Pelle if they are being pressed. Forster normally plays it short to the Centerbacks who split to the edge of the box. Most teams in the premier league press with one forward so Southampton’s splitting CBs create a 2v1 overload. However when teams press with two players like Chelsea did with Oscar and Costa, one of Saints’ holding midfielders would drop into the space in between the centerbacks to create a 3v2 advantage while the other positions in the halfspace.Southampton will either circulate possession in the middle area and wait for the right moment to move forward particularly through wide combinations on the wings. They have a more patient and calculated approach in creating chances. They have attempted the fewest shots from counter attacks in the league and haven’t scored a single goal from counters according to whoscored.
Without the ball Southampton’s quite good positional structure allows them to counterpress(press immediately the ball is lost) effectively when they lose possession. Many teams in England tend to drop a few meters back when possession is lost, Southampton like to press the ball immediately after. This pressure allows the opp player in possession minimum time to make a decision on the ball which stabilizes Southampton’s defense.
Southampton are very good with the ball, without it they are even better. The key to their success has been their organization.
“When we are winning in a game, we keep a good organisation. I think the most important thing is that we develop ourselves in a very good way about our ball possession. That’s very important, that you don’t make stupid mistakes and you keep organisation. I think this is the biggest qualities of our team.”
Southampton have the meanest defense in the league bar Chelsea, have only lost by more than one goal three times this season and have conceded the fewest shots on target in the league this season. Their keeper makes the fewest saves in the league at 1.9 saves per game, with 0.2 save per game from shots in the 6 yard box and 0.9 saves pg from shots inside the 18 yard box.
Vertical and horizontal compactness in defense is crucial to minimizing opposition chances. Southampton are very good in this regard. When opposition breach their waves of pressure in midfield, Southampton quickly drop deep and remain compact. This reduces the amount of space in their defensive third for opposition to work through. In a compact block, Southampton achieve great control of the space in their defensive area. Their numerical advantage and narrow positioning cuts of passing lanes between the lines giving them great control of the central space and forces opposition into playing further away from their goal.
The Schneiderlin-Wanyama axis has been the recipe for their success. Southampton’s midfielders are positionally excellent without the ball, shuttling across with the ball as a reference point while remaining compact. They compress spaces between the lines and shield the defense very well. Southampton are among the Premier leagues leading teams for interceptions and are averaging the most tackles per game in the league.
Under Pochettino, Southampton were winning the most tackles in the final third last season which is testament to how high they moved up the pitch to regain possession.
“Pochettino asked us not to leave more choice to the opponent. This implies a fairly huge collective work. It is not surprising that after six or seven months to work according to his ideas, it succeeds in completely harass and destabilize the teams. This could not come immediately because it is a colossal work in training. He hopes that retrieves the ball as high as possible. So for that, it is normally an attacker to trigger this pressing and we must all follow.” – Schneiderlin
Under Koeman, Southampton still press high but not as intensely as under Mauricio. They normally press in a 442/424 shape with the 10 moving to the same line as Pelle. Southampton allow opposition to circulate the ball deep in the area while cutting off options for a vertical pass. When the ball is moved into the middle, Southampton then begin to press the ball with intensity. In Morgan Schneiderlin and Wanyama, Southampton have two solid blocks in midfield who read the game well and are able to stop opposition play as a result. In this photo, Fabregas plays a forward pass to Matic. With Matic having his back to goal he doesn’t really know much about what is going on behind him. This a trigger for Southampton to start applying pressure on the ball. Schneiderlin reads the pass and is able to win the ball from Matic.Schneiderlin is very important in breaking play which stabilizes Southampton’s defence. Again, a vertical pass is played to Chelsea’s danger-man Hazard. Most teams in the premier league will step off in an attempt to recover their shape seeing the ball going to Hazard. But you know the saying “Prevention is better than cure”? That’s what Saints do so well. Schneiderlin reads the pass and quickly moves to cut it out.This prevents Saints from having to run back 80 yards back to goal on the Chelsea break as Cruyff often says as opposed to the 10 meters Schneiderlin used to regain possession.
Another trigger for Southampton in their pressing is the touchline. Pep Guardiola has said before, the touchline is the best defender. By this, he means when a player has the ball in the corner near the touchline, his passing angles are mathematically reduced by 50% as he naturally has the only option of passing in-field. This makes pressing when opp player is near the touchline very crucial as there’s a higher probability of winning the ball. Southampton’s pressure in midfield not only stabilizes their defense but is also one of their most common ways of starting attacks.
Pochettino’s depature along with key players was widely expected to lead to Southampton’s demise by many English football pundits. Some of which predicted them to be in the midst of a relegation battle. Koeman’s appointment has been a stroke of genius however. Southampton have just recorded their highest points tally ever in the Premier League and were on the verge of a Champions League spot before suffering many injuries to key players and a dip in form. The future looks bright for Southampton who have recently set a short term target to reach the Champions League under Ronald Koeman.