Ahead of Southampton’s final 12 games of the campaign, we spoke to three St Mary’s press box regulars on how they think the season has gone, and what they believe will happen in the next few weeks.
If you were to grade Southampton's season so far, what would you give it and why?
Paul Belverstone: When you look at where they are now, in sixth, they have never been as high as that at the end of the season in the Premier League. Obviously, that horrendous run between late November and mid-January looks like a bit of a missed opportunity now, because it only needed another point or two and then you’re fifth and maybe even with a real chance of the top four. You’re looking now at a B to B+, with an opportunity to finish as an A+.
Adam Blackmore: I would like to give it a B+, but I’m going to give it a B. When I look at the whole season, I can’t get away from the ignominious exit from Europe and some disappointing performances in games they should have done better in.
Adam Leitch: I guess I’d give it a B+ at this stage. Overall, if you step back and forget the ups and downs, if it had been completely evenly paced the whole way through you’d say it’s going absolutely fantastically. The reason I wouldn’t go as far as giving an A yet is that they’re at the real crunch point. They’ve had the good runs and the bad runs, but they’re in position now and the decisive factor for the season is whether they can capitalise on where they’ve got themselves to.
Who has been your outstanding player of the season to this point?
AB: I’m going to have to say Virgil van Dijk, and pushing him is Shane Long. Virgil because he’s just been outstanding every game, but Long also because he’s been such an important part of the improvement.
AL: To my mind, you have to start looking around the defence, and Ryan Bertrand has been outstanding for me. He’s such a class player and it’s been impressive the way he’s slotted so seamlessly into playing the left-sided centre-half of the three, or left back, or even left wing-back – his versatility, in my opinion, has really given Ronald Koeman the option to change formations, which he’s done so successfully recently.
PB: There’s a lot of players who have had good spells, but when you’re looking for an outstanding, consistent performer all the way through the season it’s been pretty difficult, because there’s been a few who have had injuries, or a few who have had wobbles. I think the one I’d pick out at the moment is Steven Davis for being pretty dependable and solid all the way through.
What has struck you the most about this recent turnaround in form?
PB: Everyone looks at Fraser Forster, and he’s obviously been a huge reason, but you look at the first couple of games in that run, before Arsenal, which was so much about him, and he hardly had anything to do. I think perhaps it’s not just what he did in the games, but his aura. He’s an organiser and he keeps his back line in check. Confidence is such a fragile thing, and the fact they see Forster behind them has maybe just given them that little bit extra. It’s obviously a team thing, but he’s perhaps the final piece in the puzzle.
AB: What’s struck me the most is that it’s come in such an emphatic fashion after such a disappointing period. Obviously, you can’t get away from the return of the goalkeeper, but allied to that I’m going to bring Shane Long into the equation again, because his tireless running either with the ball or without it has added dimensions to their game going forward and enabled the defence to get away from their penalty area more, by playing into the channels and pushing the whole side up.
AL: I suppose for me it’s the character of the squad - the solidity and togetherness of them all. Obviously, Fraser Forster coming back has clearly been a big thing and has given the defence a lot of confidence, but I think the change in formation really is the key, because it’s given them a solid base and then, because of that, the belief to push on and win games.
Ronald Koeman has said this is the strongest squad he has had at Southampton. How do you rate it?
AL: It’s hard to argue with that logic, even if my gut feeling is they’re still recovering to a certain extent from losing one or two key players, and in particular Morgan, who was just such a massive influence on the team for so many years. He’s not the kind of player I think you can just easily replace within a season. It takes a bit of time to find a new way of playing with different players, and that’s perhaps where Saints are getting to now.
AB: I think it’s the strongest squad the club has ever had. You’ve got a team full of internationals, and look at the bench last weekend, with the likes of Charlie Austin and Sadio Mané on it, and suddenly from worrying about how many kids are on the bench we’ve got a side that is packed with international talent and proper competition all over the park.
PB: I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, particularly with the arrival of Austin. That was always my question mark. Pellè seems to be a player who goes through goalscoring runs and then dips in form, as so many strikers do, so what happens then? Shane Long plays a cracking role for the team, but he’s never been prolific in the Premier League, so did they need someone else who could come in, add to that, and complement everything that was there already. I’ve never seen a stronger Southampton squad than this. Nothing close to it. You could pick a second XI that would give most teams in the Premier League a decent game.
Realistically, how much higher up the table do you think the team could climb?
AB: I only think fifth realistically. That’s up for grabs and I think you have to aim for that, but I still think finishing seventh would be a heck of an achievement and anything that gets them into the Europa League is going to be a heck of an achievement.
AL: I don’t buy that the top four is particularly viable. The quality of the teams in that area suggests they will probably get enough points to maintain a distance, whatever it may be. But Man United have to be catchable. There’s only one point in it. I still think it will be hard, because as bad as Man United have been by their standards this season they do still have a lot of quality and they have still accumulated enough points to be fifth at this stage, and you don’t do that by accident. But they are catchable, and I look at the rest and I can’t see anybody who’s really that much better than Saints.
PB: Manchester United are well within reach. You’d like to think it’s going to be between Southampton, United, Liverpool, Chelsea, maybe West Ham, for fifth and six, although can you rule out fourth yet? With the uncertainty that comes at Manchester City, with Manuel Pellegrini’s departure, you’d be silly to completely rule that out, but realistically you’re looking at fifth or six.
What position do you think Saints will finish in?
AB: I’m going to be positive. I think these are historic times – sixth.
PB: I think they can better last season. It would be nice for them to have a proper crack at Europe again after the disappointment of this season. Given this six-game run, I think top six is a real possibility. I don’t think anyone should get carried away with the possibility of breaking into the top four, but Man United are very catchable in fifth.
AL: I feel like they’re going to finish sixth, where they are now. Even seventh would still be fantastic, but if they could make it back into Europe that would be a real signal that maybe the club has taken a significant step forward, beyond having just one season where they had what most people thought was the best season they could possibly have. It’s like saying ‘This is where we live and this is our area of the table now’, and that would be a huge statement if they could pull it off.