Joe Prince-Wright, the lead writer and editor of ProSoccerTalk on NBCSports.com, analyses Southampton's season so far and the team's Premier League run-in.
How would you rate Southampton’s season to this point?
It’s obviously been a bit up and down. But if at the start of the campaign you’d have said to Southampton’s fans, after a few of the players leaving in the summer and more players coming in, that with seven games to go you’ve got a chance of finishing in the top four – only four points off it – and a real chance of qualifying for Europe again, I think everyone would have snapped your hand off.
How impressed have you been with Ronald Koeman?
I’ve been really impressed tactically, with how flexible he’s been. He did it in his first season too, but switching to a back three and mixing his teams up and not just being so rigid and saying ‘This is how we play, this is the way we do things, and we’re always going to stick by it regardless’. I think he’s had the nous and all of his experience, and the likes of Sammy Lee and Erwin there, just to say ‘Let’s take a step back, look at the players we have, and these players right now need to play in a different formation to get the best out of them,’ and I think we saw that through the great run through January and February.
What have you made of the team in the last couple of weeks?
They’ve really shown great resilience. It was difficult with the Chelsea defeat and then the Bournemouth loss. It was a time where you wondered if it was going to go off the rails a little bit again after such a positive few weeks, but full credit to them. I think the players have stepped up – the likes of Ryan Bertrand playing out of position at centre-back, Fraser Forster, Graziano Pellè coming back in among the goals and Sadio Mané too.
It’s a great credit to the squad of players, because last season you looked at it and there was a core 11 or 12 guys and a lot of young kids and inexperienced players around, but now Koeman’s got the luxury to chop and change a lot and the guys who’ve come in, the likes of Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Targett, have made a big difference when they’ve come in, so I think it’s been a real team effort and that’s what’s impressed me most.
Koeman said the last two games were must-win matches. How impressed were you with the response to that?
I didn’t expect that, to be honest. I think if you asked any Saints fan maybe they would have taken four points from that. The momentum now to get that kind of win against Liverpool – coming from 2-0 down, scoring late and winning it, seeing the scenes of jubilation and Ronald running down the touchline – I think that will really boost the team and just gives a real feel-good factor around the club.
I think the win against Liverpool especially was big, because they’ve been in really good form recently. They do have games in hand, yes, but at this time of the season it’s always better to have the points on the board.
When you look at the table and the remaining fixtures, what do you think is a realistic target for Southampton?
I think top six would be realistic. Top four still can be achieved, but you need Man City, Man United and West Ham to really slip up and have a dip in form. But top four is doable, and I didn’t think I’d be saying that a few weeks ago, but that’s the nature of the Premier League this season and how crazy and unpredictable it’s been.
Looking at the games remaining, there’s some very tough games, against Man City and Tottenham and also Leicester away as well. Those are going to be very difficult, but I think if they can get to 60 points again – maybe it will take 62 this season to finish in the top six – I think that will be a phenomenal achievement.
You talked about the squad earlier. How well-positioned do you feel they are in that sense for the run-in?
I think they’re in a very strong position. I can’t remember a stronger Saints squad, I really can’t. I look throughout the team and it’s almost two players at every position of international calibre and I don’t think they’ve ever had that.
As long as they stay clear of injuries, especially in the centre-back position with José Fonte and van Dijk – if they can stay fit and Forster can stay fit the rest of the season then who knows what’s achievable.
Who would you pick as the player of the season to this point?
I’d have to say Virgil van Dijk. He seems like one of the buys of the season for me. He’s absolutely been one of the best central defenders in the league. He’s just a real surprise for me and he seems like a player who can dominate in the air, he’s very good on the ball – different kind of passes – and he seems to have really fit in with the physicality and pace of the Premier League, and each week he’s got better.
Finally, where do you think Southampton will finish?
Unfortunately, I think they’re going to finish seventh, which I’m not sure will be enough for the Europa League. But I think it would represent almost a bigger achievement to finish seventh this season than last season with some of the changes I alluded to, but that said I’ve made so many predictions this season and I’ve got them horribly wrong, so I wouldn’t read into that too much. Seventh is really attainable, but hopefully a top five finish isn’t out the question.