This Saturday’s early kick-off sees Tottenham Hotspur travel to St Mary’s, where they will experience an event dubbed by Southampton supporters as ‘Ronald Koeman Day’. Orange t-shirts will be all the rage amongst the home fans, as The Saints’ fanbase show their appreciation for their beloved Dutch manager.
Few would have predicted in June 2014, just after the departure of then manager Mauricio Pochettino, that Southampton would be sitting seventh in the league table, just eight points behind current champions Manchester City with five games to play. Pochettino led his Southampton team to an eighth placed finish at the end of the 2013/14 season , inspired by performances from club captain Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Jay Rodriguez and Luke Shaw. The Argentine’s departure from the club left to an exodus of players that many thought could inhibit the Saints’ chance of survival, but Southampton fans have a new hero at the helm, and the outside chance of Champions League football remains a tantalizing prospect.
In June 2014, Ronald Koeman was recruited from Feyenoord in the Dutch Eredivisie. Koeman, of course, was no stranger to English football fans. His impressive record as a player, during which he won the European Championships in 1990 with Holland and the European Cup in 1992 with Barcelona, was mainly overshadowed by his part in England’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
During Holland’s crucial World Cup qualifier with England in November 1993, Koeman hauled down David Platt when through on goal, and should have seen red with the game still goalless. To rub salt into English wounds, Koeman then popped in a free-kick moments later, before Dennis Bergkamp made it two, sending England crashing out at the qualifying stages. Graham ‘Turnip’ Taylor grabbed most of the headlines, but Koeman was also cast as the pantomime villain.
Koeman’s transformation from hero to villain has been a swift one, particularly in the eyes of Southampton fans. The departures of players like Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Calum Chambers (Arsenal), Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert (Liverpool) presented Koeman with a baptism of fire, forcing him to show how adept he is at spotting talent almost immediately. He brought in the likes of Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic, Fraser Forster and Sadio Mane. Koeman also secured loan deals for Toby Alderweireld and Ryan Bertrand, the latter becoming a permanent purchase in the January transfer window.
Koeman’s new side have excelled, playing attractive football and achieving some huge victories, particularly over the busy festive period. Away wins against Crystal Palace, Manchester United and Newcastle, along with wins over Arsenal and Everton at St Mary’s contributed to a tally of 16 points from a possible 18 between 20th December and 17th January. They even managed to hold title-favourites Chelsea to a 1-1 draw in the same period. Southampton did suffer a painful away loss to Pochettino’s Tottenham side, and will be hoping to redress the balance in the return fixture this weekend. Arguably, the highlight of the season was a record-breaking 8-0 victory over hapless Sunderland, during which Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle showed exactly why Koeman recruited them at the start of the season.
Southampton’s attacking football has been rewarded with 45 goals in the league so far this season, but defensively too, they have been mightily impressive. Their tally of 24 goals conceded is the best in the Premier League, an unbelievable achievement for Koeman’s men. Jose Fonte (£1.2 million), Maya Yoshida (£3 million) and Toby Alderweireld (loan signing) have shown that you don’t need to break the bank to defend against the wealth of attacking talent on display in the Premier League.
At the other end of the pitch, Graziano Pelle leads the way in the goal-scoring charts, with nine league goals. Including Pelle however, thirteen of Southampton’s team have found the net this season, highlighting Koeman’s goalscoring options all over the pitch. Sadio Mane has chipped in with six goals, while Dusan Tadic and the highly-coveted Morgan Schneiderlin have four apiece. Tadic also has seven assists, just one ahead of the impressive James Ward-Prowse.
Southampton have been most successful when deploying a 4-3-3 formation, but that doesn’t mean Koeman remains stagnant with his tactics. He’s also utilised a 4-2-3-1 formation – fourteen times in the Premier League so far – albeit with slightly less success. Koeman has found his feet in English football remarkably quickly.
An interesting sub-plot of the season has been Koeman’s rivalry with fellow Dutchman, and Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal. The pair originally clashed when Koeman was manager of Ajax, and Van Gaal was appointed as technical director. Koeman has also indicated that the pair’s frosty relationship extends ‘beyond football’, adding to the atmosphere during the club’s two meetings this season. United were lucky to escape with a victory at St Mary’s in December, while Koeman got his revenge with a 1-0 victory at the Theatre of Dreams earlier this year. Expect this rivalry to reignite, and keep your eyes on the press conferences, before the sides meet again next season.
Whatever happens in the remaining fixtures this season, Koeman can take many positives from his side’s performance this year. Qualification for Europa League football is a strong possibility, even if the Mecca of Champions League football may be just out of reach. If Koeman can strengthen in the summer, and keep hold of players such as Schneiderlin, Jose Fonte and Nathaniel Clyne, then another successful season both at home, and abroad, is a distinct possibility.
If you are a Saints fan heading to St.Marys for their game against Tottenham on Saturday , then you too can be a part of Ronald Koeman day by purchasing your very own t-shirt here http://goo.gl/N1pCK2.
Ronald Koeman day is being run by Unique Saints and you can follow them on Twitter here https://twitter.com/unique_saints.