After a difficult start to the season which saw disappointing home draws with Watford and Sunderland alongside…
After a difficult start to the season which saw disappointing home draws with Watford and Sunderland alongside away defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal, Southampton are beginning to look the real deal once again. The players have appeared to adjust to Claude Puel`s diamond formation which was not particularly popular amongst many Saints fans and results are finally beginning to come. When Fraser Forster returned to the fold following his long-term injury back in January, a previously-porous defence kept six consecutive clean sheets, more than anyone else had managed during the season. Ironically this was followed by sixteen games without a clean sheet, also a league high by the time this run was ended. Interestingly enough, Saints have followed this up with another sextet of clean sheets with the opportunity to make it seven against Burnley when the Premier League returns after the international break.
Whilst performances were not particularly poor during the first four games of the season, it wasn`t until the fifth game of the season against Sparta Prague in the Europe League that things really started going right. A comfortable 3-0 win with Charlie Austin getting his first two goals since THAT debut header at Old Trafford and Jay Rodriguez also on the scoresheet kickstarted Southampton`s season.
Austin scored again in a 1-0 win against Swansea just three days later which really should have been a much more comfortable victory than the scoreline suggests. He scored for the third game in succession as Jake Hesketh also grabbed his first Southampton goal in the 2-0 EFL Cup success over Crystal Palace at St. Marys.
Austin struck his fifth goal in four games to open the scoring against West Ham at the former Olympic Stadium during an otherwise dire first half. A much improved second half display was complemented by strikes from Dusan Tadic and James Ward-Prowse to seal a 3-0 win.
A long trip to Israel followed in which Claude Puel`s side came away with a very credible goalless draw in the longest ever away trip the club has faced against Hapoel Be`er Sheva. Just three days later it was another 0-0 result away to champions Leicester. Saints were on top but the result is particularly impressive when you take into account the impact the trip to Israel would have had on the team. It is even more impressive when you take into account the fact that the Leicester City game was the seventh in just twenty-three days.
Burnley is an important game as it is followed by a tough run of fixtures including Chelsea at home, Manchester City away and a double-header against Inter Milan in the following five matches. A significant boost to the team is the impending return to fitness of record signing Sofiane Boufal who may be in line to make his debut against the Clarets. Jay Rodriguez is also reported to be closing in on a return after the international break.
Puel deserves credit for managing his squad so well during the recent fixture overload. Leaving four key players at home for the trip to Israel was a logical decision which paid off as fatigue didn`t appear to have an impact on the team against Leicester. If things go to plan however and heavy progress is made in each of the cup competitions then more rotation will be required. Astute signings may be required in January should the club make it to the knockout stages in Europe whilst continuing to perform in the domestic competitions. Injuries and suspensions may build up as the fixtures increase and Boufal will disappear during the African Cup of Nations which takes place at the beginning of 2017. At the moment however, the team looks capable of performing on multiple fronts despite having such a small squad.