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Saints' midfield headaches behind stuttering start

Having played three different formations in their last five games, Koeman needs to find his best tactical set-up soon. But it's the lack of mobility and energy in midfield that is causing the tinkering.

Christopher Lee/Getty Images

The stat that only six of the 30 Barclays Premier League fixtures so far this season had been home wins only further strengthens the opinion that ‘counter-attacking football’ is becoming the favoured style in football.

Southampton’s failure to score a single goal on the counter last season has been exasperated by the fact that against both Newcastle and Everton have taken full advantage of the absence of Morgan Schneiderlin to hit them at their most vulnerable with pace and clinical finishing.

Changing to a 5-3-2 formation from Ronald Koeman’s more favoured 4-2-3-1 did give Saints more security at the back. It resulted in their first clean sheet away from home since February, but the 0-0 against Watford at Vicarage Road only highlighted Saints’ imbalance in the team, and came close to conceding twice.

The way that Schneiderlin has seemed to calm the midfield problems at Manchester United has only served to demonstrate his importance to Saints especially since promotion to the Premier League.

Part of the problem for Koeman in the 2-2 draw against Newcastle and the 3-0 loss to Everton were that Victor Wanyama and Steven Davis were overworked in midfield, not just with doing their own jobs but to cover both Matthew Targett and Cedric Soares.

Schneiderlin's importance to Saints has only grown with his absence

Schneiderlin's importance to Saints has only grown with his absence (Getty)

It does highlight the lack of mobility in midfield both defensively and offensively. Schneiderlin had an incredible engine that meant he could cover ground quickly for the whole ninety minutes, almost acting as the midfield sweeper; when combined with his strong defensive attributes, it meant that he and Wanyama could screen the defence very well.

Yet bar the injured Jordy Clasie and Harrison Reed who hasn’t played yet, there seems to be a real lack of energy in midfield. Oriol Romeu has come in and done fairly well, adding steel and aggression, but he lacks the engine that Schneiderlin had.

The same mobility represents problems further up the pitch. With the return of Jay Rodriguez, Koeman has played him in a front four that at times contains four players who all prefer being a striker. But because of the lack of drive from midfield, often the front four are left isolated, and only Sadio Mané and Dušan Tadić are remotely creative.

With the passing range that Clasie and Ward-Prowse possess from deep, a faster style would undoubtedly suit that front four, yet Saints have been slow with the ball, with the tempo against Watford a real disappointment. Ward-Prowse has a superb passing range, yet playing the safe option more often than not shackles that.

Wijnaldum celebrates scoring on his debut against Southampton (Getty)

Wijnaldum celebrates scoring on his debut against Southampton (Getty)

It is somewhat ironic that Georginio Wijnaldum scored the second goal for Newcastle, because he’s the sort of player that Southampton really lack in their current squad. Wijnaldum has the kind of pace and dribbling ability that quite simply no one in the same position at Saints can match, and would’ve surely fitted Koeman’s traditional 4-3-3 perfectly through playing in that system at PSV Eindhoven.

He may not be able to match his 14 goals in 32 Eredivisie appearances from his last season at the Phillips Stadion because of the step in quality. But his goal against Saints on the opening day, along with the fact nine of those 14 goals for PSV were away from home, shows just how useful he can be on the counter, and gives the Magpies another way to play if they have to sit deep and break.

Saints won’t completely change their philosophy from their ideals of keeping the ball and playing attacking possession football, but considering the fact the plan B at Watford was to play direct balls up to Pellè and hope for a knock-down, perhaps it would be wise to consider an alternative.

But at a time where Saints have been dominated in the area that was arguably their strongest last year, going back to the 4-3-3 that gave them success in the first half of last season wouldn't be a bad idea.

Saints' looked at their best in a 4-3-3 in the two games against Vitesse Arnhem(Jordan Mansfield)

Saints' looked at their best in a 4-3-3 in the two games against Vitesse Arnhem (Jordan Mansfield)

That would mean a headache as to who would fill the front three positions, but considering the number of fixtures that Saints could contend with this year, they would all get significant game time anyway.

If it means Jay Rodriguez playing over Pellè, so be it. The Italian has struggled away from home, netting just twice in the Premier League away from St Mary’s; changing him for the speedier Rodriguez may just help to increase Southampton’s threat on the counter.

Either way, it’s worth remembering that the two most impressive away league results in 2015, against Manchester United and Chelsea, have come when Saints have changed away from a possession-based game into being more solid and looking more to hit teams on the break.

Given Saints’ troubles away from home since the turn of the year, turning towards that style more often may not be a bad idea at all.