I like to be proven wrong - especially when that comes with a benefit. Though it’s an attitude I hold in all walks of life, it’s particularly fun when it comes to Southampton and its players.
So much so, I previously wrote about how Oriol Romeu has invalidated any footballing opinions I previously held about him. You can read that here.
This time, we’re talking about Southampton’s towering Jannik Vestergaard who has been as important at the back as he has going forward for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side so far this season.
It appeared that the writing was on the wall for Vestergaard and his Southampton future during the elongated summer transfer window.
One of the Dane’s last moments of the 2019/20 Premier League season saw him get severely outpaced by former Saint Billy Sharp for a big chance in the final match of that campaign. Unfathomable and unforgiveable to many Southampton fans and some rumours circulated that other clubs were interested in taking him off our hands.
On top of that, Saints signed a promising centre-back in Mohammed Salisu from Real Valladolid in the summer. Vestergaard’s days on the South Coast looked numbered.
Whether that rumoured transfer interest was just baseless tabloid talk or not, Vestergaard stayed put and has since become an imposing figure alongside Jan Bednarek in the centre of Southampton’s defence so far this season.
The aforementioned Salisu has yet made an appearance for Southampton and Vestergaard’s form has made it a whole lot trickier for the Ghanaian to force his way into the starting XI when he finally gains the fitness required to play a Premier League match. Jack Stephens is also feeling the effects of that.
Every defender has a mistake in him. Perhaps it’s due to being signed as a Virgil van Dijk’s direct replacement at the back or just his sheer size, Vestergaard’s defensive errors seemed to be highlighted more than most of his Southampton peers over the last two seasons.
So far in 2020/21, Vestergaard has seldom made the defensive errors that lands a team in trouble and has actually looked the composed defensive leader Saints fans were hoping for when he signed from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2018. It’s important to note that the Dane played no part in Southampton’s defensive capitulation against Tottenham Hotspur, which culminated in a 5-2 defeat at home.
Vestergaard’s form has earned him an average rating of 7.29 from WhoScored - the 20th-highest ranked player of any position in the Premier league and Southampton’s third-highest rated after Danny Ings (13th overall) and James Ward-Prowse (15th Overall).
While his defensive work has been a marked improvement, Vestergaard’s contributions at the opposite side of the pitch have been hugely beneficial to Southampton’s positive start to the season.
The 6ft 5in defender has netted two goals for Southampton so far this campaign. The first was a last gasp equaliser against Chelsea to secure a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge. The next was another header against Aston Villa - a goal which turned out to be vital as Saints limped home with a 4-3 win after being 4-0 up beforehand.
Those goals are icing on the cake of genuinely good all-round play from Vestergaard. He has shown decent positional awareness to offset his lack of pace, but with the ball he has also looked composed.
The 28-year-old has a pass success rate of 82.6% - a number only lower than Ward-Prowse (85.6%) at Southampton and has appeared comfortable in playing out from the back. Back to the defending side, Vestergaard is also in the top 15 of the Premier League when it comes to winning aerial duels. Bednarek, by comparison, is ranked 30th in that regard.
Vestergaard’s form is providing Hasenhuttl one of those rare selection headaches you don’t usually get at Saints. When Salisu is fit to play, can he oust either Vestergaard or Bednarek on current form? Not likely. Jack Stephens, who was largely a good presence alongside Bednarek last season isn’t getting much of a sniff either.
While it’s exciting to see new signings like Salisu play so we can catch a glimpse of what they can do, it’s even more satisfying to see a player unexpectedly step up and fight for - and win - their position in the Saints starting XI.
All power to you, Jannik. Make that place in Southampton’s central defence yours and keep proving those doubters - including me - wrong.