Two very bold and extroverted Dutchmen worked together at Barcelona. They (unsurprisingly) didn’t really see eye to eye and their relationship was one of great sourness and suppressed distaste for one another. Those two men were known as Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman.
The latter was the assistant manager and set about buying a wonderful Spanish house in the fancy part of Catalonia for him and his family. His house ended up being an absolute spectacle – Mr Koeman would have been a proud man looking at his lovely house. However, his pride and happiness was short lived. Louis van Gaal caught wind of this development, and set about a development of his own; namely, building an even bigger and fancier house just down the road from Koeman. The final product was indeed a far more magnificent sight than what Koeman had to offer. Louis van Gaal had overshadowed his assistant.
What does that have to with an opposition analysis of Southampton? Good question. I suppose it’s a kind of allegory for the intense rivalry between the two managers in question. Koeman understands Van Gaal’s methods better than more or less any other manager in the current game, meaning his approach to Sunday’s fixture would have been calculated to every last detail.
The van Gaal/Koeman rivalry places extra meaning on this encounter, and the positioning of both Manchester United and Southampton in the Premier League table will ensure this is one of the more spicy affairs of the weekend. Van Gaal’s United sit in 3rd with 37 points and Koeman’s Southampton sit in fourth spot with 36 points.
With the season past the halfway stage, Southampton seem to be punching well above their weight. But what has been the cause behind such an impressive run of form?
A foundation of their success comes from a very solid core. The Saints possess the finest defensive record out of any Premier League side this term (only 15 goals conceded), which arises from two key aspects of their team.
Firstly, they’re a real team. Under Koeman, it’s ironic how the changing room is seemingly bereft of any egotistical behaviour; the Dutchman inherited a determined, productive group of players. The togetherness and equality in the dressing room has led to an organised and assured back line on the pitch.
Secondly, Koeman has put in practice a system that requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice but makes you incredibly hard to beat.
Similar to Van Gaal, he hasn’t stuck with the same system throughout the season. His favoured formation is an expansive 4-3-3 set-up; this has been utilised against the so called ‘lesser teams’ and involves somebody sitting just in front of the back four (usually Wanyama or Schneiderlin), whose job is to maintain a solid defensive shape and allow the likes of Tadic, Long or Mane to provide ammunition for Pelle.
Southampton lineup vs Hull (1st November)
At times this season that has been altered slightly. In tricky physical encounters, their away match at Crystal Palace being a prime example, we saw a pragmatic 5-4-1 being used.
In tougher matches Koeman has elected to use a 4-2-3-1 system with the hope of making the pitch wide as possible, providing more defensive cover with two central defensive midfielders and getting Tadic closer to Pelle. He seemed to favour this system against Van Gaal and it worked impressively well.
Southampton line-up vs Manchester United (December 8th)
The two in defensive midfield bossed Mata out of the game, Tadic made life difficult for Fellaini and Carrick and Man United’s wing-back partnership struggled to bomb up and down the flanks with both wing marshalled by two wide players (Mane and Bertrand on the left, Long and Clyne on the right). Man United winning that game was nothing short of miraculous.
It seems that Koeman, similar to Van Gaal, is not abject to using different players in different positions. His team is incredibly versatile and resolute. Very rarely to they appear easy to break down no matter how many players they seem to lose through injury. Led by a Dutchman whose learnt from the best, this team is full of very strong-minded, confident players.