Thanks to the typical cruel sense of humour of the ‘Fixture Gods’, Southampton take on Liverpool in this Sunday’s season opener at Anfield, where they can expect to see some old familiar faces.
Clubs who achieve the unexpected rarely get much time to savour their glory seasons. Southampton, after a surprising eighth place finish in 2013/14 were swiftly picked clean by the vultures as soon as the transfer window opened this summer.
New manager Ronald Koeman has stressed that Southampton are not a selling club. Nonetheless, the Premier League has an unparalleled ability to put overachievers back in their place, and it wasn’t long before clubs higher up the food chain ransacked the impressive Saints squad.
Manchester United snatched Luke Shaw, Arsenal nicked Calum Chambers, and Liverpool lured Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren to Anfield. Despite making a handful of signings and nailing some players down to long-term contracts, the mass exodus at St Mary’s may not be over.
Those gone to Merseyside will be missed. Lambert and Lallana scored 22 times between them last year, which means that the pair account for around 40 per cent of Southampton’s total goals scored. Lallana was also heavily involved in creating scoring opportunities whilst at St. Mary’s – he notched up 68 chances in 38 games.
Southampton were reluctant to part with central defender Dejan Lovren; a player who won 58 per cent of his tackles last season. The Croat shone on his debut for the Reds in a pre-season friendly against Borussia Dortmund last week, scoring a goal for good measure, and looks to be a bargain at £20m – the highest price Liverpool have ever shelled out for a defender.
Koeman has added Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle, Ryan Bertrand (on loan), Fraser Forster and most likely Shane Long to his side, while other want-away stars, like Morgan Schneiderlin, have been told they must stay. That didn’t work with Lovren, however, and it’s yet to be seen if Schneiderlin will face Liverpool, or face a fine for refusing to play.
Despite the departures, if Koeman can keep the bulk of last year’s surprising squad together, they will certainly achieve Premier League survival, if not more. Staying up looks like the priority now, but Koeman isn’t shy of aiming to replicate last season’s performance: ‘We know they had a great season and it will not be easy to reach eighth place but we will try.’
Liverpool, on the other hand, have seen their expectations rise exponentially after a title-chasing season that was almost as surprising as Southampton’s eighth place finish.
It would be easy – lazy, even – to suggest that Liverpool lack cutting edge since Luis Suarez’s departure, but if pre-season performances have been anything to go by, Brendan Rodgers has crafted more than just a one-man team. Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge have particularly shone in the absence of the Uruguayan cannibal.
That’s not even counting Liverpool’s other new signings, like Serbian winger Lazar Markovic, Turkish midfielder Emre Can and Spanish left-back Alberto Moreno, whose signing was confirmed by the club yesterday.
In short, Rodgers is slowly piecing together a Liverpool team that could make Liverpool forget they ever loved Suarez so much that they’d excuse all his senseless shenanigans. But all these new faces need time to settle in, so earlier is probably all the better for Southampton to make the tricky trip to Anfield.
The two sides’ transfer windows have been intertwined and yet they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Brendan Rodgers now has to trim the rougher edges of a squad overflowing with talent and recoup some of the cost of his summer spending.
Koeman, on the other hand, has to rebuild, but he has a very achievable project at a well-run club. Young players are the Saints’ forte, with an academy that is arguably the best in the country.
He intends to retain that philosophy that got Southampton so far in 2013/14: ‘We have our way of thinking that the team has to play,’ the Dutchman said.
‘It will be possession dominated football, pressing to the opponent, giving young players the possibility to come in.’
Lallana, at least, will be absent from the squad on Sunday due to a knee injury. Rickie Lambert will most likely start from the bench. Lovren, however, will almost certainly start. The last time the Saints marched to Anfield, he scored in a 1-0 victory (a header from Adam Lallana’s corner, no less).
It will be no walk in the park for the visitors, but Koeman remains upbeat: ‘It will be special for us, it will be special for those who played for Southampton.’
- Can Liverpool kick-start their campaign with a win? Get the latest odds on the match here: Desktop | Mobile