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Southampton and Burnley: a study of contrast

Saturday 3rd November. St. Mary’s Stadium. Yet another home game for the Saints, and yet another lacklustre showing by the players.

As Southampton succumbed to their fourth loss in the league this season, it was the manner of the defeat that has the Southampton faithful worried. In recent years, they’ve been treated to some of the best football the club has ever played, firstly under Mauricio Pochettino, and in subsequent years under Ronald Koeman.

When you played Southampton, there used to be a great atmosphere at St. Mary’s, the fans cheered the players every move, and as a player, you had to be on your toes for the entire duration of the 90 minutes, because it was common knowledge that the opposition players would push you to the limit. Under Pochettino, the trio of Lallana, Rodriguez and Lambert used to be a nightmare to defend against. When Poch left for pastures new, as did his trio, Koeman formed his own trio of Tadic, Mane and Pelle.

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Those Southampton sides played to their strengths, and there were plenty to play to. They played with the zeal and a freedom that Claude Puel and now Mauricio Pellegrino have struggled to match. It may sound harsh, but they haven’t come close to replicating the same flair, and their present condition of stagnation was perfectly summed up by Mr. Nick Miller – “Southampton tried to have a little more invention but were afflicted with whatever the football equivalent of writer’s block is”.

This Southampton team seems starved of innovation, and their play is lacking the dynamism that made them so difficult to defend against. At most clubs, the fans are quick to express their dissatisfaction at the performances and the results, but those at St. Mary’s are a very tolerant bunch.

Presently, Southampton seem to have no explosive trio, but more worryingly, no standout player to build their team around. When you look at their side, you see a collection of very talented individuals, but they’re lacking the cohesion to build something as a team. Defensively, they are reasonably sound, and the problem comes while going forward, which is uncharted territory in comparison to previous seasons.

Mauricio Pellegrino must work out a system that allows his players to infuse some urgency into the attack, and make it less transparent, and he must do so quickly, for before the turn of the year, he will be up against the likes of Liverpool, both Manchester clubs and the three London clubs, in addition to the ever ticking clock on his future at the club.

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In a nutshell, Southampton, a side that we’ve become quite accustomed to see between 6th and 8th place in the final PL table, is slipping closer to 12th than to 4th.

Saturday, St. Mary’s Stadium. Yet another away win for Burnley.

Words that would have sounded so bizarre last season. However, the polar opposite of the case with Southampton, Burnley manager Sean Dyche used his summer with the team to excellent effect, with the management evidently having gone over the match footages and scrutinised the areas of Burnley’s undoing. And the squad has responded. They’ve tried their level best to overturn the dreadful run of form that saw them go the entire duration of the season picking up just a single win on their travels.

Such a record can be detrimental to a club’s ambitions of staying up in the top flight. However, Burnley finished 16th, and resolved to come back stronger when they visited those teams again. Having lost their main defender Micheal Keane to Everton, as well as forward Andre Gray to last season’s fellow strugglers Watford, not a lot of people gave Burnley too much hope of retaining their status of a PL club come May 2018. It is here that the value of positive psychological and mental strength cannot be understated. Burnley did not opt to reinvest the money acquired from the sales by signing 6 or 7 stars, irrespective of how they fitted the team (Sorry Everton), but they signed 2 first teamers in Chris Wood and Jack Cork, both players who suit their system well.

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Dion Dublin summed them up by saying something along the lines of – Burnley is not doing anything extraordinary. They’re simply carrying forward what they’ve always done at home to their travels now. They aren’t afraid of the opposition, and they’d just like to be first to every ball, contest every header and not lay down, regardless of who the opposition is. And personally, while that isn’t extraordinary in terms of the catalyst of the change, but the transition itself is nothing short of remarkable.

Sean Dyche has made his side extremely difficult to beat, with his defenders and midfielders calm in possession, passionate about the game, and more than anything, disciplined. When you play the top dogs, it is pivotal for a lesser club’s defenders to maintain discipline and organisation, else the whole plan of playing on the counter is thrown out of the window. Likewise, with Sam Vokes and Chris Wood, he’s got players who are extremely strong in the three areas that their playing style mandates – Strength, heading ability and finishing.

Because Burnley have accepted that they may not be able to carve out 5-6 big chances per game, but when they do get the ball forward, their target men do not let them down. With Dyche tweaking the team to play to their strengths and also sometimes purely to frustrate the opposition, Burnley have picked up away points at Stamford Bridge, Wembley and Anfield, and their impressive start has prompted Everton to seriously consider poaching the man at the centre of it all, Sean Dyche.

In a nutshell, the club that one wouldn’t have expected to finish further than 15th, is slowly and unobtrusively creeping upwards towards 8th.

Written by Ayush Verma.

Ayush Verma

20. Student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Manchester City correspondent for 90MAAT

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