Lambert 90' (Penalty)
The Hawthorns, 17th August 2013
Referee : Friend
Attendance : 25,927
Last Gasp Win
The last time I went to a Premier League away game was nearly a decade ago, and that too was an opening day fixture in the Midlands. We went down to a disjointed and meek defeat that day, and it was clear where our season was heading from then onwards. Having seen very little quality, and no fight at all (apart from the one which almost involved fists between Prutton and Niemi), that defeat to Villa was very much a portent of our relegation which followed.
I sensed from the performance yesterday that our victory was no less an indicator of what we have to come this season. It was something of a surprise that, after a pre-season of scoring and conceding goals, we should open the season with a 1-0 away victory, hard-earned through lots of possession and stout defending, but very few chances. But not one person who travelled to West Brom will be complaining; it was a thoroughly absorbing performance by us in which we showed to have addressed the majority of our weaknesses from last season.
The teamsheet held a few surprises; it contained 6 Englishmen, 3 teenagers and 4 products of our academy. Chambers was selected for his debut as Clyne, on the bench, was deemed not yet ready. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the inclusion of James Ward-Prowse. I’m not sure many of the pre-game line-up predictions on the Saintsfc hashtag contained his name.
And there was a further surprise when Ward-Prowse lined up on the right hand side of the attacking trio, with Lallana playing in the central roaming role for the first time since the pre-Gaston days at the beginning of last season. Lallana was strong in that position; much of our good first half attacking play came through Adam as he flitted all across their back line, causing mischief wherever he could best cause it. He seemed to relish not having the defensive responsibilities of playing in a wide position, which requires a lot more defensive discipline than he can often give. First weakness from last season addressed.
Indeed, the central midfield trio were key to our whole performance. Last season at the Hawthorns, in Nige’s 4-4-2, we were outnumbered, out-muscled and outplayed by West Brom’s midfield. But with Big Vic in the side, no-one is going to out-muscle us. He immediately stamped his control on the game, stepping seamlessly into the Cork role. I was expecting him to be a little more progressive than Jack, but actually he was a like for like replacement. Him and Morgan worked in triangles with both defence and attack, enabling us to keep possession of the ball for almost all of the first 45 minutes. West Brom just could not get into the game, and on the rare occasion we did cede possession, invariably Big Vic was there to win it back in midfield. Although I am disappointed for Jack and his mother (more of that on another thread), Wanyama is going to be a very important player for us.
Our possession enabled Calum Chambers to ease into first team football confidently; for much of the first half, he had the ball at his feet rather than tracking and defending. As the second half wore on and West Brom had more possession, the impression I had of Chambers was that he looked less and less assured. However, on watching the match highlights, he made some crucial interceptions during this period when I felt he was less assured, so perhaps I was doing him a disservice. There was one particular back-post clearance header which was excellent, and on occasion last season, Clyne was guilty of not attacking the ball in exactly this situation. There was also a brilliant goal-mouth block from Calum which saved an almost certain goal. That was quite late on, so he almost certainly saved us from defeat and set us up to go down the other end and win the game.
Offensively, Chambers had little ambition, but that is probably to be expected of an 18 year old debutant. We saw similar from Luke Shaw in the early stages of his career, who was rampant coming forward yesterday. He pushed Billy Jones back continually, who is often a significant attacking threat for West Brom, but for much of the game yesterday he was too busy failing to track Luke to even think about attacking. Luke told us in pre-season that he was going to come back even better this season, and on this showing that would certainly appear to be the case. Defensively he was sound, with no sign of the some of the errors from last season, and going forward he was quick and incisive. This was epitomised by his run which led to the goal. All afternoon he was prepared to take on the opposition and commit them, and of course this desire led to the penalty. He was clearly taken out by Mulumbu.
Ward-Prowse formed an unlikely teenage partnership with Chambers on the right hand side, and he had a solid if unspectacular game. I really like him as he has great technical ability. His delivery was a little inconsistent but there is genuine potential there. He kicks the ball really well. He reminds me a little of a young Paul Scholes, and as time moves on he will be wasted out on the right. He is a player who is destined for the number 10 role, because he is the epitome of a modern footballer; he is strong defensively and in the tackle, but has excellent vision and his delivery will improve so that he can carry out his vision.
Jay was, I felt, the weakest of our attacking quadrant. His touch seemed rusty, yet without doubt his directness gives the opposition a different problem to the rest of our team. He was mostly crowded out when running at the defence yesterday, but this was no bad thing as it led to a number of free kicks in dangerous areas.
From Rickie we had a typical performance; although starved of much service, he worked tirelessly throughout. His link-up play is so crucial to the way that we play, it is hard to imagine that even the potential introduction of Osvaldo could threaten his place in the side. One has to think that Mo has other ideas for Osvaldo than for him to take Rickie’s place. Rickie thoroughly deserved to cap his wonderful week with a last minute goal. I’ve read so many people comment that Rickie will struggle to match his 15 goals from last season, but the season is only 90 minutes old and he is already one seventh of the way there. Rickie is on a roll, and when he gets on a roll there is very little that can be done to stop him scoring. He looks even fitter and leaner than last season, and I think he is going to top last year’s tally. He is a man at his absolute peak, and he is not going to allow that to pass without capitalising. Rickie will be at the World Cup next summer, because Hodgson will not be able to ignore him.
And so on to our defensive rock. Boruc played more as a sweeper than a goalkeeper for much of the game, which is most definitely part of the game plan. He was dependable on crosses, and when called upon, he pulled off a miraculous save to claw the ball off the line from what would have been a certain equaliser for West Brom. Brilliant, and Niemi-esque.
Fonte and Lovren formed an excellent partnership in the centre of defence. On paper, these two look like they could set one or two heart-rates rising with their potential for mistake, but what actually happened on the pitch was that they had Anelka and Long in their pockets, and kept control of the ball when in possession. I don’t think they lost a header all game and between them made some crucial interventions. Lovren in particular made one great tackle in the box with Anelka about to pull the trigger. If this performance is typical of him, we have a real player. There was no sign of the uncertain player that the Lyon fans fell out of love with last season; all I saw was a commanding, dominant and committed central defender who can also distribute the ball excellently. In this area, he is a clear upgrade on Jos. He delivered a few excellent cross-field balls straight to Ward-Prowse’s feet which set up attacking situations.
Although I would have been happy with a draw, the last minute goal was no more than we deserved. Adam’s disallowed goal in the first half should have stood and the victory was a reflection of our dominance of this football match. We do need more cutting edge going forward; someone who is able to capitalise on a yard of space or a half chance. But the building blocks are there, and as the season goes on I think this three points will prove to be crucial, because they have given a young side the belief that they can get points anywhere. This is very much a team that has Southampton Football Club at its core. As well as the Academy graduates on show, the likes of Schneiderlin, Lambert and Fonte are very much part of the fabric of our club. Even the new recruits, Lovren and Wanyama, look to have settled in to the team dynamic quickly. Lovren’s reaction to the goal was that of a life-long Saints fan. It would be a fantastic environment for a fallen idol such as Osvaldo to join; a place where he will be loved, taken under the wing of a united football club, and be allowed to flourish.
This was a performance of the collective, hard-earned by everyone including the manager. I can’t remember the last time we won on the opening day of a Premier League campaign, so to celebrate I am going to give every player 10 out of 10 for their performance. Football is great, Saints are great and it was a great first away game for my daughter, who started her fifth season yesterday and has only ever known a successful Saints side. I sense that this will continue for some time yet.
*Ps. I apologise for the weightiness of this tome, but hey, if someone is going to ask me to talk about my wonderful Saints, well, you'd better settle in and get yourself a cup of tea.
06 Ridgewell Booked
23 McAuley Booked
28 Jones Booked
21 Mulumbu Booked
09 Long (Vydra - 83' )
39 Anelka (Rosenberg - 83' )
16 Ward-Prowse (Cork - 90' )
09 Rodriguez (S Davis - 78' )
20 Lallana (Ramirez - 70' )
01 K Davis
08 S Davis
Another Rickie penalty, another chance for Saints fans to go mad! - I love these fans mobile phone videos :)
West Brom 51%
West Brom 11
West Brom 1
West Brom 4
West Brom 14