Southampton v Liverpool Preview: resurgent Saints

Could Southampton’s trust in Pellegrino be vindicated? –

Mauricio Pellegrino’s St Mary’s tenure had looked untenable for some time. Last week’s 3-2 victory at West Bromwich Albion, where James Ward-Prowse’s set piece expertise came to the fore, was their first league win in 13 matches.

That winless streak, which surprisingly followed November’s impressive 4-1 win over Everton, saw them drop into the relegation zone: three clubs changed their boss in that timeframe.

Instead of following in the footsteps of West Ham, West Brom and Watford, the Southampton board stood by Pellegrino and maybe – just maybe – are being rewarded for their bravery.

Had they appointed a more traditionalist manager, it is unlikely that they would create as many chances as they now are through the audacity of their defenders. Pushing deep into the opposing half to provide width are full-backs Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand. The latter’s left-sided play at the Hawthorns won the corners that led to both Mario Lemina’s stunning long-range equalizer and Jack Stephens’ first half header.

Stephens, who now has two goals in two and his centre-back partner, Wesley Hoedt, have had 76 touches between them in the opposing half in the previous two games, the other being a 1-1 home draw with Brighton. They have shown the flexibility to dribble forward and temporarily stand-in for the midfielders, helping the Saints sustain pressure when Lemina and either Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg or Oriol Romeu push up.

Pellegrino might be tempted to start all three here by handing Lemina a more advanced role, because midfield congestion will be the order of the day against Liverpool.

Jurgen Klopp’s side have had their moments this season. They like to play high-tempo football led by the quick and incisive wizardry of Mohamed Salah, who is on an incredible 28 goals in all competitions after his brace in last week’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham.

What Philippe Coutinho offered them though was something unique: the capacity to win games when a more considered, patient approach was required. The Brazilian was excellent in a central role, not only because of his goals and assists, but also because he acted as a decoy. Opposing teams were so wary of his quality, they would pay extra attention to the 25-year-old and that would free up others around him.

It remains to be seen whether that job can be fulfilled by Georginio Wijnaldum or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the latter being one of five players who could return to his old club on Sunday. The other four are Dejan Lovren, a controversial figure in SO14, Sadio Mane, who must arrest a slight dip in form, Adam Lallana, who is taking time to get back to full fitness but most topically, Virgil Van Dijk.

The Dutchman swapped Hampshire for Merseyside in a big-money January deal, with the hope being that he will be the defensive leader Liverpool arguably haven’t had since Jamie Carragher’s retirement. While Van Dijk is a good signing – and has improved the Reds’ defence of set pieces – just as important as the money spent on a centre-back is the consistency of the back four they play within.

Klopp hasn’t named the same defence in back-to-back games since Christmas, thus heightening the potential for error. The German could rotate yet again, with Wednesday’s crucial Champions League trip to Porto in mind.

Should he treat that game with more respect than Sunday’s jaunt to the south-coast, the resurgent Saints could catch Liverpool unawares.

The Football Lab’s Verdict: 2-1