This week, the Analyst examines a potential battle for fourth place, as Southampton host Liverpool in Gameweek 26.
When these two sides met on the first day of the season, many envisioned a year of hardship and transition for Southampton. The Saints lost 2-1 that day, to opponents cherry-picked from their own ranks– Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert among them.
Conversely, the debut season of Ronald Koeman on the south coast has been a resounding success thus far, with the Dutchman maintaining course at the top end of the table for the vast majority of the season – aided by an array of astute imports, remaining first teamers and promoted youth talents. Certainly, few could have foreseen that Southampton would have placed above Sunday’s rivals and 2013/14 Premier League challengers Liverpool for such an extended period of time this season.
Seventh placed Liverpool dispatched Tottenham Hotspur in Gameweek 26 to the tune of 3-1, to become the current form side in the Premier League. Unbeaten in nine, Brendan Rodgers has instilled a solidity through his defence since reverting to a 3-4-2-1 formation. With confidence now rippling through the side, and even the likes of the previously maligned Mignolet and Balotelli recapturing their ability, this Liverpool side pose arguably Southampton’s toughest challenge to date this season – even more so when the gap between the two sides stands at just four points.
Liverpool 2-1 Southampton
Southampton 0-3 Liverpool
Liverpool 0-1 Southampton
James Ward-Prowse v Philippe Coutinho
While the likes of the resurgent Daniel Sturridge could indeed have his say in this fixture, he and his fellow forwards will rely heavily on the lock-picking capabilities of Philippe Coutinho to present the necessary goalscoring opportunities.
Southampton’s steely defence, conceding just 8 goals at home this season, has looked slightly unsettled of late, with a variety of centre half pairings tried and tested in the injury absence of Toby Alderweireld.
Coutinho, with 2 assists and 10 chances created over the past four fixtures has enjoyed increased importance in the Liverpool creative process. The Brazilian, with 32.7 minutes per chance created finds himself ahead of the esteemed Santi Cazorla (35.3) but trailing just Eriksen (28) and Hazard (27) among midfielders in this respect.
For the hosts, youngster James Ward-Prowse has displaced the inconsistent Dusan Tadic as the primary creative outlet for his side of late. Priced at £7.2m and selected by just over 1% of PlayON managers, Ward-Prowse is something of a darkhorse selection. Over his past four Premier League games, with 8 chances created, 11 successful crosses and an 88.7% pass completion in the final third, the Englishman hasn’t quite had the fortune of turning his impressive creative contributions into the cold hard currency of goals and assists.
With Southampton managing just two goals in the past four games, it’s clear that goal conversion has become a problem. At home, Ward-Prowse will undoubtedly create chances, Pelle, Mane et al must finish them.
Jose Fonte v Martin Skrtel
Throughout the course of their impressive campaign, Southampton’s defence has formed the backbone of their push for Champions League qualification. With just the fewest Premier League goals (17) conceded all season, it’s served them remarkably well, especially as their once free-scoring ways have trailed off in recent times.
Jose Fonte has been their constant throughout. Leading among defenders for interceptions (70) and averaging over 1000 points in five of his last seven Premier League fixtures, Fonte is always the solid acquisition when choosing from Southampton’s considerable backline.
Likely to operate alongside Florin Gardos or Maya Yoshida on Sunday, the Portuguese has been arguably the most effective and yet under-appreciated centre-half in Premier League this season.
Skrtel meanwhile, has put his haphazard and error prone early season form well and truly behind him, fashioning a fine understanding alongside Sakho and Can in the process. Winning 71% of his challenges and counting 25 headed clearances over the past six Gameweeks, the Slovakian has been a rock, and very much the last line of the Liverpool defence. Although his goal threat isn’t what it was in comparison to last season, it remains a gambit that could just prove the deciding factor in a tightly contested fixture.
The best defence in the league hosts the form side, this game will be won and lost by the defence and creative midfield forces. Don’t hold out for a goal glut.