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REDEMPTION DAY FOR SAINTS

Revenge sure feels sweet.

And there aren’t many better turnaround stories than this one, in fact this is arguably the greatest Premier League story of the season.

Just 11 weeks have passed since that nightmare Friday evening at St Mary’s when a Saints side whose confidence was rock bottom shipped nine goals against high-flying Leicester City, but so much has changed since then.

There were many calls for Ralph Hasenhuttl to go after that mauling as it looked increasingly unlikely that Saints would get out of trouble this time around.

But this has been an example of how having patience with a manager can reap the rewards as the Austrian has overseen a complete transformation in such a short space of time.

Although things didn’t automatically correct themselves after this thrashing like many believe, Saints still lost their next three including a poor 2-1 home defeat to struggling Everton which in many ways was just as bad as the Leicester defeat.

That Everton loss in November was the last time we saw five-at-the-back with Hasenhuttl switching to his favoured 4-2-2-2 system for the Arsenal game that followed, a formation that is pretty unique in this country.

There were also numerous players who lost their place in the side while others were given much needed reprieves – and boy have many of them taken their chance.

So this trip to the King Power Stadium on Saturday afternoon represented the perfect opportunity to showcase just how far they’ve progressed and how they are now a team to be feared playing against.

If you just looked at the score after the match, you may be forgiven for thinking that it was an ugly victory that Saints scraped given Leicester’s imperious campaign thus far.

But the visitors outplayed the Foxes for large parts of the match and thoroughly deserved these vital three points, in fact the scoreline even flattered Leicester after Saints missed numerous other chances. 

The win was made all the more impressive by the fact that Southampton actually went behind at a similar time to when Leicester broke the deadlock in their previous meeting that went so badly for Saints.

Saints also have a habit of struggling to react to going behind in recent seasons and have even been known to capitulate completely – and you don’t need me to tell you the most high-profile example of that.

It was very impressive how Hasenhuttl’s side reacted to going behind as their heads remained high and got on level terms soon after courtesy of a deflected Stuart Armstrong effort.

Stuart Armstrong

The Scottish international was one of those who has taken their chance after being reintroduced to the side and seems to fit this new system perfectly, in fact he probably hasn’t got the recognition his performances have deserved.

Then one man who has had bucket loads of praise made his mark on the game; Danny Ings hit the crossbar twice in quick succession with both efforts requiring impressive skill and unlucky not to go in.

It’s easy to forget that Ings didn’t actually have a particularly good start to the season and was often struggling to get into the side, an inconceivable thought these days.

However, that changed after an imperious performance in the 4-0 win over Portsmouth that completely changed his campaign and it’s fair to say he hasn’t looked back since.

Saints then thought that they had a penalty when Shane Long was barged in the box before VAR deemed that Long was offside in the build-up.

Meanwhile. Leicester had a couple of goals disallowed for offside with VAR confirming the decisions as opposed to overruling them while Alex McCarthy – the Saints number one since the reverse fixture drubbing – made a couple of decent saves.

It’s also worth mentioning the back-four, particularly the centre-back partnership, and how big a role they’ve played in this upturn in form.

One of the big reasons why Hasenhuttl was reluctant to use four at the back earlier in the season was that they were left too open in defence and therefore conceded too many goals to compete.

However, these four have proved that it can be successful using this squad and I don’t think many would’ve though that Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens would be the pair that proved to be by far the most effective duo.

Coupled with Cedric and Ryan Bertrand’s increased discipline over recent weeks which has meant that there is more protection to the centre-backs, the whole defence has been simply brilliant since the Arsenal draw.

While 1-1 would’ve been a solid result beforehand, Saints’ superiority meant that this could be a missed opportunity against one of the best teams in the division.

The visitors made their control of the game count when substitute Che Adams played in Ings who finished through Kasper Schmeichel’s legs to send the visiting fans into raptures.

Danny Ings
Photo – Matt Watson

This finish meant that the 27-year old moved onto 14 league goals for the season which is 40% of his total Premier League goals and just three behind Jamie Vardy in the race for the golden boot.

In truth, Ings could’ve had a lot more than one on Saturday after a stellar performance – it’s worth pointing out that Ings has been superb when playing alongside Shane Long with the Irish striker’s selfless runs allowing for even more space for Ings to work with.

It also gives the opposition defence another thing to worry about which has contributed to a run of failing to score in just one in Saints’ last 14 matches since the previous Leicester game.

Another partnership that has come on leaps and bounds since the change of shape is the midfield one between James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

They are pivotal, and perhaps unnoticeably so, in the side due to their persistent gut-bursting runs in the middle of the park as well as snuffing out opposition attacks and providing the foundations for Saints’ own forays forward.

Hasenhuttl even described Prowsey as a ‘machine’ after the Huddersfield victory in the FA Cup after continuing to give 100% despite playing every minute of a congested festive period.

There was more drama to come in this match though after Leicester thought they had grabbed a dramatic equaliser when Jonny Evans headed home from a free-kick – but the lack of celebration suggested that wasn’t the end of the matter.

And as VAR goes, this was a clear and obvious one with Evans clearly offside which gave Saints a reprieve that meant they would see out an almightily significant victory that showed just how far they’ve come and to finally set the record straight.

Based on the last 10 games which stretches back to the last international break, Saints would be third with 20 points including a 100% record in 2020.

Compare that to the opening 12 matches of the season (up to and including the Everton loss) where Southampton were left in 19th place in just eight points – with the situation looking perilous and potentially unsavable.

But the unsavable has incredibly been saved.

Form and confidence are as high as it’s been since the Ronald Koeman days and it’s got to the point that even a trip to Anfield at the start of February does not strike the same fear that it would’ve done two months prior. 

Saints have now moved up to 12th in the Premier League in the process; level on points with Arsenal in the top-half with some of the more optimistic fans even looking at the decreasing gap to the European places.

And to come full circle, Southampton’s winning goal at Leicester was scored by their number nine, nine minutes from the end, and this all came after the hosts showed all nine goals from the first meeting in the warm up as well as selling DVDs of the previous encounter – football’s a funny old game.

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