As we go into the international break, Town fans can be forgiven for getting a little excited at the prospect of having nine points from their opening three games.
This would certainly suit me, as three points on Saturday would not only send me home happy but also with £200 in my pocket on the part of a very optimistic bet at the start of the season.
Standing in the way of my money and more importantly, the three points are Southampton. Out of all the teams we could have played at the start of the season, Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Southampton is probably the best outcome we could have gotten.
Two of the teams are in transition with new managers (Southampton and Crystal Palace), whilst the other (Newcastle), is in a state of crisis with a manager at loggerheads with his over exuberant but stingy owner.
Over the course of their Premier League lifespan to date, Southampton share a similar trajectory to Town. Each season they were written off by pundits, who saw their outgoings which consisted largely of their star players as a sign from the footballing gods that they were destined to be relegated. Many came and went. Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne, Victor Wanyama, Jose Fonte, Rickie Lambert, Sadio Mane and now potentially Virgil van Dijk if Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester City get their way.
Yet thanks to a stellar recruitment policy and the utilisation of their now famous ‘Black Box’ system, they have maximised data and character profiling to consistently replace their want-away stars with players of equal or greater quality.
This forward planning extends to their managers. After Mauricio Pochettino saw fit to leave the club and move to Tottenham, Barcelona and Dutch legend Ronald Koeman was brought in. When he wanted a new challenge and left for Everton, they replaced him with Claude Puel. However, after this appointment, their policy began to hit some bumps.
Despite a League Cup Final and an 8th place finish, many Saints fans were frustrated with Puel’s conservative approach and playing style and after a turgid 1-0 defeat at home to Stoke City on the final game of the season, the fans made their feelings known and Puel was quietly ushered out the door by the owners and handed his P45.
In stepped Mauricio Pelligrino, whose name is itself an amalgamation of former manager Pocchettino and former Man City Head Coach Manuel Pelligrini. This has already confused some pundits in their pronunciation of his name.
Saints fans are hoping to see a return to the expansive and vibrant brand of football that Pochettino and Koeman implemented whilst maintaining their excellent youth policy record. The latest starlet to be on his way to the top is centre-back Jack Stephens who seems to be well capable of filling the large shoes of Van Dijk.
Southampton uncharacteristically have had a less than impressive start to the campaign. A frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Swansea City was closely followed by a scrappy 3-2 win over West Ham United that was only achieved through a last minute penalty by Charlie Austin.
This inconsistency was compounded by a 2nd round exit from the Carabao Cup to a resurgent Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Saints and Pelligrino will be hoping they can rectify this inconsistency on Saturday. However, they will be up against a Town team full of confidence and flying high in a dream-like 2nd place with only Manchester United pipping them to the top of the tree on goal difference (although, yes it’s only been two games).
Steve Mounié vs Jack Stephens
Against Newcastle, Mounié had a royal rumble with Jamal Lascelles but didn’t get great service to feed his aerial prowess or be given any clear cut chances to take advantage of.
If Southampton are to nullify our forward threat, Jack Stephens will have to step up once again and marshal Mounie well enough for Saints to keep a clean sheet.
This will not be a test of his highly-rated footballing talent but his physicality and positioning as a centre-back.
It will be a coming of age battle that much can be said for sure.
Christopher Schindler vs Manolo Gabbiadini
Christopher Schindler marshalled Dwight Gayle excellently last week, with one goal-saving tackle timed to absolute perfection in the first-half that denied him a close-range finish.
He will have to bring his A-game once again to nullify the threat of Manolo Gabbiadini.
Since his arrival in the January transfer window, Gabbiadini was instrumental for Saints in the latter half of last season, scoring several match-winners which propelled them to the top half of the table.
Known for his finishing capabilities, Schindler will have to snuff out any half-chance that comes Gabbiadini’s way if we are to keep a clean sheet.
Aaron Mooy vs Oriel Romeu
Aaron Mooy rightfully stamped his mark on the Premier League last week with a top-class goal and performance against Newcastle.
Mooy typically bossed the game and put in a strong defensive performance as well, cementing his status as a complete midfielder.
On Saturday, Oriel Romeu will be hoping to put a stop to that.
The destroyer from Spain is known for his hard character and even harder defensive performances. If we are to get a foothold on the game, Mooy will have to bypass or go through Romeu to make that happen.
Phillip Billing vs Mario Lemina
Philip Billing showed his class once again on Wednesday night against Rotherham.
After coming on as a second-half substitute, many fans at the game would have been hard to argue against him being named Man of the Match. After scoring the equaliser with a well-taken penalty, Billing bossed the game and dictated the tempo of the game.
Mario Lemina, on the other hand, is a high profile summer signing for Southampton that was brought in from Juventus to provide a distribution point for the side. He also brings a versatility as he has played previously as a winger, full-back and wing-back during his career.
Seen by many in the ‘Kante’ mould, Lemina will hope to break up play, launch counter-attacks and dominate the midfield battle. Town will be hoping their Great Dane can stifle this Gabonese bulldog.
Tommy Smith vs Nathan Redmond
There are no easy games for Tommy Smith in the Premier League.
After facing Matt Ritchie and Wilfried Zaha respectively, there is no let up as he will have to contend with England winger Nathan Redmond on Saturday.
Blessed with pace, trickery and an eye for a finish, Redmond is often under-rated in football circles and was used as the butt of a viral twitter joke that seems typical of English fans tearing down thriving English talent.
Smith will have to adjust to Premier League life quickly if he is to keep his place in the team from new signing Florent Hadergjonaj.
After rotating on Wednesday night, it is expected that David Wagner will elect to use his settled side once again as he looks to make it three wins from three.
On the other hand, to find out what to expect from Saints on Saturday and how they’re likely to set-up, I spoke with Editor of The Noise from the Northam Matt Tilling:
“a 4-2-3-1: Forster, Soares, Bertrand, Stephens, Yoshida (don’t think our new boy Hoedt will start), Romeu, Lemina, Boufal, Tadic, Redmond, Gabbiadini”
“We experimented with three at the back last night against Wolves and, as the result suggests, it wasn’t a good idea…
I think I speak for the rest of the league when I say everyone is surprised by the start you chaps have made, and we’re certainly not looking at this weekend as a straightforward 3 points (when is it ever in the PL?)”.
“You can expect to see some attacking football – we won’t sit back – and I expect Pellegrino will look to get Bertrand and Soares in behind on the wings. Romeu will be asked sit in front of the back 4 to allow Lemina to run into space in the middle of the park”.
“If I’m honest, and based on our recent performances, I think you guys should be looking to Mounié to bully our centre backs (Stephens and Yoshida) and keep his movement up to take advantage of some (at times) poor positioning”.
We also asked who may be the breakout star for Southampton this season:
“Breakout star this year will be Jack Stephens: he’s a wise old head on young shoulders and has now started carrying the ball into midfield at times, which is great to see in the absence of our want-away star…”
Stats to look out for
– Huddersfield last hosted Southampton in League One in 2010, winning 2-0.
– Town and Southampton have not played out a draw since 1965 in the old Second Division, a run of 12 games featuring six wins apiece.
– Town last won their first three matches of a top-flight season in 1924-25, on their way to the second of three consecutive league titles.
– Of Town’s last 27 league wins, 23 have been by one-goal margins.
– A win for Saints would result in their highest points tally after four games of a Premier League campaign.
– Southampton have failed to score in seven of their last 10 league games, converting seven goals from 138 shots (5.1%).
– Southampton have won their opening away match in only two of their previous 18 Premier League seasons, the last at West Brom in 2013-14.
The John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday will be rocking once again for the visit of Southampton and whilst Town fans have every right to get excited, this will be another tough test against a well-drilled and talented Southampton team.
Whilst they’re in a period of transition, they cannot be underestimated and I predict another 1-goal margin of victory for either team if there is going to be a result.