After all the talk and controversy around Southampton football club in recent days, the team returned the pitch last night to face Champions League hopefuls Everton, albeit with a new man at the helm. As deplorable, and bemusing, as the decision to sack Nigel Adkins was, it was important that the fans gave Mauricio Pochettino a chance. Thankfully, whilst Adkins was shown commendable support by the Saints fans last night, the reaction to Pochettino last night was respectful, and the players responded by producing a good performance, particularly in the first half, to earn a 0-0 draw.
Management issues aside, the Saints team was largely as expected, with Lambert and Ramirez returning to the starting line-up in place of Jay Rodriguez and Steven Davis. Though some fans quite rightly question the inclusion of Guly Do Prado in the Southampton starting XI, it was for me the correct team choice as it allowed for Ramirez to play in his most effective position, just behind Lambert. Everton named fit again Kevin Mirallas on the bench, and made one change to their starting XI with Steven Naismith replacing Victor Anichebe.
The first half began brightly for Southampton, and continued that way. Although Pochettino has only had a few days to work with the players, small changes were evident in their style early on. Although it closely resembled the style Adkins adhered to, there was slightly more pressing up the pitch, and an encouragement for the wingers Jason Puncheon, and the surprisingly hard-working Do Prado, to switch around more frequently than was the case under Adkins. Everton looked off the pace, and Saints looked to take advantage of that, creating a number of clear cut opportunities, with Rickie Lambert surprisingly wasteful. As encouraging as the Saints performance in the first half was, it was undoubtedly surprising to see such a strong team in Everton look so decidedly off the pace.
Marouane Fellaini was at the centre of most of their forays forward, and looked dangerous, but aside from that; the blue side of Liverpool struggled to assert themselves into the game, and the usually scintillating Leighton Baines struggled to get involved. That meant that when the half-time whistle went, I had an uneasy feeling that the home side would pay for their missed opportunities.
As expected, Everton came out for the second half a different side, a likely impact of what I assume was a severe Moyes rollicking, and immediately put Southampton on the back foot. The introduction of Anichebe added even more impetus to Everton’s attacks, and when he powerfully forced his way down the right before supplying Nikica Jelavic with a perfect ball inside the box, it seemed destined to be 1-0 to the travelling side. However, Jelavic inexplicably got his feet tangled up and missed the chance, a chance that I have no doubt he would have taken a year ago, and Southampton were let off the hook. Other chances came for Everton, with Anichebe forcing a fine save off Artur Boruc, and Mirallas causing problems after his introduction for the aforementioned Jelavic. However, when the final whistle went, I think most fans would have agreed that a draw was the fair result.
Southampton’s dominant first half display owed much to the trickery, guile, and all-round ability of Gaston Ramirez, whose ability to find space in between Everton’s midfield and defence made him a constant menace. All the Saints players deserve credit for their first half performance though, which displayed a high level of energy and allowed the team to pressure Everton much more than was expected pre-match. The second half perhaps saw the home side tire from their first half efforts, although Everton got a lot better, as they had to after a disappointing first half, and showed why they are challenging for the Champions League spots, with the introduction of Anichebe particularly influential, and it was ultimately very satisfying to see the previously vulnerable Saints defence hold it together in keeping another clean sheet, which will only boost their confidence going forward.
In summary, Southampton produced a good display under trying circumstances, and although it was difficult to tell how much of an impact Pochettino had on the team having only been in the job for three days, the signs were still encouraging in the post-Adkins era.
There is no doubt that Adkins was a popular manager at Southampton, and his achievements will be remembered for decades to come by Saints fans, and although I am as disappointed as anyone by his ruthless removal, it is important to move on and give Pochettino a chance. After what I saw last night, I shall definitely be doing exactly that.