Ever since a dismal performance and deserved 2-0 defeat against West Bromwich Albion, things have been looking up on the South Coast. In the 6 games played since that defeat, Southampton have lost only once, 1-0 at Anfield to a Liverpool side seemingly finding their feet after a difficult start to Brendan Rodgers' life as the Reds new manager.
The reason for this upturn in form? The defence has certainly begun to look more assured, with Maya Yoshida and Jose Fonte's improvement noticeable as the side has conceded only 4 goals in this 6 game period. Similarly, the promotion of Luke Shaw to the first team ahead of the struggling and seemingly out of his depth Danny Fox has made an obvious difference. Or is it the forward four of Puncheon, Ramirez, Lallana and Lambert finally clicking together? For me, the most significant reason for this upturn in form, alongside a clearly more favourable run of games, has to be the return of Jack Cork in the centre of midfield.
The standout difference between the two teams on that horrible, and believe me, cold night at the Hawthorns, was the dominance of West Bromwich Albion’s two defensive midfielders, Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, ahead of Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin and Steven Davis. The need for better protection for the back four was clear as they took time to adapt to the Premier League, and Cork has done that, and more, as his return to first team action has led to Saints not only looking more solid defensively, but also more dominant in midfield. Cork's biggest strength is that he does the basic things well; he's a solid tackler, a consistent passer, and an intelligent thinker. He often makes the right decisions and this has freed up the players in front of him to attack with more confidence, without worrying that they'll have to score 3 or 4 goals to get anything from the game. In fact, against Norwich and Swansea, Southampton didn't look like conceding, and only did after costly errors from young Goalkeeper Paulo Gazzanigga.
By giving the defence better protection, and by being reliable, if not error-free, when passing the football, Cork is proving a valuable piece of the Saints Jigsaw, and the massive confidence boost seen in the whole team can be partly put down to the return of the reliable midfielder, the only squad member to have played all 46 league games of the teams promotion to the Premier League from the Championship last season.
During that immensely successful campaign, it was easy to overlook the former Chelsea midfielder as the more attacking players including Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and, during the second half of the season, Billy Sharp, inexcusably loaned to Nottingham Forest at the start of this season, took centre stage. But, as has been the case on countless occasions in football, his importance to the team was most noticed when he wasn’t there. Without him Southampton made what was already an exceptionally difficult looking start to Premier League life look nigh on impossible and, despite an impressive scoring rate for a newly promoted side, their leaky defence made any chance of a result look very unlikely. Cork’s return to the team has undoubtedly corresponded with a more favourable run of games but it has also coincided with a defensive turnaround that is nothing short of staggering, which is, in this writer’s opinion, no coincidence. The positional discipline that he provides for his team increases the support given to the defence, rather than leaving it to the previously overworked Morgan Schneiderlin to do provide all the protection on his own, and it also frees up the more creative players, Gaston Ramirez being the prime example, to find space and make things happen in the attacking third of the pitch. Southampton look a more cohesive unit and, while it helps that Adkins has been able to name a mostly unchanged side during this run, Cork has been the standout player who has made things tick for the side.
It is imperative the midfielder stay injury-free for as much of the season as possible, as with him lies Southampton's best chance of keeping their place in the division. Saints will need to be at their best over the Christmas period as after a seemingly winnable, and massive game, at home against Sunderland next, they visit Fulham and Stoke, two of the strongest teams at their respective homes in the division, before the visit of Arsenal on New Year’s Day. With Cork fit and playing so well, Saints will at least feel confident of their ability to spring a few surprises.