Thursday 20 June 2019

James Lawton: Ronald Koeman's vision of Saints evokes older football order

Dutch maestro's rebuilding work has Southampton dreaming of Cup glory

Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman at Old Trafford earlier this month. Koeman edged the battle of the Dutch managers as Southampton beat Manchester United 1-0
Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman at Old Trafford earlier this month. Koeman edged the battle of the Dutch managers as Southampton beat Manchester United 1-0

James Lawton

Arsenal's Arsene Wenger stripped down much of the last of the FA Cup romance more than a decade ago when he pronounced the old bauble less important than a fourth-place finish in the Premier League.

That wasn't quite the story when his team ended the years of famine and collected the trophy at Wembley last spring and now some old romantics are whipping up enthusiasm for Manchester United's fourth-round visit to Cambridge tonight.

You know the kind of thing well enough. A minnow's moment of destiny, the mighty United and their lordly would-be redeemer Louis van Gaal desperate to dodge the banana skin.

We know it by heart. Yet whatever today's reality, it is still true that if the most famous of domestic knockout tournaments has become for so many leading clubs a cup of convenience, something to mask failure in the all-important Premier League and Europe, it can still carry the cachet of genuine achievement.

It can still make the football blood run powerfully and if we had any doubt about this we needed to be in the environs of Southampton's St Mary's ground this week when 15,000 tickets for tomorrow's tie with Crystal Palace were sold in a day for the club's eighth successive home sell-out.

This means that we should also stay Dutch in our pursuit of the most meaningful cup action this weekend. We should consider the potential impact of Van Gaal's compatriot Ronald Koeman guiding Southampton to triumph at Wembley for the second time in their history - 39 years after they ended the fedora-clad dream of Malcolm Allison and his third division Crystal Palace.

It would surely, and especially when coupled with the growing possibility of a Champions League place, represent one of the greatest, and beautifully understated, of managerial achievement.

It would be a so-far unflawed example of hard-nosed but psychologically impeccable football values.

When he was the hero of the Barcelona European Cup winners of 1992, a powerful defender-midfielder who had a Beckhamesque touch with the dead ball, and could also tackle, he was christened Tintin after the comic book hero by the Nou Camp fans.

Seamless

Today in Southampton he is known, more prosaically but with no less affection, simply as the super manager.

It is regard which each day seems to bring fresh evidence of its seamless progress both on the terraces and in the dressing room.

There was certainly little surprise when the former Dutch wunderkind, Eljero Elia, having scored the first of two goals to beat Newcastle last weekend, raced down the field to embrace Koeman. Rescued from Werder Bremen on loan in the transfer window, Elia later thanked his new manager for giving his career new life, new purpose.

It is a sentiment echoed by all of the signings made by Koeman after inheriting a team ravaged by summer sales and the departure of the impressive Argentine coach Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham. Team captain Jose Fonte was especially elated after the recent victory at Manchester United.

Signed five years earlier by Alan Pardew, the Portuguese defender was bypassed when the big clubs Liverpool, United and Arsenal- all of whom now trail third-placed Southampton - came to sign such as Adam Lallana, Ricky Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Callum Chambers. He thought he had been abandoned, as did so many of the Southampton fans.

Now he said: "I cannot be hypocritical and lie, yes, I was worried back in the summer. Everyone was worried. It did not look good for us, not good at all, but then the new manager was appointed and suddenly everything was so much easier.

"There was a clear direction, an understanding of what could be achieved despite everything that had happened.

"Suddenly, I thought, 'Well we have lost some very good players but we have got a very good manager'. Then we started signing players and my confidence grew, slowly at first but then more players came in and we were playing with real confidence."

There has been a stream of such dressing-room acclamation for the boss, and not the least significant of it has been unspoken. Morgan Schneiderlin, the fine French midfielder, was as keen as anyone to move on in the summer when Tottenham came calling but Koeman insisted that the player honour his contract. Schneiderlin's response has been consistently professional and if he does leave at the end of the season, he will do so with his head held high.

After the triumph at United, Koeman indulged in a rare bout of satisfaction, declaring: "We got a bit of luck today but if you play against a big side you need spirit and quality but you also need a belief in yourself and your team-mates and we showed that today. We have had good organisation all season, we've had 11 clean sheets in 21 games, and that is a key to being successful. We have aspirations to secure a European finish but at the beginning of a season you have to wait. Now we can say we fight for that European place. We will fight until the last game."

The commitment has indeed run deeply under the on-field leadership of Fonte.

Diminished

Luke Shaw's old aura, which diminished somewhat when Van Gaal greeted him at Old Trafford with the brusque verdict that he was a long way from full fitness, has been briskly eclipsed by that of his old team-mate Nathaniel Clyne, who has developed so surely under Koeman that he is considered England's best bet at right-back.

New men like Dusan Tadic, a fiery Serbian midfielder and the matchwinner at Old Trafford, Italian striker Graziano Pelle, Shaw's replacement Ryan Bertrand, Romanian stopper Florin Gardos and the big goalkeeper Fraser Forster have all shown both quality and ambition.

Before the dramatic arrival of Elia, Sadio Mane of Senegal was raiding along the left with consistent pace and bite and Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld moved from Atletico Madrid as another sharp example of Koeman's sure eye in the market. Given such clamour for a place in the action, it was hardly surprising that Mane, on duty in the Africa Cup, sent a stream of encouraging texts back to both his manager and his team-mates.

Saints for the Cup? Astonishingly, when you remember the disarray of the summer, it seems a relatively modest ambition. The bookmakers have them seventh favourites at 16/1, behind Chelsea (9/2) and the recently defeated United (11/2) but maybe they represent a different kind of investment.

Their progress up Wembley Way might indeed invoke glories from a different, more sentimental football time but then there would also be, you have to say, something classic about the nature of such an achievement.

It would, after all, be a timeless testament to something football can never afford to lose - the belief in the concept of a team. And, not least, the ability of a manager who knows how to make one, especially if it is virtually from scratch.

Irish Independent

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