‘Southampton sell Morgan Schneiderlin and concede five goals in two games, Manchester United sign him and keep two clean sheets from two’. Social media was awash with similar statements in the aftermath of Southampton’s disappointing and deserved 3-0 defeat to Everton.
In truth, the absence of a handful of other players was more sorely felt than Schneiderlin’s. Ryan Bertrand’s back-up Matty Targett was given a torrid time at left-back, with Cedric Soares struggling to replace Nathaniel Clyne. Toby Alderweireld has left a gaping hole in the centre of the defence, while Maarten Stekelenburg isn’t quite to the standard of Fraser Forster.
While central midfield was indeed the problem area for Saints, it was the lack of the injured Jordy Clasie that Ronald Koeman will rue more the absence of Schneiderlin.
A lack of bite and battle in the centre of the park was most certainly evident at St Mary’s, but more so was the sparsity of creativity. Playing the majority of the game with a midfield triangle of Victor Wanyama, Steven Davis and Oriol Romeu hardly screams ‘chances’.
Of course Schneiderlin was certainly missed. It’s hard to envisage Everton breaking with such ease on the counter twice with the Frenchman on the pitch shielding the defence, while Ross Barkley enjoyed far too much space throughout the afternoon. He made it pay.
However, while Schneiderlin is obviously the more experienced head, is Clasie the better all-round player? Schneiderlin is superior in defence, but that would be to ignore the Dutch international’s capabilities in breaking up attacks. A record of 2.7 tackles and 2.2 interceptions per match for Feyenoord in last season’s Eredivisie are not figures to be scoffed at, even when compared to Schneiderlin’s 3.7 and 2.6 in his final season at St Mary’s.
It is in attack where the successor becomes the master. One assist in each of his last two seasons for Schneiderlin pale in comparison to Clasie’s 13 over the same period, while 1.3 key passes per game in 2014/15 beat Schneiderlin’s 0.8.
Of course, statistics only tell half the story. Just watching the ease at which Everton breezed past Southampton was made a more bitter pill to swallow with the sheer lack of opportunities created by the hosts. Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane had half a chance each, but Ronald Koeman will be rightfully worried over the lack of creativity on show.
Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane are a fearsome two-pronged attack coming in from the wing, with Pelle’s aerial threat a proven asset, but James McCarthy and Gareth Barry nullified the danger with ease, with Roberto Martinez prioritising the central midfield battle. It’s a tactical clash few would have expected Koeman to lose considering their recent respective fortunes.
The strength of the Premier League’s ‘rest’ has been well-documented this summer – including on this very website – but Southampton could be an unlikely casualty. While Stoke and Crystal Palace were busy luring in Xherdan Shaqiri and Yohan Cabaye, the highlight of Koeman’s summer business sits on the sidelines, albeit through no fault of his own. Beyond Clasie, it’s difficult to see Juanmi or Romeu being the latest in-demand Saint in a year’s time.
It was always going to be a big ask after a second successive summer of player sales and upheaval. They finished two points clear of Liverpool, four clear of Tottenham and ten behind Manchester United last season. It would take a brave punter to back a similar points gap come May.
That’s not to claim their current struggles are irreversible, of course. Europa League football provides a different beast to contend with, as well as increased expectation. Compounding their problems is an injury list worse than every Premier League side except Newcastle (both have six players out). Included in that list is the man on whose shoulders their seasonal targets could rest: Jordy Clasie.