Forensically watching an ordinary player: Cedric Soares

Sarah Winterburn

In this instalment of ‘Ordinary Player’, we look at a man who got his hands on a very big trophy, which unfortunately is no help in a relegation scrap…

It’s a hectic race at the bottom, and after the weekend’s results, Southampton remain above the water line. You won’t find many people confident they’ll stay there. Which is odd, because I’m willing to bet they’d be the only relegated team in Premier League history whose starting full-backs were 1) a Champions League winner; 2) a European champion.

The Champions League winner is our old friend Ryan Bertrand, who at the age of 22 famously started on the left wing for Chelsea on That Night In Munich. The European champion is a somewhat less familiar figure, Cédric Ricardo Alves Soares, known as Cédric, who has 25 caps for Portugal and started all four knock-out matches, including the final, in their surprise run to the trophy at France 2016.

Cédric was acquired by Southampton from Sporting CP in the summer of 2015, and I remember his first game very well. That’s because he played the first 45, delivered a cross for a Graziano Pellè goal, and was replaced at half-time by Cuco Martina – and I wrote into the Mailbox that Cédric had looked okay but Martina was the man to watch for the future.

I’m still hanging desperately in there on the Curaçao captain, but Cédric has made his mark in England, holding down the right-back job for the Saints in all three seasons since he arrived. He’s missed some games through injury, but when fit has been the undisputed first choice for three different managers: Ronald Koeman, Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino.

What makes him such a certainty? He’s good on the ball, has above-average pace, and reads the game well. He gets to his man quickly and is an excellent tackler. In fact, this year he has easily the best tackle percentage among regular Premier League full-backs and wing-backs: a remarkable 85.7%. (I’d like to point out that Martina is fourth in that category.)  He’s also a regular threat to get forward.

On the down side, he’s small for a defender, which means he can be forced off the ball, and is naturally weak in the air, which can be a real problem on far-post crosses. His own crossing is erratic, which matters for Southampton, who tend to rely more on crosses than the average side. Still, these are acceptable weaknesses, and in general he’s been a reliable player for a club with mid-table ambitions.

But something seems to have gone wrong this season. He started very strongly, playing like the best all-around right-back in the league. After the first couple of months, though, right up until last weekend, he looked (dare I say it) ordinary. A malleolar injury kept him out for a while around Christmas, but his form had started to fade before that. Overall he’s been less active, less crucially involved in play.

Stats aren’t dispositive, particularly for a defender, but his statistical decline this season is actually quite remarkable. His attempted tackles/90 are way down, from 3.7 to 1.9, and his passes blocked/90 down even more, from 1.2 to 0.5. (I’d like to say it’s a result of Pellegrino’s tactics, but I can’t find anything to support that conclusion.) He hasn’t been the same attacking force, either:  total crosses/90 are down a little, and there’s a huge drop in crossing efficiency, from 29.9% to 18.8%.

I suppose the best explanation is that he’s suffering from the overall malaise at the club. Even a good player can have an ordinary season, and even a European champion can get relegated.  And no, I haven’t forgotten that Southampton are still in the FA Cup – but even a cup winner can get relegated that same year. Just ask Wigan, their opponents in the quarter-final.

Good news, though: on Saturday against Stoke, Cédric had his best game in ages. He got forward at will, completed more crosses than in any match this season, set up a half-chance for Josh Sims, and might have scored himself if Jack Butland hadn’t been in form. He also got across the area to make a crucial clearance in stoppage time.

He made only one tackle, but wasn’t challenged all that much. And although his natural weakness, his lack of height, was on display, his quickness made a difference. Twice a cross found him marking a taller attacker, and in both cases the opponent got possession. But the first time he recovered to block Max Choupo-Moting’s cross, and the second he did enough to delay and put Peter Crouch off so that the ensuing shot was weak. It was well done.

So Cédric was rather more than an ordinary player this past weekend, and goodness knows Southampton need him. But is it vice versa? He has two more years to run on his contract, so it’s not quite time for negotiations. But if Southampton go down, he’ll almost certainly be off. Even if they survive, he might think a club in better shape would be preferable.

Remember, too, that this is a World Cup year. Cédric remains first choice for his country, and although Portugal are actually longer odds than England to win the tournament (!!), their group looks manageable, with Morocco and Iran besides Spain. Get into the knock-outs, and anything is possible. Play well, and prospective clubs will forget a mostly ordinary season.

The task at hand, though, is nine games to stay up. One of those games is at West Ham, also in danger – who just happen to have one of Cédric’s Euro teammates, João Mário. Then there’s a match at Swansea City, in danger as well, and you guessed it, they happen to have another, Renato Sanches. Football respects nobody. Let’s hope Cédric ups his game, along with the rest of the side. ‘Survivor’ doesn’t sound as glorious as ‘European Champion’, but when you work just as hard to get it, it’s a label you can wear with pride.

Peter Goldstein