The one team in the Premier League that most closely resembles baseball’s Oakland Athletics, the originators of the Moneyball movement, is Southampton.
A club of moderate finances striving to find ways of levelling the playing field while bigger, richer clubs poach their talent is a trait that links the A’s and the Saints. Both of them have grown quite good at it, so finding areas for Southampton to improve is, unsurprisingly, a tough task.
Their story last season was one of utter brilliance considering the upheaval they suffered the summer prior, yet despite losing key players and an influential manager, they rallied to their highest ever top-flight finish and a record points tally.
Ronald Koeman deserves huge credit for the work he did in his first season at St Mary’s, improving the side that Mauricio Pochettino left behind and delivering European competition to the south coast just three seasons after the Saints were promoted as Championship runners up.
Their summer signings, the likes of Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic, Fraser Forster and Sadio Mane, made an impact and their defence was one of the best in the division.
For all their improvement, however, Southampton haven’t quite been able to shake the feeder-club tag that top-six clubs often find dangling round their necks.
Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Callum Chambers and now Nathaniel Clyne have all jumped the ladder from the building project at St Mary’s to a club a sat a couple of rungs higher.
Despite their impressive ability to maintain their momentum in the face of such heavy player rotation, Ladbrokes still only make the Saints a 5/2 chance to break this season’s top six and a lengthier 14/1 to crack the Champions League places.
If the side need alternative ways to help them achieve those ambitions, then finding statistical areas to propel them further up the table is a must. A brief glance through last season’s data presents one such shortcoming rather glaringly.
Southampton were a woeful side from set pieces last season. Only two teams, Stoke and Swansea, scored fewer goals from dead-ball situations than Koeman’s men, who managed seven strikes against a league average of 11.5.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort. The Saints had 126 attempts on goal from set plays, the ninth most in the Premier League, they just seemed unable to convert many of them.
Only Morgan Schneiderlin scored more than one goal in the department, while Graziano Pelle, the club’s leading scorer, managed none.
So as their Dutch manager continues to recruit new faces this summer – he has already signed Juanmi, Cedric Soares and Maarten Stekelenburg – looking for players that can add to the club’s dead-ball bite may serve well.
Considering Pelle’s attributes, a return of no set-piece goals for a target man-type striker is criminal. Koeman may want to address that by signing a goal getter who’ll finish better in those situations. In which case, the much-craved Charlie Austin is a perfect fit.
Although his game is not dedicated to the back-to-goal style Pelle’s is, Austin has already been trailed by the Saints this summer and the news that he scored six times from dead ball scenarios, the fourth most in Europe’s top five leagues, will be music to their ears.
Elsewhere on the pitch, a definite hole that Koeman has to fill is the one left by Toby Alderweireld – one of Southampton’s measly four set-play scorers last term. The Dutchman’s loan has expired, so adding a goal-scoring centre-half could kill two birds with one stone.
Only one man fits that bill: Torino’s Polish defender Kamil Glik, who is wanted by Bayern Munich. He notched seven goals in Serie A last season, all of them coming from set-pieces.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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