After an international break spent at the top of the table, Liverpool return to Premier League action with a trip to St. Mary’s. Last year’s visits there were contrasting, to say the least – the Reds thumped Southampton 6-1 in the League Cup quarter-final in December, before a nightmare later in the season, where they blew a two-goal lead to eventually lose 3-2.
Southampton, after a promising start, have hit a bump, with two consecutive losses. While one might call their loss against Chelsea an expected one, their most recent reverse against Hull was a shock. But they are a good side and will pose a problem or two for the Reds.
Here are some individual battles that will be critical.
Cuco Martina v Philippe Coutinho
Coutinho, without question, has been our best player this season. His game has gone up a few notches and being directly involved in 10 goals in our 11 games only goes to prove that. However, fatigue could be an issue as he played almost entire games in both of Brazil’s World Cup qualifiers this week.
Coutinho and Roberto Firmino only arrived in Liverpool on Wednesday evening and that could be a factor. Martina is a bundle of energy and has been an able replacement for the unavailable Cedric Soares.
However, he was found out in the game against Chelsea by a rampant Eden Hazard. Coutinho is a very similar player to Hazard and in as good form as the Belgian, if not better. One can be rest assured that if Southampton get a good result, Martina would have had a big impact on it.
Charlie Austin v Dejan Lovren
Austin is Southampton’s top scorer with five goals this season. With players like Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond around him, he has been terrific as a poacher, a typical no. 9, a fox in the box. Southampton have tended to play two strikers with Redmond preferring the left side. Austin will be on the right of the two, meaning he will be directly faced by Dejan Lovren. The Croat has had a mixed season. He’s made some crucial tackles and interventions and has generally been strong in aerial duels, but he has shown that he is still susceptible to lapses in concentration, a case in point being the game against Crystal Palace.
This battle is very simple. Lovren has to be in the right frame of mind, has to be physically strong, decisive and ensure that he is concentrating all the time. One lapse and Austin is among the most capable strikers in the Premier League to pounce on a mistake.
Virgil van Dijk v Roberto Firmino
Liverpool’s Raumdeuter – interpreter of space. That is what Firmino is. His awareness of his surroundings on the pitch and ability to get into those spaces is stunning. One moment, you will see him on the periphery, not really being involved with the attack. But at the crucial moments, he is always in the box, taking up dangerous positions. For me, Firmino will be hugely important against Southampton. They have got two strong centre-backs in Jose Fonte and van Dijk. The Dutchman especially has carved a nice reputation for himself.
He has got to be among the most graceful defenders in the Premier League. His game doesn’t seem to have a glaring weakness, and with Fonte alongside, Puel has some solidity assured. But against Liverpool, all of their prowess will be put to the test.
Dusan Tadic v Jordan Henderson
Southampton have tended to play with a diamond shape in midfield recently, with Tadic being at the tip of the diamond. His trickery and vision is an asset for him, and on his day, any defence would find him difficult to stop. For Liverpool, the captain has been reborn in that deeper midfield role that he has been playing these days. In recent times, Henderson’s ability to read the opposition’s play and be in the right place to make tackles and interceptions have been hugely impressive.
However, that is not the only part to his game. Tadic will have to ensure, along with Redmond and Austin that Liverpool are not allowed to build from the back. Most of our play flows through Henderson, who acts as the link between the defence and the forward players. There are still question marks over Henderson’s composure when he’s being hassled and Tadic would do well to keep exploring that avenue.