Southampton were deserved winners in this clash of upwardly mobile teams. In simple terms, Saints were the better team, while the Hammers were quite poor. The visitors never really got into their stride, even when they were playing against ten men for more than half an hour. Southampton are now only two points behind West Ham, who themselves are just two behind Manchester United. An argument could be made that both teams have actually played better football than the Red Devils this season.
The most interesting thing that struck me in this game is the aptitude of both managers. Southampton were in a serious rut until the middle of January. Since then they have won four and drawn one of their last five league games. The catalyst for this has been Ronald Koeman’s decision to switch to a back three. Coinciding with the change in formation has been the return of Fraser Forster between the sticks. Saints haven’t conceded a goal in this run. It is always good to see a manager find solutions with tactics rather than relying solely on the transfer market to solve problems in the middle of the season.
In the opposite dugout, it was interesting to see that Slaven Bilic tried to match Koeman’s formation. This was a brave — some may even say unnecessary — decision. West Ham haven’t played three at the back this season and to do it against opponents in fine form was very risky. This showed in the first half an hour as Southampton ran riot. However, even though it backfired, I find myself applauding Bilic’s decision. Here is a manager who actually put some thought into the game and in stead of being obstinate in his style of play, prepared for an opponent that had a unique formation. That it didn’t come off should not be a slight against Bilic. The execution failed this time around, but experience suggests that more often than not, such proactive tactical thinking breeds positive results.
There is justifiable excitement about the possibility of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp managing in the Premier League next season. However, if mid table clubs sign managers with the fortitude and tactical flexibility of Koeman and Bilic, the quality of the league can only be further enhanced.