After Southampton registered back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League, tactics writer Sam Tighe assesses the influence of Jack Stephens since his recall...
With a trip to the Etihad Stadium to face free-scoring Manchester City on the horizon, you might say Southampton have found their defensive zen at just the right time.
Back-to-back clean sheets against Bournemouth and Newcastle United have ensured Saints have taken a point from each of their last two matches.
Making it three on the trot against the reigning Premier League champions will be a tall order, but Mark Hughes’s men are in a significantly better position to achieve that goal now than they were a few weeks ago.
Key to this new-found stability has been the return of Jack Stephens to the XI. He’s back in after five Premier League games on the sidelines, and the way he’s playing, it’s as if he’s willing to prove his point to Hughes on a weekly basis.
In light of his recent interview with the Southampton matchday programme, it should perhaps come as no surprise that he’s making every second on the pitch count.
“I think I am dealing with it better now, but it’s not nice when you’re not playing. You just feel like you’re not contributing to the team. You can contribute in training and in the dressing room, but there’s only so much you can do in that regard when you’re not playing. It’s tough.”
“Tough” is an appropriate word here. Stephens may have used it to describe life out of the team, but fans can now use it in a different sense – when describing his recent performances.
He has visibly toughened up in 2018, now delivering more physical, commanding showings than before.
He’s become more aggressive when operating higher up in the channels, willing to step forward and make a centre-forward feel his wrath when receiving the ball to feet.
He’s also become more domineering in the penalty box, not only producing key headed clearances, but offering a goalscoring threat at the other end too.
This steel-like approach has mixed well with Wesley Hoedt’s more silken style, the Dutchman also raising his game over the last few weeks.
He played a particularly notable part in nullifying Bournemouth’s hot-shot attackers at the Vitality Stadium earlier this month, holding a strikeforce used to scoring threes and fours to a zero.
Finding balance and form at centre-back has had a positive, reverberating effect throughout the rest of the team.
In turn, Cédric’s form has improved and Mario Lemina’s put in consecutive dominant displays.
It’s all come at the ideal time, as the firepower Manchester City offer in the form of Sergio Agüero, Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus is arguably the most potent in the Premier League, several levels up from any opponent Southampton have faced of late.
The onus is on Saints, then, to keep on upping their level to match.