Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe takes a look at the importance of Jan Bednarek to Ralph Hasenhüttl's men in recent weeks...
When it comes to playing time, few players in this Southampton squad have had to remain as patient and as calm as Jan Bednarek.
He arrived on the south coast in the summer of 2017, fresh off the back of featuring for Poland at the Under-21 European Championships, only to be presented with a near eight-month wait to feature in the senior XI with any consistency.
Once given a spell in the side he impressed, and in fact played a sizeable role in Southampton’s escape from relegation, using it as a springboard to feature for Poland in the World Cup in Russia.
But on his return to Southampton, he was presented with another spell on the sidelines. Totalling just 80 Premier League minutes and two cup games between August and November, you’d have forgiven him for wondering what the future might hold.
Fortunately, for both player and club, the Pole’s outlook changed considerably the moment Ralph Hasenhüttl walked through the door. Restoring Bednarek to the starting XI was one of the very first things the new manager did – and it’s a decision that’s paid off handsomely on several occasions already.
The 22-year-old’s height and aerial ability played a part in earning him a starting spot for Hasenhüttl’s first game in charge, against Cardiff City. He more than pulled his weight in repelling their aerial assault from set pieces, and in doing so dug his heels into the XI.
And he’s played every Premier League game since.
His best performances have tended to come against the very strongest of opponents, which is perhaps indicative of his thirst for a challenge.
He was superb in the home win against Arsenal, making an incredible hooked clearance to prevent Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tapping home an easy goal, and he was monstrous against Chelsea too, helping Yan Valery bottle up Eden Hazard on the flank.
Those are two elite players, and he met both of them in top form. To help hold both to a blank in the space of a month is something even the most revered, established centre-backs in the Premier League struggle to do.
But his very finest performance of the campaign – and perhaps of his entire Saints career to date – was delivered last weekend at the King Power Stadium, as Southampton held on with ten men to secure a 2-1 win over Leicester City.
The second half was a true slog as the visitors manned the barricades, packed deep inside their own territory, repelling crosses and attempted through-balls.
But while that stand was impressive, Bednarek had already provided the defensive moment of the game in the first half, clearing off the line in seemingly impossible circumstances to deny Wes Morgan an equaliser.
Heroic interventions seem to be the hallmark of the Pole’s game. When his back’s against the wall, when the attackers are crashing through into the box, that’s when he’s in his element. Few enjoy the gritty, last-ditch parts of defending as much as him – and few are so good at it.
The tangible and visible improvements Bednarek is showcasing each game has the fans excited. Even in the space of eight starts, from December through to now, there’s an ease developing in his game that comes from a source of confidence and comfort.
Long may it continue. If it does, Southampton might be looking at their next great centre-back.