How Norwich take revenge on Southampton? Would they take Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shearer or Peter Shilton in the current side? Will their slide continue? What exactly is Sterile Domination? Dan Brigham asks Saints fan and writer Felix Keith these questions and much more
Dan: Hi Felix. In the weirdest Premier League season since, well, probably the first-ever PL in 1992-93, Southampton have joined in with the weirdness by winning only once in your last seven league matches – and that win being a 4-0 win over title favourites Arsenal. You couldn't even beat Villa, for crissakes. And lost 6-1 at home to Liverpool in the League Cup. So, a nice open question to start with: what's gone so wrong, and what went so right against Arsenal?
Felix: It has been a strange Premier League season thus far, but in many ways Southampton have been removed from much of the fun. The last five years have seen consistent progression – from League One to higher top-flight finishes – but this year seems like it could be the first in which we finish lower. Saints fans have got to remember not to complain; we'll still stay up and produce good results, but not a lot else.
It's not that we're a bad team – far from it – but there are definite problems. There has been an awful lot of sterile domination (not something from Fifty Shades of Grey, more keeping the ball, asserting pressure but with no end result). Saints have certainly missed Fraser Forster, the giant goalkeeper who was pushing Joe Hart for England's best goalkeeper last season. In his stead Maarten Stekelenburg is a keeper who saves everything you expect him to, but nothing else. Meanwhile we've run poor Graziano Pellè into the ground, found Cédric Soares doesn't match up to Nathaniel Clyne and players like Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mané have blown hot and cold. There's also the looming spectre of no academy graduates on the fringes of the first team: only Matt Targett and James Ward-Prowse are present, leaving some fans to question why others aren't being given a go.
The Arsenal result was a weird one. No one really expected it after a run of four defeats and a draw (against a fully useless Villa side) in five games. It was pretty much a perfect storm of everything going right: a bit of luck from the referee, a set-piece routine coming off and of course an anonymous utility player swinging a boot and scoring one of the goals of the season.
Dan: Other than sounding like a Norwegian metal act, Sterile Domination also appears to be what’s got Swansea into a mess this season. I feel for Pellé, especially with Jay Rodriguez's rotten luck with injuries (I thought he'd have the sort of season that would take him to Euro 2016).
It's an unfortunate season to not progress. Is there a part of you thinking it should be your lot rather than Leicester in 2nd or Palace in 5th? You've put all that hard work in over the last few seasons, and these upstarts have rushed past you to have the sort of season you should be having... You're like the Stone Roses having to watch Oasis grab all the glory.
Felix: Yeah, there is definitely a bit of the Swansea about us – and they're experiencing a similar dip at the moment. Jay Rodriguez is a sad case. He was progressing so well, scored 15 Premier League goals in 2013-14 and then suffered an unfortunate injury which has left Saints short up-front ever since really.
Despite our likeable demeanour I don't think we have a divine right to succeed. We have obviously sold on plenty of players recently and it's not easy to keep progressing with such change. The club's scouting department have done pretty well with guys like Mané, Dušan Tadić, Wanyama and Virgil van Dijk impressing, but to challenge the established elite you'd need to keep a talented group of players together for longer.
I'm personally happy with how it's going and I enjoy watching sides like Leicester and Palace cause a stir. I can't get too frustrated with players moving on for higher wages and Champions League football (apart from Adam Lallana – he can piss right off). We already know that Mané and Wanyama will be the next to move. As a fan of a club of this level you've pretty much just got to accept that.
The disappointment comes from the lack of a cup run to go alongside the comfortable league position. This season we were knocked out of the Europa League before the group stages over two painstaking legs by analytical, long ball, data-loving bastards FC Midtjylland and then humiliated by a second-string Liverpool side in the League Cup.
Dan: It is genuinely great as a fan of a smaller club to see Leicester and Palace doing so well (although I think it would be even better if it were Palace currently second – they play much the better football than Leicester).
It also stirs the nostalgia (can nostalgia be stirred?). It's a long time since that ’83-84 season when Southampton came second to Liverpool (and Norwich stayed up on the last day), so I'm guessing the last few years have been the best for you as a Southampton fan?
Felix: I rather like Leicester's simplicity – hold a rigid shape, defend well then boot it long and let Jamie Vardy run after it. Most Saints fans like Alan Pardew (and maybe Palace) and feel he was unfairly sacked at Southampton after the glory of a Johnstone's Paint Trophy win in 2010. I’ve also got a soft spot for Jason Puncheon, who has come good after a proper journeyman career.
Southampton fans are as nostalgic as most, especially considering we can indulge ourselves with Matt Le Tissier goal compilations. I certainly can't remember that far back but I've read a fair deal about the 1976 FA Cup final win and such. My personal memories more revolve around the 2003 FA Cup final and Robert Pirès and Thierry Henry time-wasting by the corner flag.
I guess in that sense I'm lucky that the era I've got into Saints is the one where we're on the up. I've heard other fans talk about supporting a team being more fun in the Football League – when you know you'll win most games and batter opposition. There's definitely something in this. Rickie Lambert tearing it up as we got back-to-back promotions was undoubtedly wonderful. We hit the depths with a points deduction and after Markus Liebherr backed us we took off. It's been pretty much ideal since and that's why I've got to remind myself not to get too annoyed when we're going through a period like this.
Dan: Your story is so similar to Norwich’s that I’ve got a soft spot for Southampton – middling team win successive promotions, and for Lambert insert Grant Holt. Southampton did have more money of course, and no Chris Hughton to stunt the progress…
Are there any minor worries about relegation? You're only four points above Norwich, and we have pretty major, bum-squeaking fears about relegation. Do you think Southampton need to buy in January and, if they don't, there's the possibility of an unlikely relegation scrap?
Felix: Maybe I'm naive but I have pretty much unwavering faith in the club, particularly Ronald Koeman and director Les Reed. I think they know what they're doing and we've always been pretty considered in the transfer market. The 'black box' got lots of publicity when we launched our new training ground last year and the reputation has been reinforced by lots of good signings; think Tadić, Mané, Van Dijk, Wanyama and many before them.
The only place I think we could do with recruitment is up front and that is only because of Rodriguez's long-term injury. Shane Long is capable, but he's a certain type of striker – the hard-working, on-the-shoulder type, not direct competition to Pellè. Charlie Austin has been touted before and I think he'd be a decent signing for us, capable of fulfilling many different styles.
I think we'll keep hold the likes of Mané and Wanyama in January (there's precedent there with Morgan Schneiderlin last year), so we shouldn't need replacements yet, but you can be sure the scouting department have identified some for the summer window.
Looking down the table there are some truly dreadful teams. Villa are doomed, Sunderland look weak (but have a good manager), Newcastle are a mixed bag and Bournemouth and Swansea may still struggle. Saints are definitely too strong to be in trouble!
Dan: I notice you were kind enough to leave Norwich off your list of truly dreadful teams. Full points for diplomacy, zero marks for honesty.
That's some admirable confidence you have in Southampton this season. I tend to agree – your squad is far too good to go down. But there's often one mid-table side who gets dragged into the scrap...
It sounds like you won't be too busy in the January transfer window, so let me ask something far more fun. If you could bring in any of Southampton's top players from the past – Peter Shilton, Matt Le Tissier, Kevin Keegan, Mick Channon, Alan Ball, Alan Shearer and, of course, Agustín Delgado – who would you put straight into the starting XI against Norwich?
Felix: Yeah, Norwich could certainly still be in trouble. Doesn't look like you've got many goals in your team and some classic middle-of-the-road players that have defined previous relegated sides.
And I'd have to go for Le Tissier. The weight of wonder goals is simply too much not to want him back, although I'm not sure he'd thrive any more. He was such a special player but would he really fit in the modern game, all tracking back and defensive shape? I'd have him just for the occasions of effortless genius / long-range screamer / deft piece of skill; he's the perfect highlights player.
Having said all that without the tint of nostalgia Shearer might be a better shout – a proper allrounder who'd probably still bang in the goals. I expect fans from a different generation might plump for Keegan or Channon though, but not a bad selection dilemma to have though!
Dan: I reckon Le Tissier would thrive in the No.10 role. Looking constantly knackered despite barely moving, but still picking out passes and thunderbastarding goals in from 30 yards.
So, moving on to Saturday. Can Norwich fans expect a similar XI and approach from Southampton from earlier in the season when you brushed us aside at your place? And what's the best way for Norwich to set up against you?
Felix: Better times, the end of August. That was probably the best performance this season, but Steven Whittaker did do us a nice big favour by getting two moronic yellow cards. Our back four has changed since then, no Matt Targett, Maya Yoshida or Soares – it'll be Ryan Bertrand, van Dijk and I expect Cuco Martina will continue at right-back (although Koeman could conceivably play Yoshida there).
We smashed you that day because that was the first time our front three turned up. Tadić, Mané and Pellè had engaged the kill switch. Pellè is injured after playing way too much football, so Long will continue up front. Koeman tends to rotate the midfield starters, but they'll be two sitting / holding / destroyers, probably Wanyama and Oriol Romeu / Jordy Clasie. Steven Davis is always there, keeping it simple and retaining the ball.
It will look like 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 and we'll probably start well, with plenty of ball, create chances, not take them then fade and not win. There's little chance of a 3-0 shellacking this time, certainly.
If Martina plays at right-back Norwich's best shot will be getting your best player, Robbie Brady, at him as much as possible. Also I'd suggest shooting as much as possible, because as previously mentioned, Stekelenburg will not save anything too difficult. Blokes like Jonny Howson, or one of your other identikit midfielders, might fancy a few long shots. We have a strong core and van Dijk and José Fonte tend to mop up long balls and the midfield block is pretty strong, so get wide. Martina is pants and Bertrand often gets high up the pitch, so you could get in behind him.
Dan: Ok, nice and easy then. Brady and Nathan Redmond on the wings, plonk balls into the box and job done. Management seems so simple. I imagine with the strength of van Dijk we'll be starting with Dieumerci Mbokani up-front again, rather than the pacier (and less scorey) option of Cameron Jerome – who missed an absolute sitter when it was 0-0 at your place.
Right, to finish this off: where do you think Southampton and Norwich will finish this season, and what do you think the score will be on Saturday?
Felix: Yeah, expect a 'big physical battle' and that perhaps will mean little enjoyment.
I think Southampton will finish 10th – an acceptable position, but the first season for about six without improvement on the last. I imagine we'll hit some form again in the not-to-distant future and pick up a few places. And for Norwich I'm going to say 17th – just good enough to survive, more through hard work and a gritty manager than any star players; sum greater than their parts.
As for the score on Saturday I think it's a hard one to call and no result would genuinely surprise me. The bookies make Saints favourite but we haven't won an away game since beating Sunderland 0-1 in early November, so I'm going to plump for an unremarkable 1-1 draw leaving neither team satisfied.
Dan: Cheers Felix. Substitute ‘gritty’ for ‘exceptional young talent’ and I reckon you’ve pretty got our team spot on. I’m going for a 1-0 Norwich win – the first time we’ve won two in a row in the Premier League since 2012-13. Unless, of course, Wanyama and Mané decide to have one of those days when they decide to turn up…
Felix Keith is a Southampton fan and sports journalist who has written for BBC Sport, Vice, The Guardian and Squawka. You can follow him on Twitter @felixkeith