Formation change could be key to Southampton becoming top-six contenders

Despite the continued assurances from the board throughout the summer that Virgil van Dijk would not be sold, there would have still been a lot of surprised Southampton supporters when the transfer window slammed shut and the Dutchman was still a Saints player considering what has happened in previous years.

While that saga had ended – for a few months at least – the next question on fans’ lips would have been whether the centre-back would happily integrate back into the first team, or would continue to sulk behind the scenes and potentially make himself unavailable for selection.

That question was answered prior to the fixture against Crystal Palace on Saturday, when Mauricio Pellegrino confirmed that he would make a decision on whether 26-year-old would be involved at Selhurst Park on Friday following an appearance for the Under-23 side earlier in the week.

The next day he was named on the substitutes’ bench, and he made his first appearance for the south coast outfit since January, following the foot injury he suffered against Leicester City, as an 87th-minute substitute.

However, rather than replacing Maya Yoshida or new boy Wesley Hoedt in the four-man defence that Pellegrino has favoured in the early stages of his Southampton managerial career, Van Dijk replaced Dusan Tadic and slotted in alongside his fellow centre-backs to create a three-man backline.

It is perhaps a sign of what is to come in the future for Saints and has given their boss a nice conundrum considering the defensive options he has at his disposal, and with the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur already successfully adopting similar systems.

With Van Dijk, Hoedt, Yoshida, Jack Stephens, Jan Bednarek and Florin Gardos on their books, it would be hard to argue against the south coast outfit lining up with three central defenders because of the wealth of options that Pellegrino has to choose from when everyone is fit and available.

The former two would seem to be the first-choice options, but with Yoshida and Stephens impressing last season and into this term and having signed new deals this summer, they will be expecting to be heavily involved.

Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares are more than capable of playing in the left and right wing-back positions respectively because of their strengths from both a defensive and offensive point of view, and with Fraser Forster in goal and Oriol Romeu and Mario Lemina – deservedly named as the man of the match against Palace on Saturday – shielding the back three, Southampton would surely have one of the strongest defences in the Premier League.

Van Dijk and Hoedt have already shown that they have a great range of passing – the latter was particularly effective with his long, diagonal passes at Selhurst Park – and those accurate balls could help Bertrand and Cedric advance forward to boost an attack that has appeared blunt this season and at the end of the previous campaign – they have found the net in just four of their last 13 Premier League games.

It all sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

Of course, it might not be as easy as that though. The Saints players struggled to adapt to Claude Puel’s 4-4-2 diamond formation last season having been so accustomed to playing the 4-2-3-1 system Pellegrino is currently favouring. But in all honesty, it doesn’t appear to be as effective now Southampton don’t have a target-man like Graziano Pelle or Rickie Lambert, or forwards with the class of Sadio Mane.

With Crystal Palace boss Frank de Boer already failing victim of trying to introduce the Palace players to 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 formations this term, the Argentine boss may be cautious about implementing this new system just yet – especially considering the second-string struggled when he utilised it in the defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers at St Mary’s in the Carabao Cup last month, not to mention the fact they host in-form and free-scoring Manchester United on Saturday.

Arguably, Southampton have the players in their ranks that would suit the set up more than the Eagles though, with their ball-playing centre-backs being supported and complemented well by reliable wing-backs and disciplined central midfielders.

It would seem to be the next logical step and rather than relying on the likes of Nathan Redmond to make a difference out wide, that could be left to the wing-backs while Dusan Tadic, Steven Davis and Sofiane Boufal look to work in-field to create chances Manolo Gabbiadini, Shane Long or Charlie Austin up top.

Southampton have some serious work to do if they want to be in contention to qualify for the Europa League at the end of the season, but the 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation could be the system that makes them top-six contenders once again and perhaps even keeps Van Dijk content for the remainder of the campaign.