Southampton’s improved performances in the last couple of weeks have coincided in the return of form to defensive duo Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand.
The former was famously linked with a move to Liverpool throughout the summer transfer window, with the Reds forced to issue an official statement in June apologising to the south coast outfit after they had been accused of tapping the Dutchman up.
Despite that incident and the Merseyside outfit ending their interest in the player, the 26-year-old reinforced his wish to leave St Mary’s just days before the start of the new Premier League season when he handed in a transfer request and stated that he wanted to move on, but it was rejected by Saints.
While the Southampton board may have changed their minds and sold van Dijk had they received an offer of £60m or more, that was never forthcoming from the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City and the Netherlands international remained on the south coast.
He trained with the U23 side at first as he continued his return to full fitness having been absent since January with a foot injury, before he was finally reintroduced to the first-team as a substitute in the win against Crystal Palace in September.
Many Southampton supporters decided to remain neutral on a player that they were constantly singing the praises of this time last season, while there were also some that understandably jeered the Dutchman following the way he acted in the summer.
While he was an unused substitute for the defeat against Manchester United, he has started nine consecutive Premier League matches since then, although some of his early displays certainly left a lot to be desired.
In the matches against Stoke at the Britannia Stadium and Newcastle United at St Mary’s it seemed as though he wasn’t putting 100% effort in, and the he was the deepest player in the team in the latter even when Saints needed a goal.
In the same scenario last season he would have been the one driving forward to try and inspire his team, but he certainly wasn’t giving off that vibe – although to be fair to van Dijk he often appears as though he isn’t trying such is his relaxed style of play and the fact that he is often so good that he can cruise through matches.
Meanwhile, Bertrand has been one of Southampton’s most consistent players since joining the club on a permanent basis in 2015 following a successful initial loan spell, and he has quite often been one of their most influential and effective attacking players as an over-lapping full-back.
The 28-year-old was heavily linked with a move to Manchester City during the summer with Pep Guardiola looking to sign two new left-backs, but a deal never materialised with the England international potentially priced out of a move away.
Like van Dijk, the former Chelsea man’s early season performances indicated that he wasn’t happy – although he rarely seems to be on the pitch considering he didn’t celebrate his first England goal earlier this year – and he even walked straight down the tunnel at the final whistle as Southampton secured a last-gasp 3-2 victory against West Ham United at St Mary’s in August.
With no assists in his opening 13 Premier League appearances this term having registered five in the previous campaign, it was clear that Bertrand needed to get more involved in the final third as Saints fans knew he could.
The players had a meeting following successive losses against Burnley and Liverpool in November, and both van Dijk and Bertrand were back to their best in the subsequent 4-1 home win against Everton.
The latter assisted Dusan Tadic for the opening goal after he drove forward and produced an excellently-weighted through-ball for the Serbian, while he also crossed for Charlie Austin to head home in the second-half.
Meanwhile, van Dijk was back to his dominant best despite the fact that he didn’t have too much to do against a struggling Toffees frontline.
The defensive task away at champions Man City three days later was difficult, and even though the Dutchman put through his own net Saints were unlucky not to take a point as the duo once again both put in decent showings.
The best was probably to come in the south coast derby against Bournemouth on Sunday though, and even though Mauricio Pellegrino’s men could only pick up a 1-1 draw, van Dijk arguably put in his best performance of the season so far, while Bertrand was named as the man of the match after putting in some wonderful deliveries from the left, and he even took the captain’s armband towards the end of the clash.
The match at the Vitality Stadium took place with less than a month until the January window opens, and the more suspicious Southampton supporters will believe that the sudden upturn in showings from the duo is because they have another opportunity to secure a move away from St Mary’s.
While Southampton won’t want to lose two of their best players midway through the season, money talks and if they receive offers that are too good to turn down – Liverpool and Manchester City may be in the market for a centre-back and left-back respectively given their respective situations this term – for the pair, then their performances in the last few weeks of 2017 may earn them the moves away that they are seemingly craving.
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