For some time now it feels like that as the end of the season approaches, there are numerous positives about Saints and their campaign that I could write about, and this is no exception.
One of the negatives this season, that I feel needs addressing, is that Shane Long might not be voted the player of the season.
In any other season he would have had it sewn up, but with the performances of Virgil van Dijk at the other end of the pitch catching the eye too, it is likely he’ll be a valiant runner up to the Dutchman.
The turnaround in the perception of Long in the eyes of Saints fans has been remarkable. Cast your minds back to August 2014, the 12 million pound transfer from Hull came with some unkind remarks about his perceived value in comparison to the fee paid, and I will not shirk the fact that I was one of those detractors.
This criticism was largely based on the fact that Long’s goal return wasn’t overly impressive for a ‘striker’, based largely on the fact that he had never hit double figures in any of his four previous Premier League campaigns with Reading, West Brom and Hull City respectively.
If the pressure was already on him in his early days as a Southampton player, it was compounded further by his number. Seven. The number that Matthew Le Tissier had worn, and had most recently been vacated by the just departed fan favourite Rickie Lambert. It sounds like a small detail, but people react to such decisions, and an a level of expectation is made.
Long’s first season at Saints was perhaps unremarkable, though it is easily forgotten that he weighed in to a record breaking debut by Ronald Koeman with five goals, despite being not a regular in the starting lineup (Long started 16 times).
It is this season that Long has come into his own though, so far starting 21 games, missing some through injury and has remodelled himself as a player who draws attention to when he isn’t in the team rather than when he is.
His effervescent displays this season, be it up front or as part of a support three have been dazzling at times, and though he might never be considered the most cultured player in the world, many an opposition defence will have felt relieved his constant hassling of them was over.
Relentless energy and supreme efficiency with the ball makes Long a valuable asset, but I shouldn’t fail to address his goal return or perceived lack of it.
Long has hit 10 Premier League goals this season, putting him joint top with Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle but there are further statistics that puts the Irishman out in front. Both Mane and Pelle have started more games than Long, but further still their goal to shot ratios are nowhere near as good. Both the Senegalese and the Italian have score their 10 goals having had 80 shots apiece. Long has achieved the same total from just 59 shots.
Goals are of course important, but I think Long’s contribution has been as much about the team dynamic as it has been the amount of times he has hit the back of the net. Ronald Koeman has built a style that utilises both the wide positions (and particularly the use of crossing) and often at pace. Long is ideal for it, and the added bonus that he is better in the air than you might expect means that he is comfortable in any of the forward positions.
Saints are at the culmination of another decent season, but this Summer you can add Shane Long to the list of the players fans will be anxiously hoping stays at St. Mary’s. He might not be Southampton player of the season, but he is a Southampton player for a reason. Who saw that coming?