In the modern game, where possession is king and aesthetics are often prioritised above all else, ‘direct’ has come to represent something of a dirty word in the eyes of many. But Nathan Jones’ remarkable spell at Luton Town is proof of what can be achieved with a far-from-fashionable but highly-effective approach, particularly when you’ve got the players capable of thriving in such a system.
And Southampton’s January business feels like a concerted effort to turn this squad into one capable of fulfilling Jones’ demands.
At 6ft 7ins, Paul Onuachu immediately became the tallest player in the Premier League; arriving from Belgian giants KRC Genk in an £18 million deadline day deal. Jones’ Luton side were at their most threatening with an old-school targetman leading the line; a Elijah Adebayo, a Danny Hylton or a James Collins.
Adebayo struck up an excellent relationship with James Bree at Kenilworth Road, and Jones will hope that a formidable partnership is achievable between Onuachu and Southampton’s new right-back.
Since the start of 2021/22, Bree has produced 10 assists from the right-hand side; Jones labelling his trademark delivery ‘world-class’ on one occasion. Onuachu, scorer of 75 goals in his last 102 Genk appearances, should only benefit; his aerial presence and fearsome penalty-box prowess giving Southampton a much-needed different dimension in the final third.
Bree and Onuachu; a match made in footballing heaven?
New £22 million record signing Kamaldeen Sulemana, meanwhile, shares similarities with the wingers Jones has worked with in the past. Harry Cornick and Fred Onyedinma, key figures in Luton’s 2021/22 play-off securing campaign, are quick, direct, and love to run with the ball.
Sulemana, meanwhile, has been likened to Allan Saint-Maximin and Sadio Mane. Brazil superstar Neymar too. With Southampton previously lacked players capable of beating a defender in one-v-one situations. So the addition of Sulemana – like Onuachu – seems to add another string to the Saints’ bow.
“He is extraordinary,” says Flemming Pedersen, a director at Sulemana’s former employers, FC Nordsjaelland.
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“We are talking about a player with potential on a par with Neymar. And maybe even more than that, because he’s even faster (than PSG’s number ten).”
“He’s a very good dribbler,” adds Ghana team-mate Alexander Djiku. “(Sulemana) creates a lot of uncertainty with the ball. It forces you to stay focused and attentive (as a defender).
“He reminds me of Allan Saint-Maximin. He exudes rare power and speed, handles the ball perfectly with both feet, also using his body a lot.”
Sulemana is ‘extraordinary’
One problem Jones may have to contend with, however, concerns the fact that both Sulemana and fellow new recruit Mislav Orsic are most comfortable on the left-hand side. Orsic scored at a prolific rate over in Croatia when cutting in onto his right boot. Sulemana prefers to do the same. Though he has been utilised on the opposite flank by Rennes recently.
Either way, a new-look front three of Orsic, Sulemana and Onuachu looks far more threatening – at least on paper – than a trio of Che Adams, Adam Armstrong and Moussa Djenepo/Moi Elyounoussi.
And that’s without mentioning Carlos ‘Charly’ Alcaraz; a £12 million addition from River Plate. Southampton fans have witnessed the good and the bad of Alcaraz so far. He lasted just 45 minutes against Newcastle United on Tuesday; shoved to the fringes by the Magpies’ relentless athleticism. His performance in the EFL Cup semi-final first leg seven days earlier, however, offered a few tantalising glimpses into Alcaraz’s potential.
Forward runs, forward passes, tricks, flicks and the odd burst of acceleration; everything he did was positive. For a Southampton team who often appeared plodding and passive towards the end of the Ralph Hasenhuttl era, Alcaraz looks like a player capable of injecting some intensity and drive in the centre of the park.
Whether these new additions are enough to save Southampton from the drop, only time will tell. But a team that looked doomed a few weeks ago now appears to have a puncher’s chance.
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