There can be no doubts that Southampton competed far above everyone’s expectations last season, they were tipped for relegation but were unlucky to miss out on a Europa League spot by the end of the season. That failure (although it seems harsh to label it as that) to reach European football is reflected in the way Saints ended the season, losing four of their last six games and other than Manchester City and Spurs those games, on paper anyway, certainly looked winnable.
One possible cause for this downturn in form is the absence of Fraser Forster from the side for the last eight games of the season, through injury. In those eight games, Southampton conceded twelve game, an average of 2.5 per game. In the 30 games in which Fraser Forster competed Southampton conceded 21 goals, an average of 0.7 goals per game, that difference is fairly astounding.
Forster was replaced by Kelvin Davis and Paulo Gazziniga for the eight games he missed. Neither goalkeeper covered themselves in glory during that period of time, according to whoscored.com, Davis caused an error that led to a goal against Stoke and in my opinion could have done better with Chadli’s header against Spurs, whilst Gazziniga was at fault for one of the goals against Leicester.
If those errors hadn’t occurred, but everything else had remained the same, Southampton would have beaten Spurs and drawn with Stoke. That would have given them an extra three points and would mean they’d have qualified for European football.
It’s worth noting that for these eight games Southampton had a pretty settled back four and it wasn’t particularly different from the rest of the season, mainly consisting of Clyne at right back, two from Yoshida, Fonte and Alderweireld at centre back and Bertrand at left back. So changes in defence aren’t
to blame for the extra goals shipped.
Nor is the opposition, over those eight games Southampton faced Everton (A),Hull (H), Stoke (A), Spurs (H), Sunderland (A), Leicester (A), Villa (H) and City (A). Admittedly there’s a lot of away games in there but in the reverse fixtures they conceded just five goals and three of those were against City.
It’s impossible to say whether Southampton would have done better with Forster in their side but it would make sense, knowing you have a solid goalkeeper can inspire the rest of the side to play with confidence and it can demoralise opposition when he makes a string of top saves. Add to that the fact defenders will build up a relationship and understanding with their goalkeeper which is important for keeping a clean sheet.
This is not to disparage the two deputies, Davis has been a loyal servant to Southampton and was club captain last season and Gazziniga is just 23, Forster is an excellent goalkeeper and it's understandable for any replacement to be at a lower level. That said, if I was Ronald Koeman I’d certainly be considering bringing in another keeper for back up this season.
Southampton ended up with the second meanest defence in the league, only Chelsea conceded fewer goals than them (32 compared to 33), I think it’s fair to say with Forster in goal Saints might have ended with up the best defence in the league and maybe even European football.
Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com