Nathaniel Clyne has started the season impressively for Southampton
If it felt like Southampton full-back Nathaniel Clyne knew exactly what opposing forward Victor Moses was going to do at every turn on Saturday at Anfield, then it is probably because he did.
Clyne and Moses, both 22, came through the Crystal Palace academy together—right-back and centre forward (although the Nigeria international has subsequently spent most of his professional career in wider roles) graduating through the Eagles age groups with similar alacrity, before breaking into the first team within as highly touted teenagers.
Since then their careers have taken them on different paths, but this weekend they met again at Anfield, facing off as opponents.
And it was Clyne who got the upper hand, shackling Moses comprehensively as Southampton inflicted the first defeat of Liverpool’s season.
The Saints were solid, without being particularly threatening, in the first half, but manager Mauricio Pochettino gave Clyne and fellow full-back Luke Shaw a bit more attacking licence in the second half, a tweak that he subsequently highlighted as being crucial to the eventual win.
“I think especially in the second half we came out correcting what we hadn’t done properly in the first half,” Pochettino told Adam Leitch of the Southern Daily Echo afterward.
“We were hanging way too far back in the first half defensively but when we came in we corrected those positions and pressed a bit higher and were able to go on the counter attack and in the second half we did very well and that was the key.”
It is somewhat ironic that Southampton, possessing of perhaps the finest crop of young English players outside the established big four, should be managed by an Argentine who, as a player, had a reputation for being somewhat agricultural.
Yet, to his credit, Pochettino has shown little discernible reluctance to continue the example of his predecessor, Nigel Atkins, and give talented academy graduates their chance in the first-team.
Shaw, Clyne, Calum Chambers and James Ward-Prowse have all been given plenty of first-team opportunities, with the latter pair brought along with more restraint than the former—Shaw, still only 18, having shown himself preternaturally suited to the rigours of top-level football.
Shaw, Chambers and Ward-Prowse have both come through the Saints academy, a system that has previously produced Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—establishing beyond almost any question its primacy among all others in the country.
Those recent graduates have followed a path trodden by current club captain Adam Lallana into the first-team, but the current squad also has young talent brought in from other clubs—Clyne being one example, and forward Jay Rodriguez (a £7 million signing from Burnley) is another.
This core of talented players has helped Southampton establish themselves in the Premier League remarkably quickly, even at this early stage showing little sign of succumbing to the supposed "second season syndrome" that has often seemed to afflict promoted sides in their second campaign in the top-flight.
An ambitious club, little at St Mary’s seems geared toward simply surviving from season to season.
“It’s not only me developing that winning mentality but the chairman who has been developing it for the last four years and solidifying a structure of how the club wants to play,” Pochettino remarked on Saturday.
“We fully believe in how we want to play and what the future is for Southampton Football Club and a victory like this reinforces that even more.”
With improved performances comes increased recognition and, in all likelihood, a greater number of international call-ups.
Yet, in another twist of irony, it is the most experienced (and journeyed) of Englishmen in the squad that has so far been the only one to receive sustained international recognition.
Striker Rickie Lambert, partly due to his prolific form and partly due to a lack of other options, suddenly finds himself in a strong position to earn a World Cup spot (should the Three Lions qualify) after key roles in two recent qualifiers.
England head coach Roy Hodgson is keeping his eye on Saints players beyond Lambert (whose own fairytale story has been well covered), however. Clyne and Shaw are both prominent figures in the Under-21 setup, while Ward-Prowse is integral at U-19 level.
Pochettino, relaying a recent conversation with the England head coach to BBC Sport, noted: "He didn't just ask about Lambert, he asked about other players, so it shows that they are in contention.”
That should be music to the ears of a number of players.
While Shaw would appear to be an obvious tip for a long-term career at international level (according to the Express he has already been targeted by Chelsea as Ashley Cole’s long-term replacement, and by Manchester United to fill the same role with Patrice Evra), the presence of Cole and Everton’s Leighton Baines renders his pre-World Cup international prospects limited, unless injury befalls one of the pair.
Elsewhere, however, the drab showing against Ukraine underlined the relative lack of talent Hodgson has to draw upon. The likes of Rodriguez—a versatile forward capable of being both direct and technically clean, depending on circumstances—and even Lallana (who was called up for the first time but did not play in a match 12 months ago) will both consider that good news, but it might just be Clyne with the more realistic shot of joining Lambert on the plane to Brazil.
A niggle sustained during a preseason camp in Austria prevented Clyne from being fit for the opening game of the season but, after an aborted 45-minute appearance against Sunderland, he has since made two eye-catching performances in clean-sheet displays—making a record number of defensive interceptions at Anfield on Saturday.
Neither Glen Johnson nor Kyle Walker are as good as Shaw’s rivals, Cole and Baines, while the relative propensity to injury of both heightens the need to have a third right-back option.
Fighting in a group that would likely include Phil Jones, Chris Smalling (both surely destined to be centre-backs long-term) and Carl Jenkinson, Clyne will hope his blend of defensive diligence and attacking fluency will help his case.
Counting against him, however, is the importance of next month’s two final qualifiers—lessening the chance of Hodgson making risky squad selections—and, should England successfully navigate them, the limited time left to integrate new players into the setup.
Nathaniel Clyne: No player has made more tackles in a single Premier League match since 2010 than @Nathaniel_Clyne did vs Liverpool (13)— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) September 23, 2013
Hodgson has shown a willingness to look further afield for international call-ups, however. Clyne may well be on his radar.
“I want to improve as a player, and as a team I think we can all improve together because we can do better than last season,” Clyne told his club’s official website at the start of the season.
“Last season was a great season but I think, with the players that we’ve got, we can take the experience that we have into this season then we’ll be okay.
“For myself, I would like to get three goals and five assists—I’ll be happy with that. Hopefully as a team we’ll be aiming for a top-half finish.”
If he achieves all that, Clyne may leave Hodgson with an additional headache too.