This was the afternoon when Southampton rediscovered their form and their fluency, winning their first Premier League game of the season with second-half football reminiscent of their expressive peaks of last year.
This was also a reminder, though, that while there are some players Southampton can afford to lose, there are others who are irreplaceable. Victor Wanyama was not involved yesterday, having told Ronald Koeman he did not want to play because he wants to move to Tottenham.
“It is a difficult situation because Victor said his mind is not on the team,” Koeman revealed afterwards. “If Victor shows commitment to the team and he comes back, we would like to have in the team, that is no problem.”
Koeman, who insisted Wanyama was not for sale, advised the player to remember how Morgan Schneiderlin joined Manchester United one year after having a move to Spurs blocked.
If Wanyama does leave today or tomorrow, Saints will not necessarily miss him. James Ward-Prowse was lively in midfield here, and Oriol Romeu serene and authoritative. With Jordy Clasie on his way back from injury, Southampton will, as they say, march on with or without Wanyama.
Sadio Mane, though, is a different story. There are not many players in the Premier League like him, with his imagination, speed and skill and it should be little surprise that a one-paced Manchester United side are so keen on him. Southampton have refused to do business, though, and understandably so. Mane was excellent yesterday, too quick and too sharp for Norwich City, and was involved in all of Saints’ goals. “That is the commitment we would like from every player,” said Koeman pointedly.
Koeman was pleased with a win which was not quite as inevitable as it might have looked. Saints have started slowly and even in the first half of this game, they looked laboured at times against a Norwich side hoping to dig in and hit them on the break. The game opened up for Southampton when, half-way through the first half, Norwich right-back Steven Whittaker picked up two avoidable bookings, first for stopping Matt Targett from taking a throw-in, then for holding back Dusan Tadic.
Norwich had missed one good early chance – Cameron Jerome heading wide from Graham Dorrans’ cross – but once down to 10 men they barely threatened, and the game was more a question of whether Saints were good enough to score.
Alex Neil was more disappointed in his players afterwards than in the referee’s decision to send off Whittaker. “We looked too comfortable, we didn’t move the ball well enough or work hard enough,” the manager said. “We lost too many of our individual battles.”
It might have been a different afternoon had Neil’s team made it to half-time level, and turned the crowd, but in first-half added time Norwich switched off and Saints switched on.
Ward-Prowse stole the ball from Jonny Howson in midfield and played a forward pass to Mane before Norwich’s back line could reassemble. Graziano Pelle made a short darting run away from Russell Martin, Mane rolled the ball through to him, and Pelle finished at the near post. There was almost time for another, as Pelle failed to get on the end of a Mane cross with the half’s last action.
Sensing blood at the interval, Koeman withdrew Steven Davis for Jay Rodriguez. His team started the second half in a 4-4-2 system, hoping to kill the game.
Having been rather predictable in their build-up play in the first half, Saints set about Norwich in the second. With Rodriguez running in behind – something Pelle is not quick enough to do – they had an extra threat. John Ruddy had to save from Rodriguez and from Pelle before the big Italian whipped a 20-yard shot just wide of the far post.
The pressure was on, though, and Norwich’s 10 tired men could not keep their heads above water for much longer. Mane was taking advantage of the greater space available, and when he ran down the right he was barely challenged. He pulled the ball back across the box and Tadic arrived at the far post, beyond Andre Wisdom, and put the ball in to the far corner.
That was the end of the contest, Norwich no longer able to put up a fight, and three minutes later Saints scored their third. Again, Mane carried the ball in the right channel, but this time he laid it out to Cedric Soares outside of him. Soares was unchallenged and swung in a high cross, which Pelle headed at goal. Ruddy saved but Tadic was on hand to tap in the rebound, reassuring fans that the achievements of last year could yet be repeated this season.Reuse content