Saints kicked off pre-season yesterday with the second annual Markus Liebherr Memorial Cup. Nigel Adkins's men came up against Anderlecht and Arsenal in a three-way tournament. Anderlecht beat Saints 1-0 in the first 45 minute game, before Arsenal saw off the Belgians in the second contest. The Gunners drew with the hosts in the final match, with Saints winning the subsequent penalty shootout. Arsenal lifted the trophy after picking up four points from their two games.
Anderlecht looked a lot sharper than Saints in the opener, which was to be expected considering they are a lot further into their pre-season preparations. Saints started with a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Rickie Lambert playing just behind Billy Sharp, before Adkins switched to a diamond midfield ten minutes in. Anderlecht looked a lot slicker in possession, with Saints playing at half pace for much of the contest. The visitors took a deserved lead on 15 minutes when Tom De Sutter latched on to Kanu's through-ball. His initial effort was blocked by Davis, before the ball fell back to the same man for a simple tap in. Saints looked to the flanks to find openings. Frazer Richardson played in a swift pass down the right, only for Sharp to be judged narrowly offside. Youngsters Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers were also involved a good piece of play on the other side of the pitch, after Guly had created space with neat bit of skill on the halfway line. Saints' best chance of the half came from a corner, with Jos Hooiveld's header clipping the crossbar. Lambert was also presented with a great opportunity when Saints won a free-kick 25 yards out. He elected to pass the ball rather than shoot however, and the move quickly broke down. The movement from Adkins's men was good, but the passing was slightly sloppy. The game petered out towards the end, with Anderlecht looking unlikely to concede.
There's not much point in dishing out ratings for games like this. Everyone was on the same level, not that good and not that bad. It would be unfair to critique players performances at this stage of proceedings. The team is still feeling their way back in. On the plus side however, Shaw and Chambers did not look out of place at all. The decision to promote the pair to the senior team already looks like a shrewd one. As well as being technically sound, they were spot on in terms of tactical discipline and decision making. Davis didn't really have much to do apart from the goal. Richardson looked sharp at right back, but Hooiveld and Jose Fonte were slightly lethargic. Morgan Schneiderlin was probably the home side's best player. He created a few openings with some superb cross-field balls. Guly and Adam Lallana were tidy in midfield. Sharp and Lambert didn't really see much of the ball.
Arsenal and Anderlecht followed the Olympic Torch procession. The Belgians also started this one a lot more brightly than their opponents, with Arsenal taking a while to hit their stride. The Gunners gradually improved as the half went on however. Anderlecht lost a great deal of their creative spark when Kanu was replaced. Arsenal named a young side, with only a handful of senior professionals taking part. Former Saints Theo Walcott and Alex Chamberlain did not play, although Chamberlain did watch from the stands alongside Aaron Martin and Bartosz Bialkowski. Wenger's youngsters ended the half strongly, and scored the winner on 34 minutes. Full-back Carl Jenkinson was allowed to run almost half the length of the pitch before crossing for former West Ham loanee Henri Lansbury, who calmly slotted in past Silvio Proto. All in all it was a fairly dull clash.
For the final game Adkins named what most would consider a second string line-up. Of the eleven, only Danny Fox and Jay Rodriguez are likely to be in contention for a regular starting spot next season, and if rumours of Alexander Buttner's imminent arrival have any truth to them, Fox could also find himself stuck on the bench. Saints lined up with a 4-5-1 against Arsenal, with Rodriguez acting as the lone front-man. Jason Puncheon, Richard Chaplow and Steve De Ridder took it in turns to get forward and offer support, with Dean Hammond and James Ward-Prowse sitting back and dictating play in midfield. Saints looked a lot more comfortable in this system, so don't be surprised if Adkins sticks with it next season, particularly against the big teams. Arsenal had the lion's share of possession as you would expect, but Saints were disciplined enough to limit them to only a small number of chances. The home side carved up a few opportunities of their own. Danny Butterfield provided a pin-point cross for Ward-Prowse, who headed just wide. At the other end Gervinho powered a shot narrowly over the bar. Saints were playing a patient passing game and took a deserved lead on 31 minutes when Rodriguez headed in from Fox's cross. Arsenal hit back almost immediately when Gervinho jinked down the byline before nutmegging Tommy Forecast. The game finished 1-1 and headed into penalties. Fox, Rodriguez, Seaborne, Chaplow and Hammond scored their spot-kicks, before Arsenal's Kyle Ebecilo missed the decisive fifth, handing Saints a 5-4 victory. The shootout was entirely meaningless however, because Arsenal had already picked up enough points to win the trophy.
It's still far too early to tell if Rodriguez is truly worth his hefty price tag. The former Burnley man wasn't involved much outside of the goal, although in fairness he was quite isolated up front on his own. Ward-Prowse looked as composed as ever alongside Hammond, who also put in a strong showing. Jack Stephens did very well in defence. One particular tackle on Gervinho was most impressive. It was also great to see Dan Seaborne back in action after such a long lay-off. Adkins will probably look elsewhere for options at centre-back, but Seaborne's past contributions shouldn't be forgotten. Butterfield and Fox provided a number of tasty crosses. The former also helped organise the defence and offered constant support to rookie Stephens. Poor old Tommy Forecast didn't cover himself in glory. He misjudged a routine Arsenal through-ball, and was all over the place for the goal. It's no surprise that Adkins wants to bring in at least one extra keeper. Back on the outfield, Chaplow tried hard and made some good bursting runs forward. As did Puncheon, who was unlucky not to see some of his moves come off. Steve De Ridder had a largely unsuccessful battle with the offside trap, but did produce a few good moments of quality.
The club can't have been thrilled with the low attendance. The fact that they chose not to announce the exact figure publicly speaks volumes. There can't have been any more than 10,000 in the ground, and that includes approximately 1,000 Arsenal fans. People were undoubtedly put off by the £25 ticket price, and any hope of a decent walk-up was hampered by the atrocious weather. Personally I'm not a great fan of the concept, and feel it drags on too long. Very few people seemed to have much interest in the Arsenal – Anderlecht game, likewise Werder Bremen – Bilbao from last year. Fair play to the club for trying something different, but I would much prefer a single 90 minute game without so many lengthy breaks. That said it was a fairly decent atmosphere for friendly standards. The travelling Gooners contributed to that, as did the 50 or so Anderlecht fans, who were tucked into the corner of the Northam Stand. There were even some Rangers fans scattered about, who had obviously booked a trip down South before they were dumped from the competition.