How Ronald Koeman rebuilt Saints' defence and made Lovren a distant memory
This weekend's final Premier League fixture is arguably the most intriguing, as Liverpool make the long trip down to Southampton on Sunday afternoon.
The fixture is fascinating for a variety of reasons: it's an interesting strategic battle between two good football sides, it's significant in terms of the league table - the two clubs are currently four points apart - and it's also a return to St Mary's for Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren.
Lallana and Lambert were at Southampton for a longer period of time, but Lovren made a huge impact in his sole season at the club, widely regarded as one of the best centre-backs in the league last season.
Yet Southampton haven't missed him at all, and Ronald Koeman's side now boast the best defensive record in the division, neatly summarising how they've got over big-name departures with very few problems.
The defensive statistics are illuminating. Southampton haven't just conceded the fewest goals, they've conceded the fewest shots too. Combine that with the second-highest number of tackles, and the second-highest number of offsides won in 2014/15, and it's clear the Saints are continuing to press high up the pitch, and playing with a very well-organised high defensive line.
Any system featuring pressing demands a lot of the attackers and midfielders without the ball, but Southampton's centre-backs deserve praise too. Jose Fonte has steadily improved over his three seasons in the Premier League and is now one of the most dominant centre-backs around, while Toby Alderweireld has been one of the signings of the season, slotting alongside Fonte effectively.
Fonte is particularly useful for Southampton because he's happy playing on the front foot. Interestingly, he's made more interceptions (71) than any other player in the Premier League this season, an honour which usually belongs to a holding midfielder who screens the defence. Fonte, though, is an intelligent reader of the game, regularly stepping forward to stop danger before it becomes apparent.
His performance in last month's 2-1 win at St James' Park was particularly interesting in this respect: Southampton's skipper made 7 interceptions, often in wide positions, demonstrating he's not afraid of being drawn out of position to win the ball. His tackles, meanwhile, were in much deeper zones.
The latter part is relatively unusual, though: in the 2-0 win over Arsenal on New Year's Day, Fonte made a succession of tackles much higher up the pitch.
Koeman has generally favoured Alderweireld alongside Fonte, and while many of his fellow Belgian centre-backs - Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen, for example - play extremely proactively, Alderweireld is the more reserved of Southampton's two centre-backs.
He's still entirely happy playing in a high defensive line, of course, but he's less determined to win the ball quickly, and content to take a backwards step and cover for Fonte.
The best example is the 1-0 victory over Stoke, when Saints restricted the Potters to 1 shot on target. Fonte was more involved than Alderweireld to a quite staggering extent, yet they formed an excellent partnership.
With Alderweireld out injured for the last month, credit must also go to Maya Yoshida and Florian Gardos, who have deputised well. Romanian international Gardos made some nervous errors in his first couple of games this season but has improved with more Premier League experience. In the aforementioned win at Newcastle, his tackles took place in a similar zone (albeit on the opposite side of the pitch) to Fonte's interceptions, suggesting he's similar in a positional sense, but different in terms of his ball-winning.
Yoshida has also progressed significantly, especially in terms of his aerial abilities - although he could do with being stronger in the tackle.
Koeman now boasts four good centre-backs, and while Fonte is the undisputed first-choice, there's competition for places alongside him. Lovren may have been voted in the PFA Team of the Season for 2013/14 when at Southampton, but in reality he's not been missed.