The resurgence of Shane Long under manager Ralph Hasenhuttl has finally given the Southampton striker the respect he deserves.
Southampton fans would be hard pressed to find a player more highly criticized over the last six seasons than striker Shane Long. Reading the laundry list of complaints and harsh attacks on Long are fruitless. Arguments beginning with goal-scoring record are tired at this point, but in 2019-20 they have become the product of only old-fashioned footballing minds. The ideal role of the striker is a goal-scorer, however modern approaches by managers who can manage recognize Long’s potential as a blue collar partner to a world-class finisher.
Just so the few remaining doubters get their fix, Long has scored 35 goals in a Saints’ uniform across all competitions. He has averaged a goal every 425 minutes in Premier League competition or approximately a goal every 4.72 matches (Stats from transfer.markt.com). Yes, that is not goal-scoring at a prolific level, we all get it. Arguments in favor of Shane Long are just as exhaustive as fans all recognize he works incredibly hard. He runs down lost causes, routinely wins headers on both sides of the pitch, and will flat out compete from kickoff. The point here is, something has swayed the doubters, and fans are finally willing to admit the best attack in 2019-20 was a striking partnership of Danny Ings and Shane Long.
Long needs a partner to bring the best out of him. People forget in 2015/16 he scored 13 goals for Southampton under manager Ronald Koeman. Who was his striker partner then? None other than the Italian stallion Graziano Pelle who scored 14 goals that same year. Although, Pelle was never subject to the criticism Long has faced. A striker who can have the pressure of goal scoring taken off of their shoulders by those who surround him is more confident when opportunity arises. Sadio Mane also chipped in 14 goals during the 15/16 season and what Southampton winger has had an impact anywhere near the 200m pound man?
It also helps to have a leader who understands the skill set of Shane Long and how to deploy him effectively. Koeman was a well respected manager and clearly understood how to get the most out of Long. Since then, Long has played primarily a bit part as a solo striker in Cup and kick-and-run competitions against the likes of Burnley and Cardiff, under managers of Puel, Pellegrino, and Hughes. A trio of leaders who never had the heart of Southampton fans and navigated the team through rough times. Few remember Long was deployed as a winger under Puel, a solo-striker in the never-changing 4-2-3-1 of Pellegrino, and as desperation act by Hughes. Long’s role and that of every player was in constant flux, making it nearly impossible to get comfortably in front of fans who sat in anticipation of relegation for two full years.
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A couple of brilliant Shane Long moments were lost during that time period. First, was the goal against 10-men Leicester defining the Shane Long way. The other was the chip to Charlie Austin at the back post to sink Arsenal at home. Both contributions embody what Long is capable of and should be remembered as triumphs during a dark era.
Considering Long scored the fastest Premier League goal on record in 2019 and sent Southampton to Wembley in 2017, you would think the droughts would be forgiven. Instead, it took an aged 32 season where he began as the fourth choice striker, leap-frogged Michael Obafemi and Che Adams, and overcame the drop from the Irish International team to regain his worth. How did he do it? Exactly the same way he has been doing it for his entire career, by putting his head down and playing to his unique strengths as a footballer.
The success of Danny Ings and the club during the festive fixtures contributed to the resurrection of Shane Long. Equally important was the unwavering belief and tactical know-how of manager Ralph Hasenhuttl. Although, most important was the support of the Irish striker from the Southampton fans.
Fan support is always symbiotic with a striker’s performance in front of net, but for once it is not just about goals. Ings advocating for the extension of the forward’s contract sheds light into player perspective and Hasenhuttl has been quoted in recognizing Long as the “symbol of our philosophy.” Two respected club representatives have shown Saints’ fans Shane’s value, all the while delivering on the pitch at the same level he had always.
Prior to the pandemic break Shane Long had rightfully influenced Irish manager Mick McCarthy to bring him back into the side for EURO Cup qualifying. Long, now a Senior member of the International side had not been on the roster for 18 months prior due to injuries and fitness. The reason for the reinstatement? A return to regular Premier League competition according to McCarthy. However, it is equally due to Long’s rejuvenated confidence, fueled by his striking partner, his trusting manager, and the fans who respect his desire to run himself into the ground for Southampton FC.