The entrance to the Southampton manager’s office could have had a revolving door fitted to it prior to the signing of Ralph Hasenhüttl in 2018.
The Austrian’s arrival at St Mary’s Stadium saw him become the club’s sixth different boss since August 2014, and - while some left with their head held a little higher than others - they all had one thing in common: they all loved Shane Long.
Now, anyone who isn’t a big football fan may look at the Irishman’s stats with complete bewilderment as to why this is the case. 27 goals in 172 Premier League games? Hardly the figures of a striker worthy of a regular place in the starting XI for the past six seasons.
However, the tireless work ethic and selfless attitude of the former Reading man make him more than worthy of his first-team status.
Football is an ever-evolving sport and the role of a centre forward has altered massively over the past few seasons. Granted, there are still out-and-out strikers whose only responsibility is to score goals, but some forwards offer so much more than just a goal threat.
Take Roberto Firmino for example. The Liverpool man has mustered just eight goals in the league this season and has failed to notch at Anfield since March 2019. Eight goals in one of the most free-flowing teams to have ever graced the Premier League is a poor return at best.
However, the Brazilian’s pressing and unselfish running makes space for others to operate in and sees them clock up the sort of figures which saw Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah awarded the 2018/19 Golden Boot.
Long may not have the technical ability that Firmino possesses, but his role in the Saints team is very similar.
Danny Ings has rightly been lauded for his goalscoring form this season, notching a career-high 19 Premier League goals. While the former Liverpool man may be grabbing the headlines, the movement and energy of Long has been a huge factor in Ings’ fantastic campaign.
What is perhaps even more impressive about the Ireland international’s ability to act as a foil for his strike partner is that he hasn’t always been that type of player.
When at Reading, Long enjoyed his most prolific season as a professional, bagging 21 goals in 44 games – albeit in the second tier. He was the main man at the Madejski Stadium, almost firing the club back to the top flight only to lose out to Swansea in the play-offs at Wembley.
Ings isn’t the only striker to flourish when playing alongside Long, with Romelu Lukaku and Graziano Pelle both notching double figures in the Premier League when paired with the industrious Irishman.
While Long has always managed to work his way into the plans of managers wherever he has played, some have utilised him slightly differently to others. Claude Puel clearly saw a willing runner in Long and opted to play him out wide, a position it was evident he was uncomfortable in, though he worked tirelessly nonetheless.
The 33-year-old has enjoyed his best spell on the south coast under the stewardship of Ronald Koeman and Hasenhüttl, and the pair’s philosophy is clearly the best fit for Long.
Whereas Puel was happy to sit in and invite pressure, Koeman and Hasenhüttl’s approach of pressing high and looking to win the ball back as fast as possible is much more suited to Long’s game.
Despite being in the twilight of his career, the Irishman continues to churn out performances full of endeavour and effort. While he may not be the Saints fans’ first choice for Player of the Season, the man who will undoubtedly win the gong owes a lot of thanks to Long.
The epitome of a quality professional who will no doubt be most truly appreciated after he retires.
Source : 90min