In what may be the most conveniently timed run of form for an Irish international in some time, Shane Long has chosen the months leading up to Euro 2016 to hit the richest vein of form of his career. Last weekend, he hit the 100th goal of his career in England, a goal which represented the first time he had reached double figures in the Premier League.
Long's influence goes beyond solely scoring goals, however, as his movement and relentless work rate consistently gives Saido Mane and other Southampton teammates the space to do damage, as Thierry Henry recognised after the Saints' 4-2 demolition of Manchester City last weekend.
Long's fantastic form makes this Daily Mail headline decrying the madness of Premier League spending look hilariously erroneous:
Long's fine form has many Southampton fans voting for him as their Player of the Year, and to further gauge his fine form, Balls.ie spoke to Adam Leitch, who covers Southampton as the Chief Sports Writer of the Daily Echo. Initially, Leitch reveals, Southampton fans were sceptical of the large fee for Long, who arrived in 2014 with Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana ahead of him in the pecking order. Even under Ronald Koeman, and despite the injury to Rodriguez, Long was second-choice to Graziano Pelle, as Leitch says that "initially, Pelle was the main man. Southampton played a very loose 4-2-3-1, but Pelle was the main man up front. Long often played in one of the positions behind Pelle".
Long was viewed as a prospect for the future when he first arrived, and Leitch says that Southampton supporters recognised his talents, but many baulked at the £12 million price tag. Now, however, that price looks like very good value, and Leitch credits that to a change in position that has yielded so many positive performances it has encouraged Southampton to adapt their style to suit the Irish striker, with the Saints now more capable of exploiting space in the channels and bringing midfield runners into play:
He had to endure being stuck out wide and in roles that didn’t fully suit his abilities at the beginning of his Saints career, but this season has grabbed his chance for a more central role with both hands. He has played that running from deep off of a main striker position brilliantly, and has been a real handful for opposition defences when he has played up top as well.
Koeman likes the runs he makes, creating space for others to flourish. Another important aspect is his hold-up play. Southampton are well-coached under Koeman, and Long's good form has forced them to adapt their style.
Long has morphed into an all-round striker, and that evolution in his hold-up play has also been accentuated by Martin O'Neill:
I think as a centre-forward - because I came up in the school where a great manager like Brian Clough wanted a centre-forward who could get hold of the ball - it's most important to get hold of it; don't flick it here, don't flick it away. I think Shane is making a conscious effort of trying to do this.
The very fact that he knows he's got a bit of pace and can outrun most defenders if the ball's knocked over the top - that's fine, but there are other aspects to centre-forward play. The movement, that's important but eventually getting hold of it when it's up there... naturally, we need centre-forwards who can hold the ball up, particularly under stress.
So what next for Long? Southampton have consistently sold their high-profile players to clubs in the Champions League in successive transfer windows, and he was linked with Liverpool in the January transfer window, although Leitch says that the club did not receive a firm offer for Long. Are Southampton likely to cash in on Long, should a top club come calling?
Southampton see Long as one for the future. Pelle is now 31, and entering the final year of his contract, so it suits Southampton much better to have Long as the main man. While clubs might come calling from the Champions League, it's important to remember that Southampton are a very ambitious club. They finished 8th and 7th in the last two seasons, and are now 7th. Southampton want to get to the stage where they are challenging consistently for the top six, and then the Champions League, and they see Shane Long as an important part of that.
Long in the Champions League is a tantalising prospect, and a good performance at the Euros would definitely bring that closer to realisation, with or without Southampton.
As a postscript, we asked Leitch who would go further in France, Pelle's Italy or Long's Ireland? We are happy to confirm that Leitch gave the right answer.