THE transformation in Saints over the last few weeks has been nothing short of remarkable.
For example, compare the first 45 minutes against Spurs to the first 45 against Norwich and Newcastle week.
The teams weren’t overly different – Boruc, Fox and Steven Davis being replaced by Gazzaniga, Shaw and Cork.
Despite the similarity of the starting XIs though, the performances were worlds apart.
Anyone could come up with various theories and reasons as to why that is – confidence, tactics, the alignment of the stars – and to varying degrees they could well be right.
However for my money it has to be the return of Jack Cork that has settled the side down, as he seems to have provided the proverbial missing link.
His partnership with Morgan Schneiderlin last season provided a fantastic platform for the likes of Lallana and Lambert and now they’re back together the entire side just looks like a more cohesive unit.
You don’t need me to tell you what Jack Cork does well. He’s disciplined, strong and intelligent on the ball and most importantly he dovetails superbly with Schneiderlin.
Even in his first spell here, under the doomed reign of Jan Poortvliet he looked like a classy player and the loss of him midway through the season was just another nail in a miserable season.
Since Adkins took him back to Southampton though, he has gone on to make himself an integral yet unshowy cog in the machine.
His willingness to do more than his share of the hard graft in the middle of the park means the frenchman alongside him is no longer overburdened and this in turn relieves the pressure on the defence.
As a result we’re less exposed and are better at keeping possession as there is less panic when on the ball, such is Cork’s reluctance to just ‘get rid’ when under pressure. He’s calm and prepared to find the right ball – and he has the technique to do so.
Now, bear with me on this next point, but the Cork-Schneiderlin axis reminds me of the best midfield partnership I have seen in recent years – Oakley and Delap.
Delap was the grafter, doing the dirty work while Oakley was the platform to get things started going forward.
They complemented each other superbly, so I think it’s no coincidence our slide towards relegation coincided with Matt Oakley being out injured for so long and Delap being shunted all over the pitch to cover a variety of positions, from right back to a brief cameo up front on one bizarre occasion.
The difference with the incumbents of our midfield to Delap and Oakley are that they can both do the beautiful and the nasty with an equal amount of ability.
Obviously we can’t keep them together in all games this season – suspensions and injuries are inevitable, but all teams suffer those problems so we’ll just have to deal with them – hopefully better than we did at the start of the season.
But finally we can make the most of the undoubted attacking talent at our disposal.
For that reason, other than Rickie Lambert, it’s hard to think of a signing that has been better value for money than Jack Cork.