Healthy, happy and home: How Danny Ings got his groove back
Danny Ings' ability to score goals has never been in doubt. It was just a case of whether his knees would let him.
This season has been a testament to that so far. Fully fit, the 27-year-old has netted 14 times in 22 Premier League appearances for Southampton, a tally second only to Jamie Vardy in England's top-flight and a stark reminder of why Liverpool were so keen to recruit him from Burnley in 2015.
This includes 10 in his last 10 starts - a stunning run of prolific goalscoring which is one of the chief reasons that the Saints are now mid-table as opposed to mired in the relegation zone after a run of six wins in nine games.
He is also being heavily tipped to return to the England squad.
As Ings himself summed it up to BBC Sport's Football Focus: "I am just extremely happy at the moment."
But if anyone needs a reminder of just what Ings has come through to get to this place, they need only think back to his one and only previous international cap, in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Lithuania on 12 October 2015 - a game that should have been the start of something special for the striker, but was instead almost the end.
Three days after the game in Vilnius, in his very first training session with then new Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, Ings suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in his left knee.
It would keep him out for seven months and all but the final game of the 2015-16 season.
Fate hadn't finished twisting the knife yet. Two months into the following season, he suffered another serious knee injury - this time cartilage damage to his right knee - after coming on as a substitute in an EFL Cup game against Tottenham.
Surgery included, it cost him the rest of 2016-17 and ultimately his big chance with the Reds. He would start only three more games before moving to hometown club Southampton, initially on loan for a season, before signing a three-year permanent deal in the summer of 2019.
There were some Saints fans who questioned the wisdom of committing £20m to a player with Ings' injury record, something that was not entirely dispelled by an encouraging but inconsistent first season, that saw him score seven times but also miss a number of games with minor niggles.
Such is his rejuvenation this campaign, supporters now balk at suggestions the striker may leave for anything less than twice the price, with Tottenham the latest club linked with a January move.
|Ings' notable injury history (source: Transfermarkt)|
|Season||Club||Injury||Days out||Games missed|
|2016-17||Liverpool||Cruciate ligament (right knee)||288||35|
|2015-16||Liverpool||Cruciate ligament (left knee)||210||50|
The obvious key to Ings' resurgence in 2019-20 is his improved health.
He was denied a settled pre-season in 2018, with his move to Southampton coming right at the very end of deadline day, meaning he arrived less than 100% fit after a lack of minutes at Liverpool and struggled to get up to speed, suffering with blisters and a hamstring injury. His longest run of consecutive games peaked at seven.
In contrast, he has enjoyed a full and uninterrupted lead-up to this campaign and is reaping the benefits.
Sacrifices have also been made. He gave up a lot of his personal time in the latest off season to travel to Portugal and then Los Angeles in June working with former Bournemouth team-mate and specialist personal trainer Alex Parsons to get into a shape that Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl has described as the best he has seen from the player during his time at the club.
He has appeared in all but two of Southampton's games this season, starting 18 of their 22 Premier League matches.
While he has been substituted off in 12 of those games, this is as much in recognition of his work-rate while on the pitch as the desire to wrap him in cotton wool.
"I feel I am in a better place mentally this year," says Ings.
"I came back in pre-season better physically than when I arrived here. Last year, I feel it held me back with my form. I would score here and there but I wasn't at 100% due to missing pre-season and the horrible blister I had.
"This year it was a big incentive for me to come back in the best shape I could. I had a shorter summer, worked extremely hard and it has got me into this place now."
|Ings' Premier League career|
|Season||Club||Games||Goals||Mins per goal|
He is also happy and settled.
In an interview with the Times in September 2018 he admitted that he hid his disillusionment at not playing at Liverpool from his team-mates, but it didn't stop him "going home and just sitting in the house with my dogs and being upset".
But his joy now at being home, near to his family (he grew up in Netley, which is four miles from St Mary's Stadium) and a talisman for the club he supported as a boy is clear to see.
Witness his tongue-out, knee-slide celebration after bagging at Wolves, his gleeful embrace with James Ward-Prowse after netting against Norwich or the grin on his face after his semi-Le Tissier effort to open the scoring against Tottenham.
Then there is the puffed out cheeks and steely glare that followed the first of his hero-making two goals in the 4-0 Carabao Cup win at south-coast rivals Portsmouth.
He walks his dogs on the beach, he plays guitar and studies for an economics degree in his spare time.
"I'm here and enjoying my football again," he recently told Saints' official website. "I feel absolutely loved by the fans and my team, so all of that helps altogether.
"Any striker will tell you that when they're enjoying football and having fun, it brings out the best in you."
For his part, manager Hasenhuttl has adapted his team tactically to best harness Ings' natural goalscoring talents.
The striker is a pest to defenders, with an unerring instinct to be in the right place at the right time - both to finish attacking moves and capitalise on mistakes - as he has against Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and ex-club Liverpool.
Ever the willing runner himself, Ings has flourished best when paired with a fellow striker - the selfless Shane Long being the most effective - who can put in the hard yards and allow him to focus more time to being a presence in the box.
This has been most noticeable since the 2-2 draw at Arsenal in late November, which saw Hasenhuttl revert to 4-4-2, having utilised a three-man defence for the three defeats that preceded it, including the infamous 9-0 home capitulation to Leicester.
Crucially, the game at the Emirates also came after an international break, during which Saints were able to take stock, lick their wounds and rediscover their appetite for the high-pressing football Hasenhuttl demands.
Since then Ings has added 10 goals to his league tally, helping make him just the third Saints player to score double figures in the Premier League before Christmas, after Matt Le Tissier in 1994-95 and James Beattie in 2002-03.
In addition, only Marian Pahars has reached 20 Premier League goals in fewer appearances for Southampton than Ings (44 compared to 45).
After having being deprived nearly two years of his career, a healthy, happy and clearly determined Ings is finally able to start taking a few things back from the game.
And what about one of those being a second England cap?
"All I can do as a player is give myself the best chance," he says. "That is what I'm going to do."
Watch Danny Ings' interview on Football Focus on BBC One, Saturday at 12:00 GMT.