Southampton fans must not know what to think. Remember two seasons ago when they were ready to riot over Nigel Adkins’ sacking and subsequent replacement by Mauricio Pochettino? Pochettino stepped in and drove the club up the table much to the surprise and delight of the fans. Fast forward to the summer just past, panic was rife on the south coast as Pochettino had set off for fresh pastures in North London while the clubs’ star players were being shipped off at an alarming rate and massive fees. Now we find ourselves nearing the end of October and Southampton have been the surprise package of the season, settling into a top 4 position with Ronald Koeman at the helm and his new band of stars lighting up St Mary’s like never before. Players such as Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle are making it far too easy for the Southampton faithful to forget about recent mainstay heroes Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert. In August, the question being asked was can Southampton survive this season after the mass withdrawal in the summer, the result of some deluded belief that players like Lallana and Lambert are somehow irreplaceable for a team sporting a transfer kitty of £80 million (no disrespect to the two players and their accomplishments). Instead, we are 9 games into the season, Southampton are second and we are wondering if this side are capable of succeeding where many have failed before them and that is by achieving a top four finish.
Many before Southampton have come close in recent years; Aston Villa threatened for a few years but Martin O’Neill’s team couldn’t quite make the grade, Tottenham managed it under Harry Redknapp once but have not been able to rediscover the form that led to their highest finish of the Premiership era, Everton looked the most likely candidate last season when Martinez’s side threatened to take Arsenals trademark fourth spot but ultimately failed. Man City are the only team that have broken the established hierarchy of the top 4 and maintained any consistency with it (the oil rich sides seemingly bottomless transfer fund may have helped with that). One of the major factors when a new team has made top four is due the failings of one the regulars. Liverpool slipped out the reckoning for a few years allowing a spot to open up which City accepted. Last year Man United’s transition year was a disaster opening up a spot that hadn’t been available before due to their regular appearances at the top of England’s footballing ladder. Early form this season would suggest that only teams that look guaranteed to claim top four are Chelsea and Man City. So are this Southampton side any different to those before? Can they take advantage of the usual big teams’ ailing starts to the season? Are they simply a flash in the pan side who are showing their best form early on while expectation on them was low? Is it simply too early to tell? It has to be said that it is hard to ignore any teams credentials who hand out an 8 nil defeat to any Premier League side.
Southampton have a good squad right now, playing at a very high standard. But, do they have the depth of squad to sustain such a level through until May? The biggest killer of these heir apparent teams to the top four throne is the ability to sustain the consistent level of performance for an extended period like the seasoned pros of the Champions League place chase can. Everton last year were an incredible team to watch on their day, over the years how many teams have gone to the Emirates and dominated possession like they did? However, even they slipped enough at key times to allow Arsenal to show their experience and claim their spot. Are Southampton any different? If they were to sustain injuries to their key men early this season in Pelle and Tadic, how far is their pool of resources? Shane Long was a big money signing in the summer capable of working the frontline in a tireless fashion. Steven Davis could play creator should there be an absence for Tadic. Nothing against Long and Davis, they are extremely talented Premier League footballers, but they aren’t players that get you Champions League football. This being said they have a certain degree of depth from the midfield forward that is more than capable of plugging gaps through the season when needed. The importance of retaining the services of Morgan Schneiderlin at the base of the midfield cannot be stressed enough, coupled with players like Wanyama, Cork, Davis, Ward-Prowse, Mane etc. There are options there for the Saints in midfield and the return of Jay Rodriguez from injury will feel like a new strikers being signed to take the pressure of Graziano Pelle.
The biggest problems to be faced for Southampton will be in defence. They currently hold the best defensive record in the league only conceding 5 goals so far this season, 3 less than both Chelsea and Man City. Maintaining a defensive record of that standard through the season is no easy task. In Fraser Forster they have a top keeper, an England international with plenty of Champions League experience from his years with Celtic. Ryan Bertrand is a loan signing at the club and he seems to be playing his best football with the Saints. Toby Alderweireld was a Champions League finalist and La Liga winner last season, Nathaniel Clyne is showing form that makes me question why Callum Chambers got the big move from right back this summer and not him and Jose Fonte has stepped up in the past two seasons to become team captain and earn a Portugal call up. That’s a solid defensive line. Its depth behind it is what could worry Southampton. Maya Yoshida and Florin Gardos are able centre-backs, while the cover in the full-back positions will come from youth players at the club such as Matt Targett. Admiteddly a policy that has been implemented to succeed over the years by Southampton considering they just sold two young full-backs for a near combined £40 million. The high level of performance needed from a defence to become one of the best teams in the Premier League is immense; but lack of cover in defensive positions can be fatal to a clubs’ ambitions. Man United are displaying that this season, they have numbers at the back but the lack of quality is what is crippling their hopes of a return to Europe’s elite competition. A few injuries in key positions will be the making of Southampton. It would be interesting if they were thrown a curve ball like that earlier in the season rather than later, letting us see how they cope with a loss and also giving them ample time to recover before the seasons end.
Southampton FC should be a blueprint to all other clubs hoping to progress and succeed in the Premier League. From years in the top tier of English football they plummeted down the leagues, fans went from watching Premier League regulars to watching their club fight administration. Throughout the tough years though, Southampton stuck to their historic policy of bringing through talented youth players. Over the years they’ve sold on young players for large transfer fee’s such as; Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and now recently Luke Shaw and Callum Chambers. With each young star that they have sold onto bigger clubs they seem to have an heir waiting to take his place with minimal disturbance to the squad. They have invested the money received wisely since their dalliance with administration back in 2009, spent within their means and developed young players to get them back to the Premier League. Since arriving back at the top they have gone from strength to strength, a bottom half finish followed by a top 10 finish. So what next?
Southampton have come out the summer just past with a profit of £30 million on transfer dealings and arguably a better squad. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this year they just miss out on Champions League places like Everton last year, secure a Europa League finish and build upon this season’s success and continue their steady progression and challenge the top 4 next season and after that. However, the problem most have had before them is the year they nearly take top four is the best season they’ve enjoyed in decades and what follows is almost a second season syndrome for the top sides. Newcastle United a few seasons ago looked like they could break top four with Cisse and Ba scoring for fun and their fans can now speak to their dismay since then. Everton this season have had an extremely disappointing start to the season given they were so close to top four last year. Perhaps, this has to be the year Southampton take the Champions League spot, as it’s hard enough to maintain the form needed for Champions League qualification for one full season so trying to play at that level for two straight seasons is something else. What is certain is that Southampton’s progression from their days in League One has been admirable, if they can keep their feet on the ground and continue to progress as the club, they are as likely as any club has been to break the Premier League’s hierarchy on Champions League places.