January 18th 2013,
Southampton FC sack Nigel Adkins as their manager, just two days after the 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, after being 2-0 down at half time. Southampton were also three points clear of the drop zone. Adkins in his greatly lauded two and a half year spell with the club had taken them from the lackluster and financially perilous League One to the dizzying heights and affluence of the Premier league once again, after a 7 year absence. His sacking comes as a huge shock. He is replaced, rather ambitiously by a relatively unknown Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino whose last managerial venture resulted in him leaving Spanish first division side Espanyol, at the bottom of the league table. The media and the fans alike have their knives out once again, mainly directed towards highly ambitious club Chairman Nicola Cortese. The already controversial topics of how English managers are no longer favoured by the hierarchy of English football clubs gets even more impetus. The whole situation is quite possibly summed up by a tweet from Saints legend, Matt Le Tissier.
Saddest part of nigels sacking is that i wasnt even shocked #laughingstock
— Matt Le Tissier (@mattletiss7) January 18, 2013
Fast forward to the present day, and the “laughing stock” of a club is all smiles. And why wouldn’t they be. They’ve made a superb start to the 2013/14 season, accumulating breathless praise from fans, pundits and even other players and managers in the league, for their attractive brand of football. This is after all the team that was expected to go down after Adkins was sacked last season. They survived by 5 points. This season all that was expected from them was to establish themselves probably with a lower mid-table finish. That’s what makes the start even more so special. Underdog teams who have stood up to the top teams (reference the now surely defunct “Big Four”) in the league haven’t been unheard of. After all who can forget the way Everton sensationally finished 4th in 2004/5 under the stewardship of David Moyes, overcoming the monopoly over these spots held by the “Big four”. Perhaps more recently in the 2011/12 campaign, Newcastle United finished 5th, just a season after returning from a woeful relegation. What sets Southampton apart from these teams is the way they have gone about this season. Their high pressing and possession based football has been a refreshing taste of excitement to the Premier League. The majority of the credit must go to the same “relatively unknown” Argentine appointed at the end of last season, Mauricio Pochettino. Since he was handed the reins of the club, their fortunes have turned around.
The Bielsan influence on the South coast
He is after all, a student of Marcelo Bielsa, the father of the modern possession based renaissance. The eccentric genius, known for his strong (and somewhat obsessive it must be said) attack minded philosophy. The nickname “El loco” isn’t one which is easily earned. Other esteemed pupils of his include Tata Martino, now at Barcelona, and of course a certain Josep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.
You don’t have to be Jonathan Wilson to recognize the Bielsan influence of Pochettino. The frantic pressing, fluid passing approach, the strong vertical play and of course the authenticating “un enganche y tres punta” (a playmaker and three forwards), with the big target man is all very familiar.
The swashbuckling Athletic Bilbao team in 2011/12 under Bielsa is very comparable to Southampton this season. Pochettino has increased Southampton’s domination off the ball, but he has done it not with tiki-taka or short sideways passing; he has done it by being more direct and wining the ball back quicker. Gone are the days of Nigel Adkins slow build up.The pressing philosophy has been a hallmark of the side, with high pressing by the forwards in the opposition half. Initially the forward presses the opposition’s defence, followed by a midfielder to press the opposition’s deep lying midfielder. The rest of the midfield (aside from the deepest midfielder) and the two fullbacks must shut off passing lanes andor man mark the remaining midfielders/fullbacks etc. The holding midfielder Wanyama plays a smart game, unlike most of Southampton’s midfield, he restrains from pressing high up the pitch, and is primarily deployed to provide cover for the defence. This approach requires extremely high physical demand and thus far, Pochettino has made his team give 110% on the field. This high intensity play has taken the Premier League by storm.
Southampton have performed exceptionally well as a unit, with almost a telepathic relationship between players. The total fluid positional inter-exchanges between the front four is certainly unique to the Premier League. Unlike Barcelona’s approach, the Saints aren’t afraid to setup to cross the ball into their target men, Osvaldo and Lambert. This flexible nature has helped them break down the best of teams. Their defensive strength is perhaps summed up by the simple mantra “The opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball”. Fonte and lovren have been pillars at the back, with Southampton conceding 14 goals in 15 matches (mind you, 9 of which came in the last four games).
Outside the pitch
While Pochettino and his tactics have been the most important factor in Southampton’s rise, none of this would have come to be without the support of Nicola Cortese and his board. Sacking Adkins was a huge risk Cortese took, one which did not seem very sensible at the time, but it has paid off. Southampton have progressed to a higher level, and have carved an identity in Pochettino’s still short spell. Cortese’s Southampton are asking the question of, not ‘if’ Southampton can win the Premier League, but ‘how’. To work at St Mary’s it’s immediately obvious that everyone must match his ambition and drive if they are to succeed in this environment. The business in the summer transfer window, when he spent 35 million, was testament as to how much faith he had instilled in Pochettino. These signings were scouted incredibly extensively.
Victor Wanyama, whose impressive performances on the biggest stage of Europe against Barcelona in the Celtic colours would have surely put him on the radar of top clubs all over Europe. But it was Southampton who eventually secured his signature. He has been a true midfield general for the saints thus far.
Dejan Lovern, a 7 million pound signing has been an absolute steal, considering his performances with Jose Fonte this season. Dani Osvaldo, the club record signing form Roma is a direct striker who can use both feet to his advantage, as well as being an aerial threat. He played as a lone frontman for Espanyol under Pocthettino and has provided depth and variety to the squad. He is still finding his feet but looks like he’s getting there. That beauty of a goal against Manchester City is testament enough. The Saints have a front-line that frightens even the best of defenses.
A major part of this revolution is the strong core of English players. Nathaniel Clyne, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Steven Davis have all been influential. This is probably something that FA chairman Greg Dyke could have only wished for considering the new fears over “England’s future”. Chants of” En-ger-Land” continues to echo in the Saint Mary, with at least six players involved in the National setup. Southampton has always had a superb youth setup producing the likes of Matthew Le Tissier, Alan Shearer, Wayne Bridge, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade -Chamberlain and how could we forget, the world’s most expensive player Gareth Bale.
The Coming days
Exciting days lie ahead at the Saint Mary’s. Pochettino’s tactics are by no means perfect, and have the same problems Bielsa had such as vulnerability on the counter attack, and the space left behind the fullbacks (both of which were heavily exploited by Aston Villa in their 3-2 win). Four successive games without a win seem to indicate that there had been a wrench thrown in the works. However, such is the cut-throat nature of the English top flight, that, within two weeks of being able to go to the summit, Southampton now find themselves in eighth place. The four fixtures containing three of the biggest teams challenging for the title would have been an uphill task for any team. The injuries to many first team players have also added to their woes, exposing the depth of the squad.
The draw against Manchester City though, was a truly outstanding and spirited performance, one which the squad will surely look to build on. A European finish is not out of the cards as yet. For the long term Southampton must keep hold of their promising young English stars. They cannot afford to lose them just as they lost Bale, Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. This is the way forward for the Saints, who look to fly to greater heights. Nicola Cortese with his forward, optimistic and right-minded goal of winning the league is what the club are galloping towards. Now that isn’t loco at all!
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