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The Southampton Project: Resurrection & Revolution

The apparent fire sale at Southampton has made them a subject of intense scrutiny over the past couple of months. Yet Southampton has endured a lot worse in the recent past. Sidhant Jain charts the progress of the club from their brief sojourn in League 1.

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This past decade has seen a decline of talent in English Football and has been a subject of serious discussion. The Premier League would be held responsible for this decline. Big clubs with strong affluence spent large amounts to lure foreign players. This has lead to a scarcity of domestic talent. However, it is more important for the clubs to understand a simple concept: ‘It is not money that can always bring you success’. This has been proved by Southampton Football Club. A club that has made some remarkable achievements in recent years. Surprisingly, they have done it with a young squad full of skilled English players.

The Saints’ journey has been a roller-coaster one. They were relegated from the Premier League in 2005 after which the club had to sell players to meet the shortfall in income. Several players produced from the club’s academy have been sold for large sums, including the likes of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale. Despite this, their economic state was far from stable and they were handed a 10 points deduction as a result of their parent company going into administration. Off pitch problems spilled on to the pitch and they were again relegated once again, this time to League One. They were on the brink of liquidation when Markus Liebherr bought the club. He made the necessary changes for the improvement of the club’s deteriorating condition.

Pochettino Adkins Southampton

The appointment of Alan Pardew and then Nigel Adkins marked the beginning of success for Saints. Pardew pulled off a brilliant signing in the form of striker Rickie Lambert. He started the restructuring process with few more additions like Jose Fonte and Jason Puncheon. After failing to deliver the results as was expected by club, he was sacked and replaced with Nigel Adkins.

The Adkins Era: Resurrection of Saints

It was an era that reinstated Southampton F.C from a League One club to a Premier League club. Nigel Adkins was appointed as Saints’ manager in 2010. His positive attitude and cheery demeanour guided Saints all the way to Premier League. The ex-physio was known to rebuild a team from scratch, just what was needed by the club at that time. The efforts and hard work bore fruit as Southampton F.C were promoted to the Championship the following season. The ex-Scunthorpe manager’s rise in football management had been impressive and he only reinforced his credentials as he led Saints to promotion to the Premier League. The physio-turned manager shared the same mentality as that of the club’s management. A revolution was what required by the club. He was well known for a style of play with a 4-4-2 which had two wide players He believed in young talent rather than buying foreign players and knew how to get the whole team behind him. “The lads have to go out there and express themselves” was his principle throughout his tenure at the club. Identifying errors, working on them and rectifying them were his goals which were soon adopted and absorbed by the club. Back to back promotions made the Southampton F.C manager a prime figure at the club. Fans used to sing “Who needs Mourinho, we’ve got our physio!” during matches. Players like Adam Lallana stepped up and featured in the main team. Under the leadership of a manager of such caliber, talented players like Rickie Lambert, Jose Fonte, and Lallana flourished. The key to Adkins’ success was perhaps not his tactical game – he already demonstrated he can play the sort of football required to get out of the division – but, rather, getting the team behind him.

First season in Premier League proved to be a depressing one as Southampton lost 8 of their first 10 matches. He played with a 4-1-4-1 formation in the first game against Manchester City with Rickie Lambert as the lone striker and Morgan Schneiderlein as the only holding midfielder. Southampton was denied of possession for most of the game. Only 2 out of 13 crosses were successful. Late goals were conceded due to defensive errors. The match ended in 3-2 defeat for Saints. A series of back to back defeats in the starting games made Adkins aware of the technical errors. He laid emphasis on rectifying them straight away. Keeping the formation intact, he focused on improving the crossing ability. As seen in the comparison between the Manchester City game and Aston Villa game. There were 7 successful crosses out of 21 against Villa when compared to 3 cross balls against City. An astute cross from Adam Lallana was put away by Lambert during that Villa game.

The club improved as the season wore on. In the next 10 matches, the Saints lost just 2 matches. New signings like Maya Yoshida, Nathaniel Clyne in defence and Artur Boruc as goalkeeper made the defensive line look like a wall. Saints’ youth team made more additions in the form of Luke Shaw. They conceded only 10 goals in those 10 matches as compared to 28 goals in the first 10 matches. There were certainly minor developments which lead to a fine defensive display. It was only improving with each match. The change in formation from 4-1-4-1 to 4-3-2-1 aided this improvement. With two defensive midfielders now, the full-backs were able to move freely down the flanks. Center backs could stretch wide and DMs playing a deeper role than usual certainly improved the defense.

However, they were still struggling to score. They conceded less but also scored less. This was the major concern rising then for Adkins. Even the summer signings Gaston Ramirez and Jay Rodriguez were finding it difficult to score. There style was more defensive and less attack-minded. They managed to score a mere 27 goals in their first 20 games. Adkins said optimistically during a press conference “We are facing a great challenge and when we come through it we will all look back and think we worked very hard for each other to get through that spell and we can enjoy the successful period when it does arrive.” But due to these inconsistent performances, his position came under scrutiny. Adkins was sacked in January 2013 for the recent failures as the management expected more from the ex-Scunthorpe manager. Executive chairman, Nicola Cortese said: “This decision has been made with the long-term ambitions of Southampton Football Club in mind. Whilst we acknowledge the contribution Nigel has made during the past two years, for the Club to progress and achieve our long-term targets a change was needed.” The shock sacking of Nigel Adkins was labelled ‘disgraceful’ by furious fans. Even the then Manchester United F.C Manager, Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t happy on Adkins’ sacking “It seems very unfair!“.

The Pochettino Era: The Revolution

Mauricio Pochettino was appointed the next Southampton F.C manager in January 2013. Nicola Cortese praised their new manager in a press conference : “Mauricio is a well-respected coach of substantial quality who has gained a reputation as an astute tactician and excellent man manager. I have every confidence that he will inspire our talented squad of players to perform at the highest possible level. He also shares my belief that the most successful clubs are built by nurturing young players through a development system that provides a clear path to the First Team, thereby creating a culture that keeps them at the Club for the long term.” Ex- Espanyol manager’s style was a pretty aggressive one with a lot of emphasis on movements both in and out of possession. Pochettino phrased during an interview : “I like football to be played well from the back, to pressure high up the pitch, to have movement both in and out of possession, and to be attacking.” It was a much needed change in style for the Saints to increase the chances of scoring goals. Pochettino likes his teams to play sharp passing football. He wants that little bit extra from his players. Play should be built from back, and as the ball enters the opponent’s territory passing becomes more one touch. The defensive phase begins as soon as possession is lost with high pressure on opponents. To do so, a high defensive line is held and an aggressive offside trap is pursued. The Argentine manager favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation and that is what he tried to implement in the team. There was a significant improvement in attack. Saints under Pochettino managed to create 160 chances in last 15 matches as compared to only 100 chances created in previous 10 matches. Also the number of goals scored rose to 12 for the last 10 matches of the season.

His style soon changed the coordination amongst the players. Saints had some laudable performances with wins over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. After the City game, Pochettino spoke to media: “The key was all the work we put in over the past few weeks. The victory only comes if you believe you can get the victory and today we believed we could win and that is the way we should continue. It happened as we hoped, planned and wanted. Many times you can imagine and it is difficult to make it happen but today it went to plan.” Wins over big clubs was surely a positive from otherwise average season as they finished 14th.

Saints made new signings like Dejan Lovren, Victor Wanyama and Daniel Osvaldo breaking the club’s transfer record. Also Calum Chambers was promoted from the reserve team to feature in the main team as full-back. The new season started with a positive attitude. Saints won 5 of their first 10 matches and lost just 1. Pochettino used different formations and it worked quite well. Saints won their first game of the season, against West Bromwich Albion, 1-0. A 4-3-3 formation was deployed to use the flanks as much as possible. There were 33 crosses during the game by Saints. However, only 5 were successfully completed. They were unable to score many goals but they could manage narrow wins. More importantly, they conceded only 4 goals in their first 10 games. Pochettino deployed an aggressive 4-2-3-1 formation against Hull City. Some great attacking play was displayed by Saints as they cruised to a 4-1 victory and kept 57% possession throughout the match. 9 out of 17 crosses were successfully completed. Saints won most of their matches convincingly. They finished on 8th, one place below Manchester United.

Apart from accolades, many players like Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana were called up to play for England at the World Cup which was the mightiest of all the achievements of the club so far. Pochettino left the manager’s job at Southampton to move to a much bigger role of managing Spurs. But his style of play cannot leave the club so soon. Of course, the new manager has been appointed, who with his philosophy and style of play, will try to reach new levels but the standards the Saints have developed over the past few years cannot be altered instantly. Southampton made a record profit by selling a number of players at high value. Manchester United bought Luke Shaw for a hefty sum. Liverpool purchased Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren, Arsenal took Calum Chambers. And yet in terms of set-backs, it pales in comparison to the position they found themselves in just a few years back.

Written by Sidhant Jain

Sidhant Jain

Reus-ian. Religiously follow Manchester United. Nurturing interest in Bundesliga. Echte Liebe. Right winger. A football geek.
Sidhant Jain

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