Southampton’s excellent start to the Premier League season has caught many by surprises, given the changes in the summer. Their current 3rd position in the table goes against any practical or rational thought. Andrew Thompson explains how this has been possible.
If you were to sit down with anyone after Southampton’s own version of The Exodus, you would have been hard pressed to find many that would have argued the club would be where they are currently. Though the season is still in it’s early days, the early signs are promising that Soton are going to be just fine.
After seven matches, the Saints have logged four wins, a draw and a pair of defeats – said losses came by way of two away trips to Liverpool and Tottenham, both of which are expected to finish above them in the table in the first place. Despite the pair of set backs, the south coast club sit third in the table, and can boast the best defensive record in the Premier League. While they’ve only found the back of the net on eleven occasions, the return of Jay Rodriguez to first-team duties will no doubt help right that particular ship.
My friend Ross Bramble, the one responsible for my new found respect and admiration for the club (despite my nearly life-long passion for Arsenal), was one of the very few who remained generally optimistic through it all, though I’ll have to take some credit for that. Him and I had daily discussions about what’s to come for the club, what the appointment of Ronald Koeman would bring and what were realistic expectations to have under his stewardship – I expected the club to finish somewhere between 8th and 10th, while Ross said he could never see them dropping anywhere beyond 12th. Being Saints through and through, Ross was naturally a little more cautious and skeptical, but my knowledge on Koeman put me in the camp of far more optimism for the St. Mary’s lot, but why? I’d be happy to share with you.
The right players were needed
It’s a rare thing these days that a club spends it’s money wisely, especially when they are not used to having it. Think about it, when someone wins the lottery, they usually blow their money on foolishness and end up with financial issues rather than being smart with their new found riches – Southampton passed this test with flying colors.
When Koeman was brought in, not only was it a coup that the club brought in such an experienced manager, but they also brought in a manager who knew how to build a side without risking the identity of the club. Soton are never going to be a spending club with the likes of the Premier League elite, but after the disastrous start to their summer in regards to the player exodus, Koeman brought in the right sort that fit what Soton needed, rather than just going out and buying big names in the hopes that star power would guide the club.
They lost Rickie Lambert, but he was replaced with a striker in Graziano Pelle who is like for like, but a large upgrade. Adam Lallana bailed for Anfield, so Dusan Tadic was brought in, one of the more under-rated creative and technically gifted players in Europe. Luke Shaw went to United, so Ryan Bertrand came in on loan and has been brilliant. Dejan Lovren joined Lallana in Merseyside, so bring in Toby Alderweireld, a center back who is quite capable but still has it all to prove after a less than successful time at Atletico Madrid. While this list is impressive, what many probably fail to see is that these players were all chosen for one reason above all; Koeman knew every single one of them. Pelle played under him at Feyenoord, Tadic played against him for years in the Eredivisie for FC Twente, Alderweireld only recently left Ajax and Koeman knew who he was getting when it came to him, and Bertrand would have been suggested by those at the club who knew of him already. So you see, not only did Koeman spend his money incredibly well, but also knew precisely what he was getting when he sat down next to them for their contract signing.
Ross certainly gets some credit here for this, but the fact that Koeman is far more tactically flexible and able to adapt more effectively than Pochettino is an upgrade that the club surely needed. Despite Poch getting the better of his former employers in Spurs’ 1-0 at White Hart Lane in the last Premier League fixture, Koeman brings a tactical mind to Soton that was lacking during much of last season.
There is no questioning that Southampton were brilliant to watch under the Argentine last term, but it was rather apparent that they only could ever play one way, and when that was stopped, there was no other plan to go to – think Arsenal and Wenger’s lack of a plan B, C, D or any other letter of the alphabet you want to throw in there. Points being, under Koeman, Soton now have tactical options; they can either turn to the counter-attack or they can build up play via possession, and if the Premier League (and certain teams) has shown us anything, it’s that tactical stubbornness doesn’t get you anywhere.
The importance of keeping Morgan Schneiderlin
Had Schneiderlin jumped ship for Spurs or Arsenal, both clubs would have been far better off than they currently are, and while there is no telling if his future will still be connected with Southampton in the coming years, it is undeniable that St. Mary’s bears witness to one of the best central midfielders currently playing in the country. The French international had a brilliant season last year, but it’s possible that Obernai-born sparkplug has gears in him that we have not yet seen.
What is most important here is not that Soton retained a player of such impressive caliber, it’s the fact that retaining his services was important for the moral of not just the players but the supporters as well. Still just 24 years of age and already over the 200-appearance mark for the club, it’s without question that Schneiderlin is a key cog in the Soton wheel, if not the most important one. The club certainly have plenty of talented players on offer in the likes of Pelle, Tadic, Ward Prowse, Clyne and others, but the Schneid is the type of player you can build around not just because of his importance for moral, but because he’s the type of player that can anchor a successful side.
Call it a bias, but when I watch Schneiderlin play, my mind goes back to the days of Emmanuel Petit rampaging the center of the park at Highbury – he may not have the blonde ponytail, but Schneiderlin is like for like with his countrymen in almost every way. It perhaps may be a little ironic that Petit had the luxury of playing along side Patrick Vieira. Schneiderlin may not have Vieira, but he does have the Challenger-2 that is Victor Wanyama next to him. With the Premier League being the competition above all others where midfield stability serves the greatest importance, keeping Schneiderlin on the books insures that their foundations on the pitch will rarely falter, if ever.
Koeman’s Dutch roots
No, I do not mean that he plans on opening a clog manufacturing plant that also happens to sell finely aged Gouda, but simply that Koeman (like all Dutch managers) was brought up in a system where having a strong youth policy and academy remains a priority for the club regardless of their spending habits. Koeman spent time at the helm of both Ajax and Feyenoord, two of the best youth system not just in the Netherlands but in all of Europe, and his experience there and willingness to give youth a chance fits right in with club policy at Southampton.
Despite the Premier League being akin to John Jacob Astor and friends (financial elite vs. the rest), Southampton will never be in danger of betraying their foundation under the guidance of Koeman. Their famed youth academy will still flourish and produce young players that will fit the bill for club and country, and the club could actually become far more resistant when it comes to selling their best and brightest young talents – Koeman not only values youth, but he knows how to utilize it, and his track record with Feyenoord only supports that even further.
Truly, it should not come as a surprise that Soton landed the Dutch legend to patrol the touchline. Koeman was the slipper for Southampton’s foot, and it would be difficult to find another club outside of the Netherlands where everything from top to bottom was available for him to succeed in an environment he was already accustomed to.
They won’t finish third, but…
They won’t get relegated either. I wrote an article for Outside of the Boot earlier on in the season stating that any notion that they’ll get relegated is completely unfounded and lacks any sort of intelligent footballing opinion – thus far on the current evidence, I am happy to say I am correct, and I’m sure all of you are as well.
It is unrealistic to think that the club has any shot of finishing in the top five, but notions of an outside chance of a top seven finish is not worthy of admittance into Arkham Asylum either. The goal this season for Southampton always needed to be about continued stability under an experienced manager who could keep the framework laid last season in check for now and then build on it moving forward. Many would have accepted a bit of regression this season, where (as Ross felt) finishing 10th-12th would have been fine given the goings on, but the way Koeman has come in and taken the club by storm has given many a renewed sense of possibility and expectation.
At the end of the day, no one is expecting Southampton to magically turn into a club like Chelsea, City, Liverpool, United or Arsenal, but the success story of Everton last season (and their own as well) is something the club can strive for…not in a few years, but right now. It surely is something that many would not have expected, but no one will complain at all, and when it all comes down to it, it’s hard to find a club that deserves a bit of success more than the Saints.
Written by Andrew Thompson
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