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Over the past few seasons, there has been much to admire about the way Southampton football club go about their business. From the development of young players and establishment of a state of the art training complex, to the ‘easy on the eye’ style of their play, it’s easy to see why clubs from across the continent have been casting a jealous eye over proceedings on the south coast on England. While I as Outside of the Boot’s resident Southampton fan could wax lyrical over any aspect of my club, today I intend to look at the one angle that neutrals have only just begun to appreciate – our transfer policy.
Now I will raise my hands and admit that back in the summer of 2014, during what I like to call the Great Saints Exodus, I was one of the many Southampton fans caught up in the emotional whirlwind early doors. The story is well told by now – with Nicola Cortese’s departure in January, it seemed like the house of cards had been well and truly blown down. Mauricio Pochettino was on his way to Tottenham; Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren were leaving for Liverpool; Luke Shaw was snaffled by Manchester United, and Calum Chambers by Arsenal. The panic among the Southampton supporters was understandable, even if a touch hysterical, and the neutrals were taking their pounds of flesh wherever possible (seriously, I must have seen that picture of Will Smith standing in an empty room about a thousand times last summer).
But amongst the madness was method. And as the sales died down, and the purchases started to rack up, it was a method I had to sit back and admire. Southampton had raised a transfer kitty somewhere between the figure of £80-90m, and had managed to make a combined £70-80m profit in the five sold players. Not bad going, eh.
With that money, new Saints boss Ronald Koeman set about forging a new team – a task managers of Dutch clubs are unfortunately for the Eredivise all too familiar with. In came Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic, Ryan Bertrand, Shane Long, Fraser Forster, Florin Gados, Sadio Mane and Toby Alderweireld, all for a combined total of £58m – or £68m if you count the £10m that was later spent on making Bertrand’s loan deal permanent. The additions took Southampton to a seventh placed finish in the Premier League, their highest ever, and accumulated the Saints’ record high Premier League points total. Add to that an 8-0 mashing of Sunderland, a famous away day win against Manchester United and qualification to the Europa League, you’d have to say the transfer policy worked wonders.
Southampton have, over the years, gained a reputation for being a ‘selling club’. With high profile departures like Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Oxlade-Chamberlain and of course the list from 2014, it’s an understandable tag, but also a thoroughly negative one. There are very few clubs in the world that can’t be labelled a ‘selling club’; Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are the only clubs that sell players when they ask to go. Despite the Manchester United rhetoric that the only way is down if you leave Old Trafford, that doesn’t stop their best players leaving for Real when Perez flashes his cash.
What should be remembered is that there are different types of ‘selling clubs’, and Southampton’s technique certainly shouldn’t be tossed under that negative umbrella. Southampton’s Head of Football Development, Les Reed, said it best when he called the Saints an ‘enhancement club’; a club that brings in a player to develop him, to nurture him, to turn him in to an asset. Southampton FC is a platform for the best young talent in the world to come to and prove their worth with top quality training facilities and coaching staff. The fans will support you, and the club will give you time and opportunities. It’s up to you to take them, and as Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne and Jose Fonte have shown, good things come to those who take them.
Southampton’s transfer policy is akin to Atletico Madrid’s, or Feyenoord’s. Their best players move on for huge profit, and the money is reinvested in cheap, exciting talents that can and will become something special. In time, they’ll move on, and the cycle repeats. But note that in the case of all three clubs, the best players only leave for bigger sides. What Southampton have created with their selling policy is a recyclable, self-sustaining system in which money is generated in huge numbers, and reinvested shrewdly in to players that can do even better than those sold. Of course, such a tactic relies on the efficiency of the scouting department, which brings us to incomings.
Stored away in the Markus Liebherr Pavilion is the now fabled Southampton Black Box. The Black Box is a Southampton-exclusive, state of the art cinema-esque suite, pooling analysis and data from any player, manager or team the user chooses. The technology allows Southampton to delve deeper in to all aspects of tactical analysis than any other team in the world, and no, that’s not me being hyperbolic. With the Black Box, Ronald Koeman and his team can meticulously identify which players fit their tactical set up, and which ones don’t. The club also use it to identify new managers – if Ronald Koeman is ever drawn away from St. Mary’s stadium, Southampton will have their targets loaded in to the Black Box and be ready to make their choice as efficiently as they buy their players.
It was through the Black Box that Southampton could verify Koeman’s desire to bring in Tadic and Pelle. It was through the Black Box that Southampton could suggest Sadio Mane and Ryan Bertrand to the Dutch legend. It is through the Black Box that Southampton have guaranteed their future.
The Liebherr family invested more money directly in to the creation of the Markus Liebherr Pavilion and inventions such as the Black Box than they invested in first team transfers in the early years of their ownership, and today, the world is beginning to understand why.
The Southampton Way was a term established by Makus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese shortly after the 2009 takeover. It was never just a marketing term. It was a philosophy that has now shown it’s self to be sensationally prudent. Develop the coaching and the infrastructure, give players that chance to come in and develop and evolve, reap the rewards of their talent on the field, sell them for huge profit, and continue the cycle. With tools such as the Black Box, Southampton’s transfer policy will always be more hit than miss.
Already this season, Southampton have added Juanmi, Cedric Soares, Maartin Stekelenburg, Cuco Martina, Jordy Clasie and Steven Caulker to their ranks. Having watched them in pre-season and against Vitesse, I can tell you that they are yet more examples of Southampton’s enviable, shrewd business model, and the effectiveness of the Black Box. Soares was almost set for Stoke City before he made the move to St. Mary’s, and for £3.5m there’s going to be more than just Potters fans ruing that missed opportunity. £5m for Juanmi is going to seem just a little more than meagre when he hits his stride, and I hardly need to extol the virtues of Jordy Clasie to an audience such as the ones reading this. Once again, Southampton seem to have outsmarted the market.
It is certainly difficult to think of too many other teams in the Premier League that can touch the transfer record of Southampton FC. The nearest club that comes to mind is Swansea City, who I am a great admirer of. Wilfried Bony, Jonjo Shelvey, Jack Cork and Gylfi Sigurðsson are just a few examples of their recent successes in the transfer market, and with a Capital One Cup victory, an appearance in Europe and a strong season last time out on their score cards, it would be difficult to ignore them. As a Southampton fan, you can accuse me of bias when I say that, despite Swansea’s successes, I would still rank the Saints higher.
In terms of structure, stability and continuity, Southampton FC run away with the argument. Southampton don’t just have one or two good windows – over the years, they have proven themselves as reliable and efficient dealers, selling for profit and buying quality on the sly. While the business model hasn’t seen them with a title any greater than the Johnston’s Paint Trophy to shout about, there is no doubt the team is capable of winning a major trophy, and the pre-Christmas invasion of the top four is a sign that something special is happening on the south coast. Ultimately, success on the field is down to the players, and their arrival is down to the innovations such as the Black Box.
That’s not say, of course, that it doesn’t go wrong from time to time. Emmanuel Mayuka, Gaston Ramirez, Vergard Forren, Saphir Taider and Dani Osvaldo are all rather ugly reminders of that fact, especially the latter (the less said the better). But in terms of successes, it would be difficult to dispute that the buying and selling tactics of Southampton football club have been anything less than brilliant so far. And while Southampton still need to find a replacement for Toby Alderweireld before this window closes, I’m confident that any neutral that thinks the loss of Clyne and Schneiderlin is going to weaken the Saints this season will be proved wrong in due time.
Written by Ross Bramble