Since Nigel Adkins was sacked in January, Southampton’s march up the Premier League this season has been nothing short of sensational. Our man Steven Jamieson looks in-depth at the transformation of the Saints.
On January 16, Southampton came from two goals down to draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, taking them three points clear of the relegation zone in the Premier League.
Rewind three years.
We join the Saints as they battle back from a ten point deduction in League One under the stewardship of Alan Pardew – eventually missing out on the Play-Offs by seven points.
Twelve months later, Nigel Adkins is boss and Southampton are grinding out a 0-0 draw away at Notts County on their way to finishing runners up in the division and securing promotion.
Fast forward a year on from that and Southampton are battering Nottingham Forest 3-0 at the City Ground. They finished the season in the automatic promotion slot, one point away from being champions. Southampton FC was again a Premier League club after a seven year absence.
We’re back in 2013. It’s January 18, two days after the Chelsea draw, and Nigel Adkins is sacked. The man who’d taken the Saints from the comparative doldrums of League One to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League in just two seasons was no longer in charge. Cue outcry.
Saints supporters were fuming, pundits were incredulous, neutral fans amazed – as Southampton replaced their saviour with Mauricio Pochettino, who was sacked by bottom of the league Espanyol just three months previously. Portsmouth fans must have thought Christmas had come early.
Fast forward ten months.
Southampton sit third in the Premier League after eleven games, just one defeat and with the best defensive record in the division. Wait, what?
Something doesn’t add up here. When Southampton controversially sacked Adkins in January and replaced him with the Argentinian rookie Pochettino, it wasn’t supposed to work. It was bound to fail, it had to – everyone said so. It was everything wrong with modern football they –hell, I – said. Oh how wrong we were.
You see, what Pochettino has done at Southampton is oh so right. The pillars of this Saints team are rooted in everything that should be applauded. A solid defence, an emphasis on possession and quick transitions, a fluid attack who relentlessly press the ball when they don’t have it and create chances when they do. It was magnificent to behold on Saturday when they demolished Hull City 4-1 at St Mary’s. The fact that it was against Hull is perhaps more eye-catching. Southampton aren’t just raising their game against the big teams, they are showing they can take apart weak teams systematically and brutally.
The system Pochettino plays requires an awful lot of discipline, and also a great deal of hard work. The two anchoring midfielders, Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama are tasked with ball recovery and retention: win it, keep it. Once Southampton have the ball, you’ll see full backs Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw bombing down the flanks to offer width, while the three attacking midfielders, Jay Rodriguez, James Ward-Prowse and Adam Lallana, offer options in the central attacking areas. The number 9, Rickie Lambert or Dani Osvaldo, is expected to drop in to this trio and link the play. If the ball goes wide, expect a cross aimed at one of the Saints’ target men. Both are superb in the air and adept technically, which gives the team a great versatility in attack.
Defensively, it’s all about pressing. The front four are all expected to hunt in packs to prevent defences playing out from the back, with the obvious bonus if they win the ball. If they don’t, Southampton are aerially very capable, with Schneiderlin and Wanyama being as big and powerful as they are. At the back, the signing of Dejan Lovren from Lyon looks inspired – composed on the ball, great in the air and an excellent reader of the game, he looks a steal at £8.5m. In goal, Artur Boruc has been in great form, in keeping with the rest of his teammates.
Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here though – Southampton are not going to win the league.
But there is so much to be applauded from the way the Saints go about things on the pitch. Not least that the majority of the players that started the game against Hull were English. Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert have all earned recent international call-ups and senior caps for the likes of Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse you’d imagine are not too far away should Southampton carry on as they are.
Southampton play football the right way, with a huge emphasis on work rate mixed with a desire to dictate possession and score goals. Add a solid defence, an English core and one of the best academies in the country, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the Saints will be marching on for a while to come yet.