Southampton: The blueprint for Premier League consolidation
The highest eyebrow raise of all, however, is surely instigated by occurrences on the south coast. Southampton, who survived relegation by just five points last season, currently sit in the Champions League places, having lost just one of their seven matches and won at Anfield, Liverpool’s only defeat thus far. A cynic may claim that Southampton’s position is more through the underperformance of others (each of the beaten teams in the first paragraph still sit in the top six), but the point is churlish – places are achieved on merit.
Considerable (and understandable) coverage has been dedicated to the rapid rise of Swansea and Norwich of late, but Southampton’s upsurge is arguably just as pronounced - less than 30 months ago the club were facing the likes of Plymouth and Hartlepool United in League One, outside the top tier for six years. The Saints’ financial deterioration following Premier League relegation in 2005 effected their decline into the third tier, a ten-point deduction received as part of Southampton Leisure Holdings’ slide into administration. When bought by Markus Liebherr in July 2009, this was a club at its lowest ebb.
If there is a positive to be found in such times of woe, it is that new owners are provided with something of a blank canvas – still much to lose, but plenty to gain. And, whilst many of the decisions made by Nicola Cortese (Liebherr asked the Italian to look after the club on his behalf) could be best described as ‘ruthless’, achievement has been phenomenal. It is a bold but realistic assessment: Southampton have created the blueprint for Premier League consolidation after promotion.
Firstly, the club’s owners sanctioned a period of investment upon taking their seat at the top table. Avoiding the mistakes committed by Blackpool (underinvestment) and QPR (a scattergun ‘who was good in 2007’ recruitment policy), Southampton instead opted to introduce a nucleus of players that would improve the squad without upsetting its balance. Gaston Ramirez, Nathaniel Clyne, Jay Rodriguez and Steven Davis were purchased for around £20million, and played 127 league games between them, all vital to the cause. This summer, a step up in investment was made, with £35million outlay. Again, Southampton chose quality over quantity, with Pablo Osvaldo, Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren coming through the door at St Mary’s. The message sent out by the club was that even members of the League One squad from 2010/11 (Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Jose Fonte) would have the opportunity to impress at the higher level rather than simply abandoned.
The Saints have also avoided the pitfall of other lower half Premier League clubs this summer, who became overly infatuated with the purchase of forward players, to the eventual detriment of their defence. Norwich, for example, spent £27million, of which £19m was on wingers and forwards. Sunderland spent £23m, all but £2.5m of which was on attacking players, whilst Crystal Palace brought in 16 players. Three were defenders, and one of those (Florian Marange) then failed to make Ian Holloway’s 25-man squad due to the bloated nature of the squad.
Southampton, meanwhile, addressed the deficiencies within the squad. In central defence, Jos Hooiveld and Maya Yoshida were not of a sufficient level for the rigours of the Premier League, and only four clubs conceded more times than Southampton last season. Spending north of £20m on Lovren and Wanyama may have seemed brave, but it simply made logical sense to protect an otherwise inexperienced back line. The change has been emphatic. Southampton may have scored at a rate of just one goal per game, but have conceded just twice, comfortably the best record in the division. In fact, Southampton became just the 20th club in top-flight history to concede fewer than three times in their opening seven fixtures.
Most impressive of all, however, is the club’s commitment to a young English core. Seven of Southampton’s 15 starters this season are English, with a further two from other Home Nations, and only Aston Villa have named a younger starting XI than Mauricio Pochettino’s against West Brom and Sunderland. Villa had just three Englishmen in that side, whilst Southampton had six (with three more on the bench).
Given the understandable concern over the future of the England national side, academies such as Southampton’s could become the jewel in the Football Association’s crown. Having already produced international class players such as Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the club’s first team squad now contains eight academy graduates, and talents such a Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse and Callum Chambers all look capable of following their predecessors to the highest level. In their Capital One Cup tie against Barnsley in August, Southampton named three 18-year-olds and one 19-year-old. All four were English.
Finally, Southampton’s decision makers must be congratulated for their courage in opting for twist over stick last season. After Nigel Adkins had taken the club 56 places up the Football League ladder, it would have been understandable to permit a bedding in period in the Premier League. However, Cortese sacked Adkins in January, immediately replacing him with Argentinean Mauricio Pochettino. Despite media opinion that the dismissal was harsh, Cortese explained his reasoning.
“It was very tough, not just for him but for me. To me, there`s one time, which is right, especially if you are 100 per cent convinced it is the right thing. Ultimately for the team it was the right thing, it was perfect timing. It sounds harsh but it was for the benefit of the progress we want to achieve over the next couple of months and years. It’s not only for today but for tomorrow.” The Italian has been proved categorically correct in his judgment, and should be credited for his boldness.
There is little chance of Southampton remaining in their current lofty position, that much is clear, but their success does not depend on such a finish. A club in League One three years ago have progressed immeasurably whilst retaining a core of both young and English players. Theirs must now be the blueprint for Premier League consolidation.
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