Southampton continue to defy the odds. Written off all summer having been dealt the double blow of losing manager Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham Hotspur and multiple high-profile players to Premier League rivals, mainly Liverpool, many believed this season would be a long, hard slog.
So far however, these fears have been unfounded and if anything, The Saints are even stronger than they were this time last season – a campaign that ultimately culminated in their highest ever Premier League finish of 8th place.
When the likes of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Ricky Lambert, Calum Chambers and Dejan Lovren left the club during the summer transfer window, incoming boss Ronald Koeman must have been desperate to simply get enough numbers in his squad to be competitive. No one, not even Koeman himself, probably envisaged the start they have had to the 2014/15 season, and not least the impressive impact the new signings have made already.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Saints have been the surprise package of the season so far, and show no signs of relinquishing their grip on 2nd place in the table. It seems week after week they are destined to slip up, but so far, this has not materialised. Southampton appear to enjoy having the label of being the underdogs, and they are seemingly thriving without the added pressure that the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City are struggling to cope with at the moment.
Amidst the turmoil over the summer, many suspected it would leave a disjointed squad that would then have to adapt to playing under a manager, in Koeman, who had never previously managed in England before.
Perhaps one of their biggest successes was not only keeping hold of influential midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, but letting him do his talking on the field, as opposed to off it. Speculation mounted that he was unhappy on the south coast, and with Pochettino mulling over a possible move for his former talisman, the Frenchman seemed destined to join the exodus, but he now seems to have settled again and his employers are reaping the rewards of that.
Koeman has made some shrewd acquisitions however with the likes of Ryan Bertrand, on loan from Chelsea, goalkeeper Fraser Forster from Celtic, forward Graziano Pelle from Feyenoord and Toby Alderweireld on loan from Atletico Madrid joining the club. They are just a few that spring to mind who have performed superbly so far this term.
The Dutchman has provided continuity, during a time of great change off the field. In many respects, Southampton’s style of play resembles his predecessor Pochettino. Combining possession football within the 4-2-3-1 system and stressing the importance of ball retention, the Saints have been a force to be reckoned with at times going forward, none more so than during the emphatic 8-0 home victory over Sunderland. While the Black Cats were arguably architects of their own downfall, some of the enforced errors were as a result of high pressing from Southampton, a tactic the vast majority of teams try to employ in the modern era.
The positives of the 4-2-3-1 formation is its versatility, and while Liverpool have struggled with consistency of selection for example while using this system this season, Southampton have had the luxury of a largely settled line-up. Like anything in sport however, if one person isn’t fulfilling their role then it has the capacity for disaster. Victor Wanyama and the aforementioned Schneiderlin provide the cushion in front of the back four that enables the likes of Steven Davis the license to roam forward, yet equally they have the ability to turn from a 4-5-1 shape when on the defensive, to a 4-3-3 system when going forward.
Even Wanyama has chipped in with a couple of goals this season – not least his speculative long range winner against Hull City last weekend where he received the ball from opposing goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic about 35-yards from goal, and proceeded to lob the stranded stopper with the minimum of fuss.
Combine that with the best defensive record in all four divisions of professional English football, having only conceded five goals, and it’s easy to see why Southampton are fast becoming the team to beat.
While a large number of teams use the 4-2-3-1 system in the modern day, it relies more stringently on players having individual discipline. Under Koeman, Southampton have found the balance of being able to soak up the pressure without sitting too deep (every fan and manager’s nightmare), and being able to get the necessary bodies forward when going the other way. It could be said then, Koeman has not only bought players who he felt could strengthen, what was a depleted squad, he recruited players that fit his philosophy as much as anything else. It therefore comes as little surprise to see how efficient they have been and why the players have adapted so seamlessly.
Modern football relies so heavily on being able to hit teams on the break. Perhaps even more important is having a ‘Number 10’ who can provide that inch perfect pass to carve open the opposition, or create something out of nothing. Cesc Fabregas aside, arguably one of the signings of the season so far has been the Serbian international Dušan Tadić, who has formed a devastating partnership with Pelle since their arrival in the Premier League. The former FC Twente midfielder has provided multiple assists for the big Italian already and is a big factor in explaining why the frontman has an impressive six goals to his name in his debut season in England.
Arguably it has been the impact of the likes of Tadić that has helped propel Southampton to the dizzying heights they currently find themselves in. While critics would point to the fact they’re in uncharted territory at this moment in time, and how they are destined to slip up soon enough, they continue to march on apace.
As touched upon earlier, Southampton are enjoying their football and are not weighed down by fan expectation. After the uncertainty over the summer, most fans would have settled for a mid-table finish. Right now, they’re well on their way to achieving or even exceeding the feats of last season. Things can change so quickly as is the nature of football at the upper echelons of the game. Keeping hold of players, and even Koeman will be tough to negotiate if their upward trajectory continues.
One thing is certain however. If you combine the start they’ve had with their healthy and active academy system where young players are consistently given opportunities, then things certain look positive for Southampton right now. With this in mind, it’s difficult to bet against it continuing in that vein moving forward.