In the spring of 2011, Southampton FC were promoted from League One to the Championship under the leadership of Nigel Adkins. A year later, they achieved back-to-back promotions by finishing second and securing top-flight football at St Mary’s for the first time since 2005. During their seven year absence, multiple talents from their famed academy left the struggling club; Theo Walcott signed for Arsenal in 2006, Gareth Bale for Tottenham the year after and in 2011 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Walcott at the Emirates. One player remained through the tough years, though, and he is now reaping the rewards of the club’s impressive rise up the Football League. That player, of course, is Adam Lallana. We’ll come to him later.
Although Nigel Adkins did incredibly well to get Southampton back to the Premier League, executive chairman Nicola Cortese felt the need to bring in another manager in order to elevate the club even further. In January 2013, Adkins were sacked and replaced by former Argentina international defender Mauricio Pochettino. The first thing he did was to place a greater emphasis on the team’s defensive shape and introduced an impressive high-tempo pressing game. From his appointment and onwards, we could see a remarkable difference in the way they defended. At St Mary’s they beat Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool that spring, as well as being hailed as “the best team we’ve had come here for a long time” by Sir Alex Ferguson after his soon-to-be champions narrowly beat Pochettino’s side 2-1 at Old Trafford. Under Adkins, the team played an attacking football but conceded way to many goals. Pochettino, with his philosophy, managed to steady the ship and the club stayed up.
In the summer, Pochettino signed players who fitted into his philosophy perfectly. Victor Wanyama, Dejan Lovren and Pablo Osvaldo (now at Juventus after disciplinary problems) all joined and contributed to Southampton’s excellent start to the 2013/14 season. After 8 games, the Saints were third in the table with only three goals conceded, a record only Roma could better in Europe. In part 2, I will discuss the tactics Pochettino deployed more in detail.
At present, Southampton looks set to secure a top-8 finish, a remarkable rise from last years 14th place and they have done it in a way that has won so many plaudits, both for their high-tempo and energy passing game as well as the impressive pressing that has definitely been the key to the team’s success this season. Keeping hold of Pochettino this summer must be Southampton’s number one priority.
A great manager can’t succeed all on his own, he needs good players too. Pochettino has got that. Croatian centre-back Dejan Lovren has proved to be the best of the summer signings and is now attracting admiring glances from the biggest clubs in the Premier League. Together with Portuguese José Fonte, Lovren has created a solid partnership at the heart of defence. One key part of Southampton’s game is athletic full-backs. In Nathaniel Clyne and academy graduates Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw, Southampton possess three very good, young full-backs who all have been key in the success the team has enjoyed. Shaw, in particular, has been terrific, one of the best defenders in the league and looks set for a big money move in the summer. Shaw was included in the PFA Team of The Year and at 18, can go on to achieve anything he wants really.
In midfield, new signing Victor Wanyama slotted in instantly alongside fans’ favourite Morgan Schneiderlin. The Frenchman joined the club in 2008 and has been on the journey from League One to now being recognised as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league and has been linked with moves to Manchester United and Arsenal. When one of the two have been missing through injury, Jack Cork has stepped in and in the second half of the season the Englishman has been so impressive that he’s even been mentioned for England’s World Cup squad. James Ward-Prowse, another academy graduate, has also proven to be a very good player and is developing nicely. In attacking midfield, Steven Davis has resurrected a career that looked like being over when he left Glasgow Rangers after their forced relegation in 2012. He has grown into one of Pochettino’s most trusted players, capable of playing in multiple positions. Jay Rodriguez scored 15 goals in the league from his position on the left in the Saints attacking midfield trio and looked set for the World Cup before suffering a knee injury at Manchester City. Up front, Rickie Lambert has continued to show what a good player he is by both scoring goals and setting them up. He’s now a certainty to go to the World Cup in Brazil.
One of the stars of the season, Adam Lallana
Another player who is guaranteed a place on Roy Hodgson’s plane is club captain Adam Lallana. He’s been one of the stars of the Premier League season and was deservedly included in the PFA Team of The Year as well as being shortlisted for the PFA Player of The Year Award. When all the other talents left the club, Lallana stayed on and after battling ulcerative colitis and an irregular heartbeat he started his rise to stardom. While the players that left, Walcott, Bale, Oxlade-Chamberlain, even Nathan Dyer had the x-factor, pace, Lallana lacked that and had to develop his technical game even more. There’s no doubting that playing in the lower leagues have helped Lallana’s development and now he looks a top-class player, linked with moves to Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham. That’s not a surprise for people who regularly have watched him this season. Lallana is a very modern attacking player, capable of playing in multiple positions. Off the left, on the right or behind the striker doesn’t really matter because of his sublime technical ability, his intelligence and his eye for a goal. 9 goals and 6 assists combined with being the English player with the most chances created in the league further underlines his quality.
One of the most impressive parts of Southampton’s season is the number of academy graduates who have been given a chance to play for the first team. Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse, Calum Chambers, Sam Gallagher and Harrison Read have all played in the Premier League and combined with other British players like Jack Cork, Nathaniel Clyne, Steven Davies, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert it is very simple to enjoy the strides the club are making. A core of British players and home-grown ones in particular is sure to have pleased the fans and shows that Pochettino understands and values the brilliant academy Southampton possesses.
Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse embrace
Southampton have had a wonderful season and their resolve will be tested this summer. Big clubs are circling around their players and their manager, and in order to keep progressing they should try to resist the money on offer. That being said, rumours about the financial state of the club continues to exist, so maybe one or two may have to leave the club. The big thing, though, is to make sure Mauricio Pochettino stays on and continues his fantastic job. If so, the future looks extremely bright for the biggest club on the South Coast.