Towards the end of last season and during the summer, some Southampton players and coaches kept buzzing on about aiming to finish in the top four. Manager Mauricio Pochettino said it as early as April of last year. No one really believed them. In my Season Preview of the Saints I said they could possibly challenge for a top 10 spot in the Premier League, but not much more. It turns out we were all wrong. The Saints currently sit in fourth place tied in points with third place Chelsea and look like they’ll at least contend for a top four or top six finish. Here’s why:
1. Mauricio Pochettino
Southampton boss Mauricio Pochettino has done a spectacular job after being appointed in the middle of last season. He quickly transformed the style of play and was able to take a relegation bound team to 14th place with impressive wins over Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City along the way. Over the summer, Pochettino was able to further instill his philosophy upon his players and they are now praising him for it. The Argentine boss implements many of Marcelo Bielsa tactics, which are relatively new to the Premier League but seem to be working just as well as they do elsewhere. Bielsa is another Argentine head coach whose tactics have been used by many coaches, most notably Barcelona’s Gerardo Martino and Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola. The tactics include an extremely high pressure, a lack of transition between attack and defense and an intricate passing scheme. Pochettino also emphasizes on defending by keeping possession. For a detailed explanation of Pochettino’s tactics and a comparison to Bielsa, check out this article.
2. Summer Transfer Window
The Saints stated at the beginning of the summer that they’ll be very active in the transfer window and backed up their words with three big signings – one from each part of the field. Dejan Lovren came from Lyon and transformed the defense, which we will talk about later. Victor Wanyama came in and has been instrumental in the midfield, starting every Premier League game next to Morgan Schneiderlin and contributing a nice mix of passing, tackling, and basic game management. Dani Osvaldo was brought in to compliment Rickie Lambert in attack and he has blended in well, scoring his first Premier League goal two weeks ago against Crystal Palace. All three signings strengthened the team in a major way, but what was even more important was the Saints refusing to sell their young stars.
There was interest from bigger clubs in a number of Saints players, most notably Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin, but the club stood ground and refused to sell their stars. These players are now proving instrumental in winning games and the most important thing is that many of them still very young. Check out the ages of some of their main contributors:
Adam Lallana: 25
Dejan Lovren: 24
Morgan Schneiderlin: 23
Victor Wanyama: 22
Luke Shaw: 18
Jay Rodriguez: 24
Nathaniel Clyne: 22
James Ward-Prowse: 18
The Saints have made many mistakes selling homegrown stars for cheap such as Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Theo Walcott but they seem to have finally learned form their mistakes. If the Saints can keep their current players around, they will be a force for years to come as these youngsters develop chemistry and grow their skills.
“Defense Wins Champinships” is a saying I hear a lot around the NFL and the NBA but not as much in the soccer world. Southampton are reminding us that the saying is true in all sports. The Saints have only allowed two goals in their first seven games and have kept a league high five clean sheets. They’ve struggled in the final third of the pitch, but despite that they’ve found ways to win points with their stellar defense. They’ll be even better when they find their scoring touch. New signing Dejan Lovren has developed good chemistry with Jose Fonte and as of right now is the leading candidate for Saints Player of the Year. Luke Shaw is getting better with each game and will one day challenge for a spot in the English national team. Artur Boruc has been as good as any goalkeeper in the Premier League and compliments the defense nicely. As long as the defense continues showing up like this, the Saints will continue getting points even with an average offensive display.
4. Lack of injuries and consistency
Injuries can be a problem for a lot of teams, especially lower caliber teams that lack depth. The Saints are not as deep as Chelsea or Manchester City, so staying healthy is a lot more important for them than the big London or Manchester clubs. They have seven players who’ve started all Premier League games and that consistency has helped develop better chemistry and form.
As a result, Southampton find themselves in fourth place in the Premier League, certainly overachieving the fans’ expectations. Only time will tell if the Saints can keep this up and find a way to sneak into the top four. Personally, I think they’ll fall off a bit and end up in a tight battle for a top six finish, potentially ending up with a place in the Europa Cup. If they continue making the right decisions in the transfer market and keep their young core of players, they can certainly fight for a top four finish in a near future.
What do you think is a realistic finish for the Saints?