It is never too early to panic in the Premier League.
For a certain type of chairman, autumn is a season of red mists and utter fruitlessness. But Nigel Adkins eased the first major crisis of his managerial career in memorable fashion, at St Mary’s yesterday.
Southampton’s second-half comeback, punctuated by three goals in 14 minutes, and garlanded by a penalty in added time, was enough to spare him from premature presumptions of inadequacy. His professional obituaries were being fashioned at half-time, when Villa deservedly led through Darren Bent, but he left to an ovation.
It was suitably symbolic that Southampton, an upwardly mobile club, were galvanised by Rickie Lambert, who has been pivotal in their rapid rise from League One. He’s the perfect case study for those who insist talent can be nurtured in humble surroundings by unfashionable managers.
Lambert, recruited from Bristol Rovers in 2009, scored a magnificent equaliser, set up further goals for Nathaniel Clyne and Jason Puncheon, and provided a fitting finale by converting the penalty. A first Premier League victory, following four traumatic defeats, allowed Adkins to spread the love.
“We’ve a winning mentality, but obviously there was a mood of tension,” he acknowledged. “The situation was pressurised, but we have come a long way in a short space of time. Sometimes, when things are not going your way, everyone pulls together. That’s this club, from the chairman down.”
Nicola Cortese, Southampton’s chairman, is that modern phenomenon, a self-possessed businessman, who is not steeped in football, and can hardly claim a long-held love for his club. Before he was installed at St Mary’s by Markus Leibherr, the club’s late benefactor, he ran the sports business desk at Credit Suisse in Geneva, where his clients included Silvio Berlusconi. His natural parsimony means club employees are obliged to pay to park at St Mary’s in the week as well as on match days. He will require greater value for the £33million investment, which made Southampton Europe’s seventh-highest spenders in the transfer window. Cortese appears to have modelled himself on Tottenham’s Daniel Levy. He has acquired a reputation as a wilful, hard-nosed negotiator, who has little time for conventions.
In some ways that is a good thing. He would be acting entirely out of character if he courted Harry Redknapp, and gave Rafa Benitez’s increasingly desperate advocates house room. Should he choose to be ruthless, he is thought likely to seek a kindred spirit from Serie A.
The debut of Paulo Gazzaniga, a 20-year-old Argentine goalkeeper recruited from Gillingham after his release by Valencia, represented a measure of calculated risk. Southampton may yet be punished for defensive shortcomings, yet Adkins deserves the respect of a rational analysis of why he has succeeded. He dared to be different at Scunthorpe, where he quickly defied the patronising notion that he was a physiotherapist with ideas above his station. His current problems are predictable. The Premier League places a premium on defenders with positional nous, consistent muscularity and hair-trigger reflexes. Southampton have too few.
The failure to protect Kelvin Davies led to Gazzinaga’s promotion and the introduction of Maya Yoshida, a Japanese centre-half from Dutch club VVV-Venlo. He took time to adjust to the physicality of Christian Benteke, Villa’s most significant summer signing, but retained his composure under pressure. The manner in which Southampton fell behind, 10 minutes from half-time, was revealing. Clyne and Puncheon gave the ball away in quick succession, allowing Barry Bannan the time and room to balloon a cross to the far post.
Benteke won his header with ease and when Jose Fonte failed to clear, Stephen Ireland hooked the ball back in. Bent, stealing between Maya Yoshida and Daniel Fox, did the rest.
It was the least Villa deserved, but their collapse will have consequences. Paul Lambert is an unashamed disciplinarian, with a telling fondness for using his seat as a punchbag, and was entitled to expect a greater response to losing the outstanding Ireland at half-time. “The goals we lost were really poor” he said. “Losing Stephen was a blow but there is no excuse to lose like that.”
The equaliser, 13 minutes into the second half, was indicative of the quality which has propelled Rickie Lambert through the leagues. He picked up Fraser Richardson’s cross on the edge of the box, took three defenders out with an instinctive turn, and buried a low shot.
Lambert linked the move, five minutes later, which led to Clyne scoring from a wonderfully instinctive pass by Ramirez, then set up Puncheon, who turned inside before fashioning a shot which was deflected into the far corner by Ciaran Clark. His penalty, awarded after substitute Emmanuel Mayuka was brought down by goalkeeper Brad Guzan, was the perfect final flourish.
Southampton (4-4-1-1): Gazzaniga; Clyne, Yoshida, Fonte, Fox (Richardson, 46); Puncheon (Mayuka, 73), Schneiderlin, Davis (Ward-Prowse, 79, Lallana; Ramirez; Lambert.
Aston Villa (4-1-3-2): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Lichaj (Bennett, 68); El Ahmadi; Holman, Ireland (Westwood, 46), Bannan (Agbonlahor, 68); Bent Benteke.
Referee: Jon Moss
Man of the match: Lambert (Southampton)
Match rating: 7/10