Southampton vs Manchester City comment: Why the Saints could finish in the top four

OPINION: The rise of the Saints wild card must be viewed as refreshing for English football

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The Independent Online

As of Nathaniel Clyne’s late equalizing goal against Aston Villa on Monday, Southampton sit second in the Premier League going into the busy winter schedule. Their tally of 26 points from 12 games, just six off leaders Chelsea, is the club’s best ever start to a top-flight campaign, and has certainly caused a stir.  

It’s a position that few would have predicted for the Saints after their summer selling spree saw the departures of key first team players in Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw.  Southampton finished an impressive 8 last season, but in accordance with the nature of modern football, were subject to poacher bids from bigger clubs. Even their manager Mauricio Pochettino got gazumped by Spurs.

The Saints had seemingly hit self-destruct and any talk of stability or the Europa League was soon replaced with the fear of relegation. Yet, fast-forward a few months and the prospect of the going down looks as unlikely as Jozy Altidore winning the Golden Boot. Instead, new manager Ronald Koeman is inviting talk of qualification for UEFA”s most senior club competition. 

See, Southampton’s mass exodus of players did have one silver lining – it yielded £92 million in transfer fees; and to their credit, the club resisted the temptation to simply bank it. Indeed, most of that income has been wisely reinvested.

 

So, how sustainable is Southampton’s rise? Can they really finish in the top four? Let’s consider some of the reasons why they might:

Feeling Good

By most accounts, Southampton’s summer sales should have seen them loiter closer to the bottom three, and that they have proved so many people wrong has instilled a great self-belief within the squad. Confidence plays a huge part in football and generally speaking, players tend to perform at their peak when they’re in an assured frame of mind, when they can rely on the player next to, behind or in front of them to do the right thing too. Southampton are reveling in a superb run of form that sees them approach each game without fear. If they can maintain morale amidst the hiccups, they could be mount a serious challenge at the top. 

Intelligent Design

It’s a tough ask to name a ‘bad’ Southampton player at the moment. There’s no discernible weak link and the team is set up well. The Saints have at least one good player in each position and they all appear to compliment each other naturally. Fraser Forster represents a reliable presence between the sticks, while Nathaniel Clyne has shone in Luke Shaw’s absence. Morgan Schniderlin’s defensive discipline has given Victor Wanyama license to roam, while James Ward-Prowse provides trickery and width. Dusan Tadic offers the eye of the needle pass and Graziano Pelle has taken to Premier League goal scoring like a duck to water.

Mr. Right

In Ronald Koeman, Southampton have a highly experienced and capable manager. Proven on the continent and able to get the team playing free-flowing football, the Dutchman’s suitability for the Saints job appears resolute. He’s already managed to imprint his own style of play, but has shown he can also adapt when necessary. 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3 have been interchanged effortlessly as Southampton build a game based on possession. The former Feyenoord boss is a well respected name in European football and this could be key to attracting future talents to Southampton or perhaps, more importantly, keeping hold of what he already has.

Home Comforts

Southampton’s failure to qualify for European football last season could work out as a blessing in disguise. While Spurs, Everton, Liverpool and even Arsenal stutter amidst fixture congestion and the demand on multiple fronts, short of the club vying for a domestic treble, they are able to concentrate on the league.

Of course, there will be a camp of naysayers who point towards the Saints’ thin squad or their record against the league’s bigger sides, and these are legitimate concerns.  The league and cups are still opportunities for injury or suspension; and while Southampton have a tendency to win the games they should; the difference between finishing 4 and 5 could very well be a team’s capacity to win the ones they shouldn’t. In the first 12 fixtures of this season, Southampton have played two against teams that finished in last term’s top seven. They’ve lost them both.  Though Southampton might be able to dutifully see off the likes of Sunderland or Stoke, their ability to take points off direct rivals has so far been a cause for doubt. In December, they will come up against four of last year’s top seven in just 25 days. That’ll be a real test of their mettle.

In any case though, the rise of the Saints wild card must be viewed as refreshing for English football, which for too long has been dominated by the same six or seven teams. Whether they finish in the top four or not remains to be seen, but that they are even contenders is a strong step towards upsetting the demagogue and a reminder of what any well-run club with self-belief can achieve.  

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