Saints alive! New force beginning to stir on South Coast
Southampton's long-serving midfielder Adam Lallana says new signings, astute management and old hands are creating quite a team
The sight of Southampton occupying a Champions' League place this time last week took many people by surprise, but it did not come as a shock to Adam Lallana. After the club broke their transfer record twice over the summer, and with manager Mauricio Pochettino putting his ideas fully into practice after taking over from Nigel Adkins in January, the Saints captain expected good things – and a third successive victory, against Swansea City at St Mary's today, will keep Southampton on course for an unlikely tilt at a place in Europe.
"We were quietly confident," Lallana said. "We were happy with our pre-season and with the additions we've made to the core of our team. I wouldn't say we had an official target but we've had a good start and we want to stay in the top six. I think we've got a good opportunity to get three points at the weekend."
Nicola Cortese, the chairman, had already signalled his ambition when he persuaded the owners, the Liebherr Trust, to fund an outlay of more than £35 million, on Croatia defender Dejan Lovren from Lyon for £8.5m, Belgian midfielder Victor Wanyama (Celtic, £12.5m) and Italy striker Dani Osvaldo (AS Roma, £15m).
"It proves that they're backing the club, the manager and the players who are already here," Lallana said. "It's lifted the quality in training, and when there's competition for places, it raises the standards.
"I think we've got the perfect blend. We've made shrewd additions, but we've still got a good group of players that have been here since the League One days that know the club, and we're starting to find out different aspects of each other's games. I think that's going to grow as the season goes on."
Cortese's decision to dispense with Adkins and appoint Pochettino startled most observers, but Lallana is positive about the change. "He has an aura and presence. He's very calm at half-time, organised and structured, and that's what you want as a player. You're going to train hard, maybe harder than you play, but we all believe that's good for us. I think if everyone buys into that then that helps the results. Last season, I don't think he wanted to change everything, but this season he's 100 per cent got his way, his training methods, the way he wants us to play."
Could Pochettino attract the attention of a more realistic contender for Champions' League places? "He's a talented manager and was linked with a number of jobs before this one, but knowing him he'll want to complete this job here," Lallana said. "You can tell he's very loyal and very enthusiastic and the club is lucky to have him. So yes, definitely. But not yet."
One curiosity of Pochettino's reign is that his team have beaten Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City at St Mary's but lost to Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion and drawn with notoriously poor travellers such as Stoke City, Sunderland and West Ham United (twice). The Argentinian's gameplan of pressing high up the field seems to create congestion against the massed defences of less ambitious visitors that Saints have difficulty penetrating.
"When teams put men behind the ball, that's something we've just got to deal with," Lallana said. "We have to improve if we want to do well and there will be all kinds of tests. If we don't get an early goal we have to be patient."
Getting goals at any time has been a problem. Southampton have scored a lone Premier League goal in free play, when Osvaldo opened his account against Crystal Palace eight days ago, before Rickie Lambert's free-kick settled the game – the only time the team have scored more than once. A concern?
"I wouldn't say it's a concern. It's one of those things that just happen," Lallana said. "We'll have a game soon where we score three or four from only five or six chances. We have been creating chances but for one reason or another not taking them.
"But that just proves how well we've been defending as a team, we've been winning 1-0, or drawing 0-0 if we're not scoring. If you can keep a clean sheet and nick a goal even if you're not playing well, it's the sign of a good team."
In theory, Swansea's footballing approach should give Southampton more openings. "Swansea are a talented team," Lallana said. "They've had a great few years and they're definitely a club that we should aspire to [emulate], but we feel we have the quality to overcome them.
"The international fortnight drags if you don't get a result, so we want to make the two weeks easier and look forward to a trip to Old Trafford."
Southampton v Swansea City is today at 1.30pm
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