Southampton refuse to rule out marching into Europe

 

Clubs that appear unexpectedly in the higher reaches of the Premier League early in the season are usually modest about their ambitions – “No one’s talking about Europe, we take each game as it comes”, that sort of thing – and wait for reality to overtake them, perhaps once an easy run of fixtures comes to an end.

Southampton, though, may be the exception, and not only because “no limits” was the line from both manager Mauricio Pochettino and his players after victory over Fulham propelled them into third place on Saturday evening.

The best teams are based on sound defences and Southampton’s, with only three goals conceded, is the most miserly in the Premier League and second only to AS Roma in the five main European leagues. This time last season they had let in 26.

Dejan Lovren, the Croatia centre-back signed for £8.5m in the summer from Lyon, where he gained Champions League experience, rates the back four the best he has played in. However, the goals-against column reflects not only their performance but the collective pressing game introduced by former Argentina defender Pochettino that makes Rickie Lambert the first line of defence and forces opponents into error in their own half.

“Of course, it’s not just the four of us, it’s each player,” Lovren said. “We know when we need to press and when not to. We keep the line very high and I’ve never played like this before. It’s a little bit risky but I think we do a very good job.

“Our philosophy is when we lose the ball we need to get it back very quickly.I think you saw that against Fulham: we lost the ball in the first half and they didn’t have a chance to do anything. This was the best we’ve ever played.”

Squeezing the attacking life out of Fulham is one thing: successive visits to Arsenal and Chelsea in a month’s time will be a different proposition. But Saints have already won at Anfield and drawn at Old Trafford, and, last season, beat Chelsea and Manchester City. Before their current run of three 2-0 home wins, they had more trouble against lesser sides such as West Ham and Sunderland, who both managed draws at St Mary’s.

“Sure, the next few games will be a good test for us,” Lovren said. “I hope we’ll do the same job like at Liverpool and Man U. Champions League? It’s too early to say, there are a lot of games. But everything is possible.”

Martin Jol, the Fulham manager, pointed out that Southampton were entitled to do well after an outlay on players of over £60m since they returned to the Premier League in 2012. But chairman Nicola Cortese, who sanctioned the spending, also insisted that Pochettino must continue to field academy graduates such as Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and James  Ward-Prowse, all of whom excelled  on Saturday.

“It was clear from the beginning that we were going to focus on the academy,” Pochettino said. “I am a full believer in the philosophy to push the young players through. From the moment I arrived at Southampton I knew [Lallana] was a very special player. He has been here a long time, is captain and I think he can do amazingly well for this club. But we also have to remember that players like Prowsey and Luke Shaw are only 18. Sometimes we speak about them as if they are 24, 25 years old.”

Shaw has already been linked with both Arsenal and Chelsea. “We cannot control or avoid other clubs being interested in our young players. We will do as much as we can to make sure they are here for a very long time.”

Not so young, but firing a reminder on Saturday to England head coach Roy Hodgson with a goal and an assist, was Lambert.

“It is very important for him to be in a club that is high up the table for his chances of going to Brazil,” Pochettino said. “He is more visible and more publicly known when a  player is playing for a top club that is playing well.”

Right now Saints qualify on  both counts.

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