EPL: Were Southampton written off too soon?

After losing their best three players, many saw a long and arduous season at St Mary’s, with talk of relegation even hinted at by the most immovable fans. They bemoaned the loss of incumbent coach Mauricio Pochettino, whilst other players considered joining their teammates who had moved on with Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schnederlin garnering interest from Spurs. They’ve recruited smartly, and lie in second place after five matches. Phil Morahan takes a look at Southampton and asks: were they written off too soon?

With the squad ripped apart and the manager picked up by Tottenham, it looked like bleak times ahead for the Saints. However, this has been far from the case. After five rounds of the Premier League they are joint second, just a win behind leaders Chelsea – and five points above the likes of Manchester United and Everton. Is this current run achievable and are they really the spent force many claimed would be kicking around The Championship next season?

After learning about the inevitable departure of Pochettino, Southampton were tasked with the mission of replacing the man that brought the likes of Shaw, Lovren and Lallana to the world’s attention.  With many higher fancied gaffers on the market, Southampton focused on the footballing style and ideology over titles and accomplishments… Enter Ronald Koeman.

Koeman had been in a similar predicament a few seasons prior at Feyenoord, where he lost talents Luc Castaignos, Georginio Wijnaldum and Leroy Fer.  In response he brought through a host of young players, a quality which will hold him in good stead at Saints given the conveyor belt of talent constantly being churned out from their academy. A recent history shows the likes of Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Crouch and the world’s most expensive footballer Gareth Bale, all coming through the academy down south.

In retrospect, finding a new manager was a relatively simple task compared to replacing £88 million of talent.  Unlike Spurs and Liverpool who only had to replace one superstar, Saints needed to rebuild the core of their team – and fast.  But unlike the kid-in-a-candy-shop approach of Andre Villas-Boas and Daniel Levy, they peppered the market and made a string of astute purchases from various European leagues; ever-sure not to replicate a Dani Osvaldo signing that could upset the applecart.

Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic, Fraser Forster, Shane Long, Florin Gardos and Saido Mane – amongst others on loan – were all brought in, with £31.3 million still left in the bank for a rainy day.  This is no fluke, merely good business. By holding out despite their players’ determination to leave, and negotiating to their fullest extent, they ensured inflated amounts were paid and some could even suggest they played on the panic that both Man United and Liverpool seemed to have after losing valuable team members – £30 million for an 18-year-old left-back is incredible business.

They then did the opposite while negotiating their own signings, paying reasonable fees for players that improve the squad – although that for Long may have been somewhat inflated; but hey, when you’ve got that much money you can afford to overpay to land your preferred targets.

Graziano Pellè of Southampton
Graziano Pelle has made a solid start for Southampton, looking like a key component of their new-look attack.

Names like Lambert and Lallana have quickly been forgotten, replaced by the likes Tadic and Pelle on the back of jerseys in schoolyards and around town – and both played particularly well against the former two’s new side Liverpool on the opening weekend, going some distance to putting minds at ease.

There is even a strong argument to suggest the side has improved due to the changes.  With Pelle they have a younger and arguably more skillful player than the aging Lambert.  Tadic links with Schnederlin just as effectively as Lallana, who has also become naggingly injury prone. Chambers was a loss, but was not the first choice full-back at the time of his departure and Nathaniel Clyne seems to have kicked on with the added responsibility. Tying Jose Fonte down to a long-term deal is also a marvellous piece of work, and no doubt would have gone some way to restoring faith in both fans and remaining players.

Whilst Koeman will need additional time to gel his outfit completely to the way he would like, it looks as if the majority of final-third play will come through these two new signings, as well as Morgan Schneiderlin who looks to have added a few more goals to his game. Add Vincent Wanyama to the midfield and there is a perfect mixture of strength and physicality; playmaking smarts; and flair and end-product.  

Whilst it may be premature to trumpet his achievements home, it is very encouraging that Pelle has both goals and assists to his name this early on in his Southampton career.

Tadic looks to have acclimatized quickly to Premier League football too, and has been a standout performer so far, but not only in the resounding victories.  He was a shining light against Liverpool and was at his inventive best for the opening 45 minutes against West Bromwich Albion. The player with the most assists in the Eredivisie last season has managed to link up with Schneiderlin, Pelle and Hull recruit Shane Long fluently and crisply. While some criticism has come his way regarding his reluctance to shoot, he seems to have settled this nerve in his past two performances.

He is one that will also benefit from the return of Jay Rodriguez after a lengthy injury lay-off.

Whilst the significant turnover of personnel and coaching staff often sees a new approach, it seems the team has retained its identity as an exciting, attacking football side.  With his 4-2-3-1 formation, his pass and move approach still reeks of attacking flair and scoring promise of Saints under Pochettino. While the pressing isn’t as frenzied, they are looking to sit back and retain shape, with this tactic bearing fruit already after five games as they’ve kept clean sheets against Swansea, West Brom and Newcastle, showing a sturdy defence to complement a stylish attack.

Whilst there were always going to be reservations about their defence after losing Lovren and Shaw, it seems Ryan Betrand and Toby Alderweireld have eased the minds of Southampton supporters.  Both have hit the ground running and are contributing factors to the stingiest defence in the league. Despite both being relatively young, they have experience at the top level – Champions League and La Liga winners medals between them – and add a certain pedigree to the backline, more than compensating for the defensive departures during the summer. The back four of Bertrand and Alderweireld alongside new captain Jose Fonte and Nathaniel Clyne is arguably even stronger than last season, and England World Cup squad member, goalkeeper Fraser Forster, is also an upgrade on the eccentric and unpredictable Artur Boruc.

Ronald Koeman, despite only joining in the summer himself, has performed remarkably in transforming Southampton following key departures.
Ronald Koeman, despite only joining in the summer himself, has performed remarkably in transforming Southampton following key departures.

Best known for being the highest scoring defender of all time, Koeman’s first Premier League victory brought promises of “continuing to win in style”.  The West Ham triumph was followed by a 4-0 thumping of Newcastle – a victory brought upon by an instilled positive mindset. Throw in the weekend’s 1-0 result in Wales where the fourth-placed Saints met third-placed Swansea, Koeman’s outfit showed the grit and poise needed to see out a tough encounter, adding another string to their bow.  It is one that will hold them in good stead for the style of games that become common in the winter months, and the Saints are looking a very well-rounded side; testament to their solid start to the season.

Given the inconsistency of the Premier League there is a chance I could be penning an article in a few months time detailing where Southampton’s season went wrong.  Press and fans alike have jumped on the bandwagon of this new-look team, already trumpeting an improvement on last seasons eighth place finish. This may be premature, as some of the biggest tests in the league lie in wait for the south coast club – December sees them meet Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United all within the space of seven days. However, with their best top-flight start in 26 years already behind them, it looks like they have the artillery to convert this into a successful season both on and off the paddock. Murmurs of relegation are nothing but a distant memory and a top-half finish looks realistic if not expected, and a shot at the Europa League spots a definite chance on current form. Rumours of their demise were greatly exaggerated.