by Tom Pham
After his £12.5m ($19.9m) signing with Southampton during the summer, Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama claimed that he “believes one day Champions League football is achievable at Southampton.” Most fans knew that the midfielder was just simply trying to encourage his teammates and fans; none of us expected Southampton to actually challenge for a Champions League spot, especially considering they were struggling in League One in 2010-11 and were 18th in the Premier League last November. However, as the saying goes, we should only judge a team after ten games, and Southampton are passing that test with flying colours. Southampton are sitting comfortably in fifth, with 19 points, only six behind league leaders Arsenal, and one behind second-placed Chelsea. They are tied with Tottenham and Everton and are 2 points above champions Manchester United.
Southampton’s league form has been nothing to scoff at, gaining a convincing win at Anfield against Liverpool on a Dejan Lovren header, a credible draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford and a string of clean sheets and solid defensive performances, the only recent error being Asmir Begovic’s freak goal at the Britannia Stadium, only the fifth goalkeeper to ever score in the Premier League. St. Mary’s has become one of the most intimidating places for away teams to travel to, where the Saints have only conceded one goal this season in five games. This begs us a simple question, what has propelled Southampton to such an impressive start to the season?
Perhaps the main reason for their impressive start has been how hard it has been to score against Southampton this season. After conceding an astonishing 60 goals last season, the new defence has been a brick wall. They have conceded a mere four goals this season, providing the stingiest defence in the league so far. New signing Dejan Lovren from Lyon has slotted comfortably into the middle of the defence, and has formed a formidable back four with Jose Fonte, Nathaniel Clyne, and Luke Shaw. Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte have been revelations as the backbone of the defence, having played every single minute of Premier League football so far this season, and helped to keep six clean sheets, whilst also contributing two goals and an assist. According to WhoScored, Dejan Lovren has been one of the ten best players in the Premier League this season with a 7.68 average rating. This however, has also been a team effort, with seven Southampton players in the top 100 performers so far this season, which includes all four of the defenders, along with midfield stalwarts Victor Wanyama, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Adam Lallana.
Ever since their promotion to the Premier League, the Southampton squad has been bolstered with some great signings, and they have broken their transfer record three times in two summers. Over the past two seasons, they have signed more than half of their starting lineup, adding Artur Boruc, Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Victor Wanyama, Gaston Ramirez, Jay Rodriguez, and club record signing Pablo Osvaldo. However, it has been the performance of the home-grown players that have impressed fans and pundits alike, especially 18-year old left back Luke Shaw, England international Rickie Lambert and club captain Adam Lallana. Their performances have been so impressive that Luke Shaw has been touted as the new Ashley Cole, and fans have been screaming for the inclusion of Adam Lallana in the English National Team. We have to credit the Southampton academy with the development and recent success of the club, and of course, we are not even considering the many young stars that the club had to sell, like Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Gareth Bale. And this is just the first wave of players to come out of this fine academy, many young stars are waiting in the wings, such as James Ward-Prowse and Calum Chambers. Maybe the finest youth academy in the country?
However, the one move that has changed Southampton from cellar dwellers to a top half team in the Premier League has been the change in management back in January, one that caused a lot of controversy and shock at that time. After joining Southampton, Mauricio Pochettino has developed Southampton into a team that plays attractive football, and one that gets great results as well, within the first half season in charge, he managed to beat Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea at home. The change of style has greatly benefitted Southampton, as they are a team that now presses high up the pitch and attempts to dominate possession, with short passing and quick movement from their midfield players, even when playing on the road and against favoured oppositions. This is perhaps most evident in their recent game against Manchester United, where Southampton held 54% possession and completed almost 50 more passes than the defending champions. This confidence from Southampton has shown that they do not fear anyone, and to gain four points from Anfield and Old Trafford this season have shown just that.
The past is always a decent indicator for the future, so we may want to look at the correlation between finishing in the top seven after the first ten rounds and finishing in the top seven at the end of the season. Ever since 2008/09, so for the past five season, of the 35 teams that were in the top seven after ten rounds, 31 remained in that top seven at the end of the season. Of course, being in the top seven does not guarantee a ticket to European football, a top seven finish is definitely sufficient to challenge for European football. However, we are of course discrediting Manchester United, who, despite their recent struggles, cannot be discounted and currently sit eighth in the table.
The future is indeed looking bright for Southampton, with a young manager that has been impressing in the league so far and a squad that is competent and filled with young talent. One can certainly hope to one day see Southampton in the Champions League, and that day may come sooner, rather than later.