Southampton’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of English football has unequivocally been nothing short of a fairy tale. Their rise up the football leagues has been almost unfathomable considering just a mere four years ago, the Hampshire club entered administration and began their League One campaign with 10 points deducted from the outset.
Notwithstanding, they finished 7th only seven points off of a play-off place after the immense contributions of Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, who scored 44 league goals between them. Back-to-back promotions later, they found themselves in the Premier League after a seven-year absence from the top-flight.
In pre-season they were tipped to finish comfortably in mid-table but the Saints have since rapidly ascended up the table into the Champions League qualification spots. Whilst the season is only 11 games old, neutrals of the game have sat up to admire the south east club's impressive displays that have been coupled with equally as impressive results. Rightfully they have earned themselves a third-place spot going into the international break in which two of their players earning their first caps for the English national side.
Their awe-inspiring form has prompted some to dispute their capabilities of obtaining European football despite only returning to the apex of English football last season. Unquestionably the start of their 2013-14 campaign has varied massively compared to the beginning of the 2012-13 season as the Saints are currently unbeaten in eight league games.
Eleven matches into their inaugural season in the Premier League under previous manager Nigel Adkins, Southampton sat 19th with just five points, having conceded 29 goals and with a goal difference of -14. They had lost all five of their away games, claiming all their points all on home soil. By the time of Adkins’ sacking, the Saints sat 15th with 22 points from 66.
However their form was not alarmingly poor, in fact they experienced a positive upsurge having lost only two of 12 games before Adkins' dismissal, but Nicole Cortese and those above the manager in the Southampton hierarchy clearly desired more.
The club’s decision to part ways with the manager who had led the club to evident success caused national uproar as they questioned his replacement Mauricio Pochettino's credentials after he had been discharged from his previous team Espanyol with them bottom of La Liga just two months prior.
However the belligerence from pundits up and down the country soon transformed into compliments as the players soon adapted to Pochettino’s high-octance system. Since his appointment they have lost just six games in their last 27, concurrently winning plaudits across the country which is no mean feat considering his pre-successor's commendations at St Mary's.
Their 2013/14 campaign under the Argentine has been the club’s best start ever to a top-flight campaign, surpassing the 1983-84 campaign in which they finished runners-up. This is clearly no lucky occurrence. Pochettino, who won October Manager of the Month, opts for a pressing strategy that has been extremely effective within his current crop of players and he has subsequently reaped the rewards as he has managed the only side to have not lost to Liverpool on home turf this campaign.
The overwhelmingly satisfying outcome of the manager's system means that they have now risen from the third tier of English football into the top four of the Premier League in just four seasons.
The Argentine’s managerial effect on the team has been profound. By the eleventh game under Adkins’ last year they had conceded considerably more, with 29 goals against them compared to this season’s diminutive figure of five. In total, under their 41-year-old manager they have conceded 23 goals in just 27 games.
This leaky defence has been assisted by the £8.5m arrival of Croat Dejan Lovren who has helped establish an almost impenetrable defence so far this season. They have yet to concede twice within the same league game due the ever-present Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte’s formidable centre-back partnership.
The two have even contributed two goals and an assist between them with Lovren’s offensive contributions both coming from corners. Lovren who switched from Lyon has the potential to become one of the best defenders in the league with his superb aerial dominance one of his most noticeable attributes.
He has won 50 of 68 aerial duels, averaging 4.5 per game, only Curtis Davies has won more with 53. Having played every minute of every game, Lovren has aided Southampton’s tally of six clean sheets from 11. The 6ft 2inch Croatian is currently the highest rated defender in the league, with an average rating of 7.71 in his 11 games thus far from distinguished statistical football site WhoScored.
The English trio of Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana have flourished this year with all three earning International call-ups recently. The breadth of English talent within the south coast club extends to the Under 21s where Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse and Nathanial Clyne are all giving plenty of optimism for the future. In actual fact 19-year-old Ward-Prowse has made 33 accurate crosses this season with only Sevilla captain Ivan Rakitic completing more across Europe.
Fortunately Pochettino is unlikely to be resigned to losing his young prospects in similar fashion to when the Saints lost stars such as Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who had all emerged from their youth set-up.
In fact, despite the press hailing their young English players in particular they possess a young squad in general. The oldest average aged team they have fielded this season was 26.45 against Swansea. In contrast, they fielded a team with an average of 24.09 on the opening day of the season. Southampton only have two players in their thirties who remain prominent in their squad; Artur Boruc and Rickie Lambert. Concluding from this, Pochettino likely has a dependable crop of players that he can continue to utilize from for the future.
Adam Lallana is another enjoying fruitful form, averaging an 8.3 rating in the last month on WhoScored. The flavour of the month, Lallana has been renowned for his defensive and offensive contributions, the latter of which was culminated with his stunning solo effort in his side’s 4-1 win over Hull. The 25 year old’s time at St Mary’s hasn’t always been quite so successful though, the attacking midfielder struggled to gain a regular starting berth last season gaining only 26 appearances and 4 substituted appearances in all competitions. The England international has also seen the club relegated twice, struggle through administration, experience back-to-back promotion and has featured under the guise of a monumental 17 different managers since joining as a 12-year-old back in 2000. It is a testament to the side’s colossal progression and their admirable faith in youth that Lallana has risen simultaneously with the club.
The Saints face their toughest test yet as they visit table-toppers Arsenal in their next game, the only team to boast a longer unbeaten run than them. Their game at the Emirates is followed by a trip to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Both teams are hotly-tipped to compete for the title and should Pochettino’s side manage to take points from both fixtures, it is indubitable that they will be adjudged serious contenders for those prestigious European qualification spots.
Southampton rather surprisingly go into the game against Arsenal in better form, with 14 points from the last 18 as opposed to the Gunners’ 13. Though spectators should not expect too many goals in the games against the two London clubs, as there have been under 2.5 goals scored in Southampton's last 10 away games in the Premier League. However it would not be unfair to suggest they could spring a shock against either team as their high-pressing style of play has already seen them gain points from teams surrounding them in the table.
Whether they keep up the pace with the elusive top four (or perhaps that should be top six nowadays) is undetermined. Realistically it’s unlikely; many teams have failed to sustain a push to compete against those financially superior who gain regular Champions League football. Southampton can heed West Brom's spectacular anti-climax as a warning, 11 games in last season sat 5th after beating the likes of Liverpool and Everton. It wasn’t until the 28th of November that their stupendous form began to crumble; from then on they only won six of 25 league games.
It is more than feasible to believe that the same nosedive could derail Pochettino's side. Their next four games are absolutely pivotal if they are to maintain their startling inception. Their 27 games under the Argentine so far suggest that Southampton could positively surprise those who doubt their potential to prolong their form.
The rest of the league will start to be seriously contemplating how to combat a playing style which replicates that which La Masia teach those aspiring to feature for Blaugrana's first team. Nevertheless, Pochettino certainly has earned himself a reputation which will be challenging to upkeep.
What is for certain however, regardless of what happens, is that the Saints will continue marching on.
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