Since coming back from League One and the brink of extinction, Southampton have become perennial overachievers. Back to back promotions League One, to the Championship, right up to the Premier League is remarkable. Even more remarkable is how they have taken to the Premier League; newly promoted sides are supposed to struggle, but Southampton, along with the other underdog story of British football, Swansea, took to it like a swan to water. Comfortable last time out, Southampton has been downright competitive this term.
Last season the Saint’s displayed an unbelievable ability to score goals even against the best sides; Rickie Lambert in particular establishing himself as one of the best English strikers in the game. Where Southampton were somewhat weak was at the back; it took a while for the Saints to pick a first choice goalkeeper and settle on a consistent back four. The coastal side were much meaner once Mauricio Pochettino took over however, with the Argentine tempering the Saints’ fluid attacking verve with a firm philosophy of defending from the front; a marriage of Bielsa’s international sides and the gegenpressen employed by Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund. If last season was a case of improving slowly, but somewhat leaky at the back, this term Southampton have been miserly; reminiscent of a Dickensian scrooge, the Saints have conceded only seven goals in twelve games, with a defence bolstered by Dejan Lovren and shielded by Victor Wanyama.
Having been hovering around the top four all season, Southampton have been constantly dismissed with the ‘overachieving’ tag. It has been repeatedly expected and predicted that Southampton will fall away at some point this term. However, twelve games into the season, the Saints are still in the top five, level on points with Manchester City, and very much keeping up with the pack. The defeat at Arsenal should not be exaggerated in significance, or taken as too much of a sign of the Saint’s decline. The fact of the matter is, Southampton went away to the Premier League leaders, and more than matched the Gunners for most of the game. The Saints did what very few teams do, and edged Arsenal out in both possession and attempts on goals.
Where Southampton came undone was through uncharacteristic defensive hiccups. Artur Boruc has been solid since making the Southampton goal his own last term, was woeful against Arsenal. His kicking was terribly inconsistent; Boruc found a Southampton shirt with only half of his 40 kicks, and it is probably this that led the Pole to attempt his bizarre dribble that led to Giroud’s first goal. Having conceded another peculiar goal to fellow keeper Begovic against Stoke already this season, Boruc will be keen to redeem himself, but was not able to do so with Arsenal’s second goal, the Pole unable to save a penalty from Giroud’s. The penalty came from another clanger at the back for Southampton, with Jose Fonte penalised for pulling on Mertesacker’s shirt. What will be more concerning than a pair of one off, individual mistakes for Southampton is their lack of goals. The Saints have been rather dry up front this term, but with forwards of proven quality such as Lambert and Osvaldo, and service from the talented English pair Lallana and Ward-Prowse, Southampton fans can be confident that the goals will soon flow.
Whether Southampton can actually claim a European place this season remains to be seen, but that is only due to how fierce the competition at the top is so far. With Arsenal and Liverpool rejuvenated and back on form after some slow recent seasons, Chelsea, Manchester City, and in particular Manchester United and Tottenham incredibly inconsistent, and Everton and Newcastle in great form, there is only eight points between first and ninth. That didn’t change this weekend, with United, Liverpool and Everton all drawing, Chelsea, Newcastle and Arsenal winning, and a remarkable 6-0 thrashing of Spurs by Manchester City. Even if they don’t quite make it into one of the continental this time out, as Alan Shearer put it, Southampton are a great example of how to win a football club. With their wonderful, high intensity attacking game, sensible management and a secure financial footing, it is only a matter of time before Southampton make the step up to compete with the big boys of Europe.
Crucial to Southampton’s future will be their ability to retain their wonderful young prospects. The Saints have always produced excellent British talent, but whereas in the past they have been forced to sell the likes of Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott, they may now be in a position to keep that talent on the south coast. Adam Lallana is an excellent two footed attacker, who proved against Germany and Chile that he can cut it even at the highest level. The crown jewels of the Southampton academy however, are without a doubt Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse. Having burst on the Premier League scene at the tender age of 16, quickly establishing himself as not just a great prospect, but one of the league’s best left backs. Left waiting in the wings last term, Ward-Prowse was chomping at the bit this time out, having declared his intention to break into the first team in preseason, and has done just that. Unperturbed by competition from Wanyama and Schneiderlin, Ward-Prowse is now a key member of the first team.
The pair represents arguably the best of the current fantastic crop of young English players. The reputations of the English Under-21 side has taken quite a battering following the last World Cup’s pitiful showing, but are a very underrated group of players. As well as the Southampton starlets, there is the United quartet of Powell, Keane, Zaha and Lingard, West Brom’s Berahino, and Barkley and Morrison both pulling up trees in the Premier League, at Everton and West Ham respectively. This misses out numerous of great prospects, all deserving of a mention; the future is bright not just for Southampton, but England as well.