Relegation, and then again. Financial insecurity, but then takeover. Back from the brink, promotion, and then again. Consolidation, but then deconstruction. It has been a whirlwind few years for Southampton, of deep lows and dizzying highs, culminating in the club taking the Premier League effortlessly within their stride, led by an Argentinian with a translator and some attractive football, and an enviable crop of outrageously talented English youngsters. At some point the bubble had to burst.
Pochettino has departed for pastures new, heading up what, if past form is anything to go by, will probably be a single season at Tottenham Hotspur. Whilst Spurs took Southampton’s manager, they couldn’t prize away players Morgan Schneiderlin or Jay Rodriguez, with the Saints determined not to sell the pair, having seen almost all their other key players poached by the country’s other top clubs. Luke Shaw to Manchester United, Calum Chambers to Arsenal, and seemingly every other player on the Saints roster to Liverpool, Southampton were commanding, colossal, often ludicrous fees, but it certainly felt as if the club had put a (admittedly huge) price on its future.
Relegation predictions were thrown around from all corners, even the most generous of pundits expecting a season of struggle and transition. Ronald Koeman was brought in, but was he really any good? Money was reinvested, but not nearly enough it seemed, and who knew how these Eredivisie players would adapt to the Premier League? Except that the bubble hasn’t burst. Quite the opposite in fact; Koeman’s side currently sit in 2nd, two points above Manchester City and six above most of their former teammates at Liverpool in 7th.
Graziano Pelle has continued his outrageous scoring form from Holland, and looks the perfect fit for the Premier League: strong, aggressive and an excellent finisher. Dasan Tadic is another who looks every inch the player he did at Twente; fast, direct and always good for a goal or an assist. Youthful exuberance has been replaced by Premier League experience, Shane Long and Ryan Bertrand both looking capable replacements for the departed Lambert and Shaw. Furthermore, Koeman has not only bought well, but also coaxed great form from his inherited players. The defence has performed remarkably well without the presence of last term’s standout centre back Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne in particularly remains criminally underrated and is finally receiving the international recognition he deserves with a call of to Roy Hodgson’s England squad, having previously been cruelly overlooked.
In midfield, despite obviously wanting to leave in the summer, Schneiderlin has been brilliant, somehow finding a new level and adding to his price tag with every game. The Frenchman is joined in midfield by the impressive Wanyama, and until his injury, young James Ward-Prowse. Having broken into the Saints first team last season, Ward-Prowse is undoubtedly the pick of an academy that shows no sign of drying up anytime soon; Sam Gallagher and Matthew Targget both also look destined for the starting XI.
How long this form can last remains to be seen, but it is worth noting that the Saints have already beaten Arsenal this season. It is early days, but with most of the traditional big sides making a slow start to the league, and the Saints so strong, they could throw a real cat amongst the pigeons in the competition for the European places. Southampton will probably not be able to substain the consistency needed to claim a Champions League spot, but Tottenham, Manchester United and Everton will all need to be careful not to take finishing fifth or sixth as a given if they miss out on the top four.