Despite being tipped by many to struggle this season, Southampton are flying high. Rohan Banerjee considers their chances of finishing up in the Champions League spots...
After Shane Long’s brace secured a 2-0 win over Leicester last time out, Southampton have won eight of their last nine league games. As the Premier League resumes after the international break, they sit second in the table just four points behind leaders Chelsea.
It’s a position few would have predicted after the club’s summer selling spree saw the departures of key first-teamers in Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw.
Saints finished an impressive eighth last term, their highest-ever placing in the Premier League, but subsequently suffered at the hands of bigger clubs. Even boss Mauricio Pochettino was lured away by Spurs.
Talk of stability or Europe was soon replaced by the fear of relegation. Yet, fast-forward a few months and the prospect of relegation looks as unlikely as Jozy Altidore winning the Golden Boot.
See, Southampton’s mass exodus of players did have a silver lining – it yielded £92 million in transfer fees; and Saints, to their credit, resisted the temptation to simply bank it. Instead, most of that income has been wisely reinvested. The question now is: how sustainable is their rise?
Why they can...
Southampton have defied the odds. By most accounts, their summer sales should have seen them loiter closer to the bottom three, and that they have proved so many doubters wrong has instilled a great self-belief within the squad. Confidence plays a huge part in football and, generally speaking, players tend to perform at their peak when they’re in an assured frame of mind and can rely on the player next to them to do the right thing. Southampton are revelling in their superb run of form that sees them approach each game without fear. If they can maintain morale amid the inevitable hiccups, they may well mount a serious challenge.
They're a proper team
It’s tough to name a ‘bad’ Southampton player at the moment. There’s no obvious weak link and the team is set up well, with four of the Saints' back five starting every league game this season. Meanwhile, they have at least one good player in each position and all appear to complement each other well. Fraser Forster represents a reliable presence between the sticks, Ryan Bertrand has shone in Luke Shaw’s absence, and Morgan Schneiderlin’s defensive discipline has given Victor Wanyama license to roam, with the Kenyan scoring three goals in his last seven games. James Ward-Prowse provides trickery and width (when fit), Dusan Tadic offers a superb range of passing, and Graziano Pelle has taken to Premier League scoring seamlessly.
They've found Mr. Right
In Ronald Koeman, Saints have a highly experienced and capable manager. Proven on the continent and able to get the team playing exciting football, the Dutchman’s suitability for the Southampton job appears vindicated. He’s already managed to imprint his own style of play, but has shown he can also adapt when necessary. 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3 have been interchanged effortlessly as Southampton build a game on possession. The former Feyenoord boss is a well-respected name of European football and this could be key to attracting future talents or, more importantly, keeping hold of what he already has.
They've got few distractions
Southampton’s failure to qualify for Europe last season could be a blessing in disguise. While Spurs, Everton, Liverpool and even Arsenal stutter amid fixture congestion and the demands of multiple fronts, Saints, short of vying for the domestic treble, are able to concentrate on the league.
Why they won't...
Before we get carried away with Southampton’s flying start, it’s worth remembering that similar things were said about them around this time last year. Under Pochettino, Saints were 5th after nine games and only four points off the top. However, injuries gradually took their toll on a thin squad and the south-coasters faded away. Despite the reinvestment and improvement of the first team, Saints are still lacking depth. Even without European football, the league and cups provide opportunities to get injured. What happens without Tadic or Pelle for an extended run of games?
They get stage fright
While it’s certainly a giant step in the right direction that Saints tend to win games they should, the difference between finishing 4th and 5th could very well be a team’s capacity to win games they shouldn’t. In the first 10 fixtures of this season, Southampton have played two against teams that finished in last season's top seven – and lost both. While they might be able to dutifully see off the likes of Sunderland and Stoke, their ability to take points off direct rivals has so far been a cause for doubt. Between now and January 11, Saints face Manchester City, Arsenal (twice), Manchester United (twice), Everton and Chelsea within 10 games.
Bigger clubs still nick their players
For all their undeniable progress, Southampton are still a long way from disrupting the top club setup. The likes of Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Man United will continue to keep tabs on any emerging talent. They are able to offer much higher wages, and the prospect of guaranteed Champions League football inevitably makes heads turn. The loss of key players in January could potentially undo their hard work.
The sleeping giants will wake up
It’s fair to say that some of the bigger sides have had a slow start to the campaign, but it’s worth noting that reigning champions Man City actually failed to win five of their opening 11 games last season. City have endured a few dodgy results so far, but the inherent quality in the squad is likely to prevail. Down the road, Man United might be stop-start at the moment but time and another splash of cash in January will see them improve. Then there's Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham, who'll all be expecting to pick up soon.