Report card: Southampton press high up the pitch and division
In FourFourTwo's Season Preview guide, we pointed out that, whenever Southampton seemed to be moving forwards, something happened off the pitch which set them back. For a brief moment in December, the fear was that history may be about to repeat itself, with executive chairman Nicola Cortese stepping down and manager Mauricio Pochettino briefly rumoured to be following him out of the club.
Fortunately for Southampton, the Argentine stayed, and the South Coast club continued to establish themselves as a respected force in the Premier League. The key now will be getting the manager to commit himself for the longer term, with speculation again rife that he could be tempted by 'new challenges' over the summer. But this season will have given him plenty of reasons to stay.
Southampton's clutch of prodigious young talent stretches further than England trio Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez. Midfielder James Ward-Prowse, right-back Callum Chambers and forward Sam Gallagher have all impressed in the first team this season, and that's only just scratching the surface. The players and fans have bought into Pochettino's philosophy, and the club appears to be one not only moving in the right direction, but one with everyone on the same page.
The one sticking point is the club's debt. Southampton will soon fork over £30m for a new training ground, and also owe £27m in back transfer fees, £22m of which must be paid this summer. The board have insisted there will be no fire-sale, but even if they have to cash in on one of their rising stars, European qualification still looks a realistic aim for next season.
Would they have taken this in August?
Yes. This season has represented a big step forward for the club.
Would they have taken this in January?
Probably. Although there will be a certain degree of regret about their rather limp exit from the FA Cup (a weakened Saints team lost 2-1 to a then near-useless Sunderland in the fifth round), holding on to eighth place ahead of Newcastle, Stoke and the like will still be seen as a notable victory.
September's 1-0 win at Liverpool was certainly Southampton's best result of the season, but the 4-1 win over Hull on November 9 saw the Hampshire side play some gloriously pleasing football and left them proudly sitting third in the Premier League with over a quarter of the season played.
No sooner had Saints started to dream of reaching for the stars than they were brought back down to earth with a bump. The winter of 2013/14 was particularly harsh on Southampton, with Mauricio Pochettino's side picking up just five points from the nine matches following the aforementioned rout of Hull. By the time they'd lost 3-0 at home to Chelsea on New Year's Day, they were back down in seventh.
Hero of the season
After a mixed first season in the Premier League, Adam Lallana shone far more consistently in 2013/14. The 26-year-old (who was 25 for all but the final two days of the season) chipped in with nine goals and six assists, a big improvement on the three goals and five assists of 2012/13. His form has surely won him a place in England's World Cup squad, but, worryingly for Southampton, also admiring glances from bigger clubs.
Villain of the season
Dani Osvaldo is perhaps as close as Southampton have come to a villain within their own ranks. The Argentalian forward arrived to much fanfare last summer, but only came close to justifying his club-record £12.8m transfer fee in brief flashes. A week after he scored a sensational equaliser against Manchester City, he was banned for three matches and fined £40,000 for his part in a touchline tussle at St James' Park. He was then sent packing to Juventus (hard life, we know) after allegedly instigating a training ground scrap with fans' favourite Jose Fonte.
The season in microcosm
The 3-2 defeat at Tottenham - a match which Southampton had led 2-0 - summed up how the youthful Saints had the established big-hitters worried with their expansive, attacking football, but ultimately fell behind them when squads were rotated and quality (not to mention experience) was allowed to tell. Still, an impressive showing and plenty to take from it.
B+. Vigorous young student show great promise and should look to challenge for top grades.