The nightmares of every Southampton fan that occurred the night of Mauricio Pochettino’s departure appear to have been realised. A mass exodus of the wildest proportions, as the spinal cord of a club who achieved their highest ever league finish last season ceases to exist. With Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw and Dejan Lovren already completing moves to bigger clubs, the likes of Calum Chambers and Morgan Schneiderlin seem to be the next on the list of northerly exports.
Many already would consider Southampton lucky to finish atop of that dreaded 18th place next season. Social media have of course exaggerated the situation humorously, with the latest gag being that Dani Osvaldo failed to report for pre season after leaving because he couldn’t find any of his teammates. However evidence would suggest that it is not all doom and gloom at St Mary’s. Although European contention looks to be highly improbable, condemning them to failure is foolish. It’s easy to forget the extent to which they were underdogs at the beginning of last season, simply because they played so well consistently that they established themselves outside the realms of surprise packages. The club has a stylish and effective philosophy embedded from the youth system upwards that ensures that, regardless of the personnel, Southampton will thrive on the pitch.
The appointment of Ronald Koeman emphasises this approach. As a player, Koeman brought technical flair to the centre of defence before it was made fashionable by the likes of Rio Ferdinand and David Luiz. One of the best attacking centre backs of all time, he is the top scoring defender in world football and continued the famous ‘Total Football’ era of the Dutch alongside the likes of Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp, a style of play that Southampton came close to replicating last season. This is reflected in his managerial attitude, with spells at the ‘tradition big three’ of the Dutch league (Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord) as well as tenures at Benfica, AZ and Valencia.
While this all seems rather impressive, his managerial CV does contain several blemishes, as his Valencia team of 2008 slumped to 15th in the league, only two points above the relegation zone. He also lost 7 of his first 16 league matches with AZ, and was sacked on both occasions. At a time when Southampton are in desperate need of stability and a manager who can take their aspiring young talent into the future, he doesn’t appear to stick around for very long either. So whilst you can guarantee an attempt at free flowing, attacking and entertaining football, his success will be interesting to follow.
In addition to this, he has also inherited a squad filled to the brim with talent. Claims that Southampton have lost all their best players are not only disrespectful, but false. Jay Rodriguez was the club’s top scorer last season and probably would’ve had Lambert’s seat on the plane to Brazil had he not suffered the most unfortunate of injuries. If Koeman can fend off interest from Spurs and hang onto the number 9, he will be partnered up top by the superb signing of Graziano Pellè. Hardly a joy for any Premier League defence to deal with. If you chuck Steven Davis or Gaston Ramirez in behind the two, you’re left with an immensely threatening attacking set up.
Defensively, the retention of Jose Fonte will be key, with Maya Yoshida likely to fill Lovren’s boots as he did splendidly well for a small part of last season. Artur Boruc has been up there with the best goalkeepers in the league, whilst holding midfielders Jack Cork, Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin were enormously unsung in the success story that was last season.
Further to this of course, you’ve got a youth system known worldwide for its ability to develop youngsters into wonderful first team footballers at the highest level. Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and more recently Luke Shaw, just to name a few. In a football world where academies appear to be growingly futile, Southampton have really shown their worth.
They do, however, find themselves trapped in a viscous cycle at the hands of financial power. As these young, talented players develop, they become more ambitious, and succumb to interest from bigger clubs with a larger wage bill, even at the expense of first team football. Understandably so, given the potential shortness of a football career, although I’m sure a lot of us would like to think that first team football should be what motivates a professional footballer. As Southampton aren’t a big club themselves (in the context of the Premier League), they can neither retain the best players they produce, nor attract the top players with the profit they are sold for. Therefore their youth system simply becomes a way to save money through the production of players, and a profit generator thereafter. This is the unfortunate nature of the Premier League.
Nevertheless, it means that Southampton are always likely to have someone in the wings. James Ward-Prowse looks likely to be the next big thing, having been at Southampton’s academy since the age of eight, and with the likes of Sam McQueen and Omar Rowe already breaking into the first team, there will always be plenty of quality to call upon.
So you’d hope that, despite the initial shock and panic at the volume of top players leaving in such a short space of time, it’s not all doom and gloom. Southampton should have both the manager and the squad to avoid the threat of relegation and, with a bit of luck, further establish their top-half status.