Sport Editor Jack Pethick evaluates whether or not Southampton FC can maintain their challenge for a top four spot in what remains of this Barclays Premier League Season.
What was expected to be a miserable Christmas for many Southampton fans turned out out to be a reasonably successful one, one which I’m sure many a Southampton fan will be happy with as the new year begins. In a Christmas fixture list that included the likes of Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal, Southampton gained 10 points from a possible 12; a remarkable return when many questioned whether or not they could compete with the bigger teams this season. Yet despite proving many critics wrong over the festive period, many pundits still feel that Southampton will not be in and around the top four when the season closes in May.
The big question that remains then, is why? Why are many critics still not backing Southampton despite them not really putting a foot wrong this season? They have beaten the smaller teams quite comfortably this season, with the 8-0 victory at home to Sunderland serving as a great case in point. However, more importantly, they have also shown that they can compete with and even beat the bigger teams this season, with examples of this including a 3-0 win against Everton and a New Years Day 2-0 win against Arsenal.
I think that the fundamental reason for these doubts over Southampton is their squad size. Compared to the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal who are also competing for that top four spot at this moment in time, Southampton do not have the numbers. For example, take all three clubs’ recent fixtures. Arsenal’s substitute bench for the 2-1 victory against West Ham on the 27th December consisted of the likes of Kieran Gibbs, Lukas Podolski, David Ospina, Theo Walcott, Callum Chambers, Joel Campbell and Chuba Akpom. A large majority of these players are seasoned internationals who have proven their quality. Likewise, Tottenham’s bench against Manchester United on the same date, consisted of players such as Kyle Walker, Roberto Soldado, Michelle Vorm, Eric Lamela, Paulinho and Eric Dier. Again these are seasoned internationals, who if there are injuries to the first team, can be equal replacements to those lost through injury.
Southampton in contrast, do not have this backup. Their bench against Chelsea- again on the same date- consisted of Kelvin Davis, Florin Gardos, Shane Long, James Ward-Prowse, Lloyd Isgrove, Harrison Reed and Jason McCarthy. In contrast to the more experienced benches of Arsenal and Tottenham, many of these players have little experience playing for a top flight club or have only recently broken into the first team via the academy. Therefore, if Southampton were to receive any significant injuries to their usual starting eleven players, they may not have the experience to bring in to compete with the likes of Arsenal and Spurs.
The January transfer window for Southampton fans- as was the case for many in the Premier League- was particularly quiet, with Koeman bringing in only 2 new faces in that of Eljero Elia and Filip Duricic. With the issues on squad depth in mind, I’m sure many Southampton fans will mark this as a disappointing transfer window. Yet at the same time, the rather cliché phrase “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” also comes to mind. The current squad have not put a foot wrong thus far this season, and Koeman appears to be a manager who has faith in youth players to do the job. Whether such an attitude is the right one will be revealed as Southampton’s season progresses I’m sure
Although many Southampton fans will feel that their team’s form has dipped in recent weeks, there remains genuine and reasonable optimism for Southampton’s quest to reach the top four. Southampton will not play a team currently in the top six until March, so if they continue their recent form they will almost certainly still be in the mix come the race to the finish in April.
Regardless of whether or not Southampton achieve a top four spot- what would be a monumental success- Southampton fans I’m sure will already be happy with their season, considering that many had the team as a favourite to go down in August last year. They have punched well and truly above their weight with their squad size, perhaps testament to the manger that Ronald Koeman will become or rather already is.