Southampton: The Premier League Phoenix

Written for the Late Tackle Magazine – explore how Southampton keep producing the goods, despite the sale of best players. 

Southampton FC have manifested themselves into the Premier League phoenix. This magical bird, supposedly consigned to mythology, crumbles into extinction, only to burst into flames and start a new cycle, invigorated and fresh-faced. Southampton’s uncanny ability to regenerate year-on-year questions the falsehood of its existence.

In the last four years, the Saints have lost their best players, in the forms of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane. Such an exodus would be enough to cause the collapse of even the most resourceful of clubs. The seacoast side have seen Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, some of their most successful managers in recent history, also depart.

Indeed, Pochettino’s final starting eleven in charge is entirely different to that chosen by Claude Puel against Bournemouth on 18th December, demonstrating the upheaval witnessed at St. Mary’s.

Pochettino’s final match: A Boruc – N. Clyne, J Fonte, D Lovren, L Shaw – M Schneiderlin V Wanyama, J Cork – S Davis, A Lallana, R Lambert.

Claude’s selection against Bournemouth: F Forster – C Soares, M Yoshida, V van Dijk, R Bertrand – P Hojberg, H Reed, J Clasie – N Redmond, S Boufal, J Rodriguez

Defying the laws of loss, Southampton have refused to accept failure: shrewd signings, an academy that actually produces, a resilient psychology and has led to their recent consistency in England’s top tier.

Entering into administration in the 2008/09 season and beginning the following campaign with a points deduction of ten, few would predict their blossoming in the Premier League just three years later. The spiral into which the club fell appears to have taught the hierarchical structures an important lesson: proceed with caution and act sensibly. They’ve certainly done so.

If anything at the club strikes of savviness, it’s their enviable recruitment process. Spotting the talents of Wanyama, Mane, Hojberg and van Dijk, to name but a few, is not as easy as Football Manager experts would have you believe.

Southampton scout Ross Wilson explained to the BBC, that the identifying of talent is built from “due diligence into [a player’s] background, finding out about their character, and speaking to people who have worked with them before”.

Wilson and his team will build a “whole dossier” that compares one player’s “statistics with other targets”.

Without this process, Southampton would not have Premier League status. The ability to replace gigantic size holes left by departing stars is a quality that has under pinned and laid the robust foundations necessary for the Saints’ consistency.

It’s not just players, either. Little was known about Pochettino as he walked into his first press conference as Saints’ boss. In fact, he was greeted with a perceptible mood of hostility as the consensus declared Nigel Adkins’ sacking unjust, having taken them from the gloom of League One to the glamour of the Premier League. Once more, Southampton’s research proved fruitful and the doubters were emphatically silenced. More was known about Ronald Koeman, as one would expect. The steely Dutchman was indeed a further pronouncement of the Saints’ successful recruitment team. Koeman left for Everton, and Claude Puel arrived; pundits and writers announced that this would be the year Southampton’s policy of selling their top talent finally caught up with them. Yet, those informed of Puel’s exploits with OGC Nice knew better, and so did Southampton.

Another way of combating the loss of your finest talent is to make your own. Academy structures have come under much criticism, accused of ignoring the finer arts of football and selecting physical youngsters rather than small, deft and technically gifted ones. No such crime is committed at St. Mary’s.

Their academy has an obvious history of producing immense talent – Gareth Bale, if you had forgotten – but in a Premier League environment where one loose pass can cost three points, Saints’ achievement in bringing about the seamless transition from academy to first team is even more laudable.

Luke Shaw was trusted by Pochettino, rewarding such faith, and then some. Most recently, central-midfielder Harrison Reed has been given opportunities. Southampton have no fewer than nine academy products in their official Premier League squad – the joint-most in the league. The club’s ability to not only foster academy talent, but to then integrate youth into the first team has enabled them to produce a squad that understands the identity of the club, ultimately engendering success: embrace the prevailing ethos, believe in the system and invariably one garners results.

Do something well, and you’re likely to do just as well a second time. Except, perhaps, in golf. It should thus come as no surprise that Puel’s Southampton are doing well, again.  Success breeds confidence and although maintaining Premier League status and pushing for Europe should be regarded within the realms of relative success, the experience of doing so previously spurs a belief they will do it once more.

Such an assertion is evidenced in the fashion in which Southampton responded to a poor start to the season; picking up just two points from their opening five games, the players used this permeable sense of belief to then obtain 13 points from the following five games. There is a discernible sense of conviction that perpetuates throughout Southampton, mirrored in their composed and assured performances on the pitch. They’ve done it before, they’ll do it again.

It’s not quite out with the old and in with the new at Southampton, but it’s close. They replace players because they’re poached rather than because they’re not the required quality anymore, but the proverb’s meaning is relatable. The constant exiting and incoming of faces should, if football has taught us anything, cause disruption and failure. The Saints are unique in the respect that the revolving door of players does not cause a jam in their cycle of success.

Within the complex web of dressing rooms exists a hierarchy. ‘Senior pros’ dominate the culture at a club and are often given deferential privilege, which can evoke a quietly brooding pool of resentment within a team. Superiority within a dressing room can be a defining characteristic of success – just look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams. But, it can also be a site of confliction, leading to poor performances. At Southampton, they do not have players who have been a part of the team for an extended period of time, due to the aforementioned loss of players; there appears to be an absence of supercilious behaviour. Every player is treated as an equal, every player has no less right to be there. There is no senior pro, infected with the disease of hubris, to germinate an atmosphere of deference. In its place is an environment where young players can thrive, new signings can quickly settle in and where a lack of dressing room hierarchy translates into a tangible sense of camaraderie.

Southampton FC should not be fighting for a European place. They probably shouldn’t even be in the Premier League. Yet, their sagacious recruitment team, remunerative academy system, resolute psychology and harmonious dressing room means they are. The Saints have resisted the temptation to accept their fate, instead using past failure to spurn a determined attitude: an attitude that translates into renewed vigour and quality.


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