We figured that, by the turn of the year, we'd have a better idea of what exactly Southampton were. Are they a real threat to the Premier League's giants? Are they a club that could hang on to their top-four place? Or is their hot first half of the season a blip, a bit of good fortune that would sooner or later peter out, leading to a predictably comfortable yet unthreatening top ten finish?
What we've come to realize is that Southampton have entered that strange zone of Premier League upper-middle-class teams, usually stuck in the purgatory of top-four aspirations made implausible by financial realities but, every couple years or so, still overcome Europa League ennui and put up a real fight for the Champions League places.
As recently as a month ago, Southampton were flying high. They shocked everyone by sitting second in the table 12 matches into the season on the strength of performances that convinced many that this was no fluke. Their record was no doubt buoyed by their lopsided schedule, which saved most of their most difficult fixtures for the month of December, but consistently beating teams from the bottom half of the table is how the other big clubs rack up most of their points, and is usually indicative of a team's quality. Arsenal sure don't finish fourth every season by coming up big against their top four rivals.
But from late November into December, they went on a four match losing streak in the league, getting beat by Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, and even lowly Burnley. They salvaged their crucial turn-of-the-year run with wins over Everton and Arsenal, plus a draw against league-leading Chelsea, but still, their barnstorming start was sullied a bit by getting humbled by the big boys.
Nevertheless, Southampton remain in the thick of things. The most surprising part of Southampton's run has been how they've managed to turn this past summer's squad raid into an even better team this season. They lost two of their three top goal scorers, who were also in the top three in assists in Ricky Lambert and Adam Lallana, saw two of their most promising teen sensations in Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers get snapped up by Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively, heard two of their remaining best players in Morgan Schneiderlin and the injured Jay Rodriguez mentioned in all kinds of transfer rumors, and even had to part with their heralded manager, Mauricio Pochettino, now of Tottenham. By the start of the season, the Saints appeared more likely to be involved in a relegation fight than a Champions League run.
As debilitating as all those departures seemed in the moment, though, the replacement players the club brought in have performed just as well as their predecessors, and in some cases, better. Chief among the new Saints in terms of on-field impact have been the Eredivisie duo of Graziano Pellè and Dušan Tadić. The late-blooming Pellè, who just last season was tearing up the Dutch league under the leadership of new Southampton manager Ronald Koeman, has been scoring at an even more impressive rate than Lambert. His eight goals in 20 league appearances has him tied for sixth in the EPL golden boot race. Pellè and Lambert are similar players, typical penalty-box poachers who can finish with their feet and their foreheads, as well as being more creative passers than the typical lumbering center forward. And Pellè's a few years younger, to boot (and still good).
Tadić, though, has been the key to the Southampton attack. The Serbian playmaker can create shooting opportunities for himself and others from all sorts of positions on the pitch, evinced in his seven assists and average of 2.9 key passes per game (numbers that rank third and second in the league, respectively). He's a more deliberate player than Lallana was, less prone to rampaging runs through the defense (and the dispossessions that come along with them) and more intent on collecting the ball and exchanging neat, accurate passes with the forwards. Tadić hasn't replicated the goal scoring form he was known for in the Eredivisie, but still manages to crack off a couple shots every game. If his finishing improves, the 26-year-old could go down as one of the best signings in recent memory.
While the new signings have revamped the attack, the consistent presence of many of the defensive players is the real foundation of this team. Southampton had one of the better defenses of in the league last season, and they've improved upon that to boast the best back line in the league this year. Not only have they allowed the fewest goals, they also limit opponents to the fewest number of shots, average the most tackles, and are tied for second in the league for most offside calls per game. (All stats via Who Scored.) Those numbers hint at the Saints' defensive style. They are a high-pressing, high-line defense that attacks the ball en masse in defense, either winning the ball back before opponents get into shooting position or catching them offside when they try to sneak in behind. Pochettino implemented this philosophy, and Koeman has made it even better.
Defending in that style requires coordinated synergy throughout the entire team, principally between midfield and the back four. It probably helps that five of the regular players in the those two areas of the pitch were all regular contributors last season. The whole team plays with an understanding and togetherness best forged over dozens and dozens of games on the same pitch. Nathaniel Clyne and especially midfield maestro Morgan Schneiderlin are a couple of the best players in the league at their respective positions, but the other defensive-minded guys are just very solid role players who know exactly what they need to do and can execute.
That last point, that Southampton are a squad of a few near-elite players supported by a number of damn good ones is both why the team is worth watching and why they only challenge for anything of import on exceedingly rare occasions. It's a problem faced by all teams in the EPL's bourgeois class, one the likes of Tottenham, Everton, Newcastle, and now Southampton find themselves wrestling with every year. These clubs can ride players like Gareth Bale, Christian Eriksen, Yohan Cabaye, Leighton Baines, and Ross Barkley for a little while usually, while they're still developing into the players they'll become or are still anonymous enough to fly under the radars of the world's top teams. When it's an Eriksen they strike upon, they'll be treated to some attractive play that will keep them high enough in the table never to seriously consider relegation, but realistically won't take them much higher than Europa League contention. When it's a Bale, they'll feel they have a real shot at the top four and just might eke out a Champions League qualification or two.
The problem, of course, is that sooner or later, one of the big clubs will come knocking. Cabaye might love the support from Newcastle fans, but PSG's money and ever-expanding trophy cabinet is often too much to pass up, even if it means switching roles from from a key player to a rotation option. Bale might enjoy being so close to home, knowing the language and culture, and being one of the premier attractions in the whole league, but being made the most expensive transfer of all time by the most famous club in the world will always turn a player's head.
Teams in this zone not only have a hard time convincing players to fight anything more than a respectable league position, as if there were a huge difference between sixth and 12th, even fans and the clubs themselves are unsure what exactly to want. Tottenham fans know their club isn't likely to pip the bigger clubs for fourth, especially when there are now five teams with massive wallets far outweighing their own who come into every season feeling it's at a minimum Champions League or bust. Yet they still cling to this hope, and will even turn on managers and the board when they don't deliver what was always a long shot. The others like Everton and Southampton are more sanguine about their fortunes, and focus more on enjoying those rare moments of bliss when a good Champions League push does come together, as it did for Everton last season and the Saints so far this year. Still, when dropping back to reality in subsequent years, as Roberto Martino's Everton has done this year, it's hard to remember the inevitable sine curve and instead focus on the fact that you've fallen.
As hard as it might be in the world of sports, in which the participants by necessity must approach things with the stark, black-and-white, "We won or we lost" mentality, we have to remember that what makes the game great is the game itself; the brilliant goals, the mind-bending dribbles, the "holy shit, did he really just do that?!" moments of spontaneous coordination when, as Brian Phillips has said, the players somehow manage to impose a moment of order upon chaos. The teams and players that can manage this feat most regularly are the ones we should be watching. And more often than not, those upper-middle class EPL teams are among the top 15 or so teams capable of doing so.
So whether or not Southampton can win the title—they can't—or even finish third or fourth—they probably won't, but they might—they will definitely play some damn fine soccer on the way toward their uncertain destination. The rest is just decoration.
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