Friday, 1 November 2013

The Saints Are Coming...

The journey that Southampton Football Club has taken over the past four years is remarkable. Premier League mainstays during the 1990s and early 2000s, they were relegated to the third tier of English football in 2009, entering administration and incurring a -10 point start to the following season. The very existence of the club was under serious threat until Markus Liebherr bought them in the summer of 2009. This deal was orchestrated by an Italian banker, Nicola Cortese, who to this day remains the executive chairman of Southampton.

Liebherr and Cortese. Southampton's saviours.

Under Liebherr's ownership the club suddenly found them in a much stronger position than any recent times. Strangely enough, the first player purchased under the new regime was one Rickie Lambert. Bought from Bristol Rovers for £800,000. Now able to outspend their League One rivals, they clinched promotion back to the Championship in 2011 and with virtually the same squad, achieved a second promotion a year later, this time returning to the top tier for the first time since 2005 when the decline that brought them to the brink of liquidation had begun.

Nigel Adkins was the man to oversee most of this. He took over from Alan Pardew in what was a turmulous month for the club, August 2010. This was a month which also saw the death of their financial saviour Liebherr and the club's ownership pass into the hands of his daughter. Once he arrived in the Premier League the owner's reached into their pockets once more, shelling out upwards of £25million of the likes of Jay Rodriguez, Gaston Ramirez and the experienced Steve Davis. Adkins made a total of eight new signings that summer.

Adkins dismissal was more than harsh

The middle of the Premier League is where I think Adkins reached his ceiling in terms of football management and the only way he could have gone was down. He's a good manager, evident by his two consecutive promotions but the board felt a different man would be needed if they were to progress to the next level which they obviously aspired to. With the club in 15th place in mid January, the popular Nigel Adkins was unceremoniously sacked and replaced immediately with little-known Argentine Mauricio Pochettino in one of the harshest Premier League manager dismissals of all time.

"I'm absolutely stunned and I think it's another case of a deluded chairman who doesn't understand football" - today this quote from Jamie Redknapp makes him look rather foolish but at the time it was the general consensus that Adkins had got a very very raw deal indeed and Pochettino would never be welcomed at the club. How wrong that has turned out. 

Pochettino spent much of his playing career under the guidance of Marcelo Bielsa, playing for Newell's, Espanyol and the Argentina national team. If you don't know who Bielsa is, I'd recommend reading quite a lot about him. A fascinating character. Most recently he coached Athletico Bilbao to the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals in 2012, earning praise from Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola who called him 'the best coach in the world'.

Pochettino and Bielsa: The apprentice and the master

Bielsa was always a fan of a defensive pressing game combined with fluid attacking moves. Pochettino it seems is no different. The Argentine's effect on Southampton was immediate. Twelve days after his appointment, Southampton travelled to Old Trafford and absolutely played the champions elect off the park, taking the lead before being unlucky to lose 2-1. He played with a high defensive line, pressing United in midfield, something they were not used to in games like these at Old Trafford.

The impressive performances continued, albeit not as consistently as this season. Southampton beat Liverpool and Chelsea at St.Mary's before the season was out en route to 14th place. One position higher than when Adkins was sacked. Not entirely justified. Not yet.

Pochettino hasn't needed time to make his mark

One trait all great managers have is knowing exactly what type of player they need to strengthen their team. Pochettino demonstrated this quality brilliantly during the summer. He brought in a quality centre half in Dejan Lovren, a midfield powerhouse in Victor Wanyama and added some flair up front signing Dani Osvaldo from Roma. The first two have been instant hits while Osvaldo is demonstrating flashes of quality but still finding his feet. 

Part of Pochettino's philosophy has been that attack is the first line of defence. The pressing game and closing down starts with the forward players Rickie Lambert, Osvaldo and/or Adam Lallana put pressure on the opposing defenders, never allowing them time to pick the right pass. Should the ball arrive in midfield, the responsibility of closing down passes to Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin. Should the ball enter the Southampton half, they shift to two defensive blocs of four, which has proved a tough unit to break down, evident by the mere three goals they've conceded in the league.

Saints defensive structure
Southampton seem to have mastered the art of fouling. They have given away more fouls than anyone else in the division yet find themselves with the best disciplinary record (11 yellows, 0 reds). The reason for this is the majority of their fouls are deliberate cynical ones aimed at stopping the opposition finding any rhythm rather than wild lunges which are more likely to earn cards. This 'tactical fouling' may not be popular among critics but it has served Pochettino well.

Going forward, Southampton are just as impressive. It's not all short passes and tiki-taka football. Southampton actually lead the league in long balls, played primarily towards their two strikers, Osvaldo and Lambert as well as set pieces launched into the box.

That said, Southampton do play some lovely football when they have the ball on the ground. The link-up play involving the full-backs is extraordinary to watch at times. Luke Shaw returned from injury against Fulham last week and was excellent. Nathaniel Clyne has been a regular on the other flank, linking up with James Ward-Prowse or Lallana. All exciting talents. All English.

Saints attacking structure
The key here is overloading in the middle. Lambert leads the line and the three behind him try to arrive late for one of the full back crosses. Schneiderlin and Wanyama sit a bit deeper, to protect against a counter and will only try long shots or get forward in risk-free situations. Only Man United have played more crosses than Southampton in the Premier League this season.

Two things required to make this system work are fitness and discipline. Pochettino's training regime's apparently involve a lot of running. The fitness of the two full-backs in particular is key as they will be up and down that line constantly during the game. As the team defends as a unit when they don't have the ball, each player must be sharp and focused. One player slacking off could lead to the collapse of the defensive structure. Thankfully for them it's rarely happened.

Southampton say they are aiming for top four this season which is slightly over-ambitious. Given the open nature of the league this year, anything is possible. Although I feel they probably lack the star quality at the moment to make it into Europe, this is certainly a team to watch over the coming years. The owners are not afraid to reach into their pockets and Pochettino has shown he can spend wisely. Very exciting times to be a Saints fan.

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