Southampton: The Rising Stars of European Football
There are a number of teams across Europe about whom this article could have been based. However, no side across the continent has risen so high, in such a remarkably short period of time, whilst playing such attractive football as Southampton.
When Southampton Chairman Nicola Cortese took the decision to sack manager Nigel Adkins in January, following two successive promotions during his two-and-a-half years at the club, the move was met with outrage.
Adkins, the former physiotherapist who worked wonders at lowly Scunthorpe United prior to his arrival on the south coast, was a major fans favourite at St Mary's Stadium, having taken the club from the depths of League One into the Premier League.
What a joke Nigel Adkins sacked & replaced already!!! He has done a brilliant job & deserves the freedom of Southampton not the SACK— Chris Kamara (@chris_kammy) January 18, 2013
Nevertheless, Cortese took the decision to relieve Adkins of his duties, despite the Saints being three points clear of the relegation zone and having just fought back from two goals down to secure an unlikely 2-2 draw at reigning European champions Chelsea.
Whilst we acknowledge the contribution Nigel has made during the past two years, for the club to progress and achieve our long-term targets a change was needed. (Club Statement)
It was perhaps harsh, but Cortese had no time for sentiment, and immediately unveiled the former Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino as Adkins' successor.
It is a move that within three months has not only been vindicated, but has the Saints looking toward a particularly bright future.
With six games remaining of the current season, Southampton lie 11th in the Premier League, seven points clear of the drop zone, having picked up 16 points in 11 matches since the Argentinian's arrival. During that period they've beaten the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, whilst Sir Alex Ferguson hailed them as "the best side to visit Old Trafford this season" following their league encounter on January 30 —a mere 12 days into Pochettino's tenure.
Under the guidance of Adkins, Southampton were an attractive side to watch, throughout League One, the Championship and the early part of this season. The 47-year-old always wanted his side to enjoy their work and to entertain.
And under Pochettino, that shtick has remained. However, what has improved markedly is the defensive side to the game (only 10 goals conceded in 11 games) and the aggressive approach the Saints are now showing to opponents with regards to winning back possession.
At Espanyol, he created a system of high pressure, fast passing, dominating possession and incorporating rapid transitions. It is these values that the 40-year-old Santa Fe native has looked to instill into his new team, and it is a philosophy that the Southampton players appear to be embracing.
Since his arrival, the Saints have made twice as many interceptions in the opposing half (average per game) as they had under Adkins this season (Squawka), whilst club captain Adam Lallana said after the recent away win at Reading that the club are making progress:
We have progressed. We've got a different manager who's got a different culture about him and different methods and he's gradually getting them across.
It must have (helped us). We're sitting higher in the league, we're scoring more goals and the table speaks for itself. (Mirror)
Indeed, the Saints now look as though they truly belong in the Premier League and a number of players are flourishing under Pochettino; perhaps most notably Jay Rodriguez.
Signed from Burnley in the summer for £6 million, the former England under-21 international wasn't a regular under Adkins, who didn't seem to know where best to fit the player in his 4-2-3-1 formation.
However, under Pochettino, Rodriguez has been a regular starter, often from a wide position on the left of the attacking triumvirate. And with his raw pace, running ability and intelligent movement, he has posed problems to opposing defences as shown by his goal against Liverpool recently:
Yet, whilst he has come in for a number of plaudits during his recent purple patch, he is far from the only player to thrive under the new manager.
Morgan Schneiderlin, a player of decent pedigree at international level having represented France at every age group bar senior level, has been outstanding in the centre of midfield, making more interceptions than any other Premier League player this season (Opta). Furthermore, he has scored more goals this season (five) than in the total of his previous four seasons at St Mary's.
Both full-backs, Nathaniel Clyne and in particular 17-year-old Luke Shaw, look as though they're potential England internationals. Both are quick and back up play in the offensive third well, but don't shirk their defensive duties.
Rickie Lambert continues to excel at the point of the Saints attack, his clever movement, strength and technical ability making up for whatever lack of pace he may have—he is the top-scoring Englishman in the Premier League in his debut season.
Where will Southampton finish in the 2013/14 Premier League?
Additionally, the likes of Uruguayan playmaker Gaston Ramirez and Japanese defender Mayo Yoshida look to have settled into English life after rather indifferent starts to the season, whilst the aforementioned Lallana, a very astute technician, is hopefully over his injury troubles.
As a collective, they show great promise, and a number of players (Shaw, Schneiderlin, Lallana, amongst others) have recently signed new long-term contracts as the club looks toward the future and cementing its place in the Premier League.
From what Pochettino and his side have shown over the last three months, and with the promise of money to spend on new talent in the summer, that future could be exceedingly bright. With another four months and a full preseason under their belts, Southampton will be one to watch in 2013/14.
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