Why Southampton Will Win Over Premier League Neutrals This Season
Every year there is one team in every league that impresses neutrals with their vibrancy, technical ability and, above all, productive football.
While it is very rare that a team challenging for titles will win universal acclaim—owing to the number of rival sides they possess—there are always sides lower down the division who stand out for their performance levels.
In the Premier League last year, there was no doubt Swansea under Michael Laudrup drew the plaudits from the general football supporter. The year before, it was Newcastle United.
But who will that side be in the 2013-14 season?
So, why Southampton? The Saints had a good first season in the Premier League and, although manager Nigel Adkins was replaced late in the campaign, there was never really any danger of relegation for the South Coast side.
Replacing Adkins was Mauricio Pochettino—an Argentinian manager best known in England for his role in conceding a penalty at the 2002 World Cup. He is, however, an accomplished manager, a personable individual and, consequently, a popular figure among football supporters.
From the time of the Argentine's arrival, the side's possession statistics increased (51 to 55 percent), the number of chances created per game increased (9.3 to 10.9/game) and, as a consequence, the side's points total also rose at a better rate.
Under Pochettino, while they may still have conceded too many goals, Southampton played good football and made the most of their limited talent pool compared to many of their rivals.
The club have, though, sought to add real quality over the summer and, rather than recruit extensively, splashed significant funds on just a trio of players.
A combined £35 million has seen centre-back Dejan Lovren, midfielder Victor Wanyama and striker Pablo Osvaldo arrive at St Mary's Stadium. The new television revenue in the Premier League has made such signings possible and there is no doubt that all three are an improvement on existing options.
Lovren, who has had ups and downs in his time in France, will strengthen what was at times a weak defence, Wanyama adds industry and power in midfield and Osvaldo adds a strong but technical element to the attack.
On paper, all three should complement well the strong existing team unit.
However, it is not the quality of players on offer, or even a young, charismatic manager that is Saints' real appeal to the neutral. Rather, it is the club's excellent youth development system and the faith of the coach in the talents coming through.
Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are, of course, the club's three highest-profile youth academy graduates of recent years, but there is still plenty more talent coming through the system.
In last Saturday's opening Premier League fixture of the new campaign, Southampton sent out a starting XI remarkably containing three 18-year-olds.
Such trust in young players is almost unheard of in top-flight football and especially in recent years of the Premier League.
Left-back Luke Shaw is perhaps the best of the trio and is tipped to be a regular international in the future, where he could well be joined by central midfielder James Ward-Prowse.
At right-back, meanwhile, Calum Chambers may have been a surprise inclusion, but the England Under-19 international gave a fine demonstration of his talents and will surely be handed further chances to impress.
Add to that a handful of young English players acquired from other clubs in Jay Rodriguez, Jack Cork (both 24) and Nathaniel Clyne (22), and the Saints become a real beacon of light in a league lacking in domestic talents.
A late penalty converted by man-of-the-moment Rickie Lambert handed Southampton a confidence-boosting 1-0 away win over West Brom on the opening day of the season, and they will now hope to build on that success against Sunderland this weekend.
Improving upon last season's 14th-place finish will be the realistic expectation for this campaign and, having strengthened, they have the players with which to do so.
If they can fully integrate their new signings—particularly potential match-winner Osvaldo—quickly into the team's system, they will have no worries as the season progresses.
They will play attractive football under Pochettino—that is without doubt.
If they can manage to do so while also picking up impressive results, there is no reason why Southampton cannot be the neutrals' favourite side this season.
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