The secret to surviving in the Premier League is not scoring goals, as legend would have you believe, but in not conceding them. For years we have been sagely informed that a team coming up from the Championship requires a natural goalscorer, otherwise they're doomed. Not so.
What they actually need is a crack defence. In every single season since the inception of the Premier League, the worst defence has always been relegated. In a brilliant piece on Football365 during the summer, Daniel Storey laid out the bare facts:
In the last three years, the average number of goals scored by a relegated side from the top flight is 43, whereas the average goals conceded is 72. In the same time period, the average goals scored of the three sides directly above this (i.e., surviving relegation in 15th, 16th and 17th) is also 43, but the goals conceded average is just 62, a difference of ten. The evident conclusion is that scoring more goals doesn't keep you up, conceding fewer does.
By this rationale, Southampton are going about avoiding "second-season syndrome" pretty well. There was uproar after the dismissal of Nigel Adkins last season, and without doubt it was a slightly shoddy way to treat a decent man who had taken the club from League One to the Premier League, but the logic of Southampton's board is being shown as sound. In Adkins' 22 games in charge last season, Southampton gained 22 points. In the 23 since Mauricio Pochettino's appointment, they've won 33 points.
And this is largely down to a virtually watertight defence. They have conceded just twice in seven games this season, and this from a team that on paper often looks irresponsibly cavalier in the way they set up. For their recent trip to Liverpool, Rickie Lambert, Dani Osvaldo, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana all started.
And this in addition to two full-backs in Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw who aren't exactly reticent when it comes to attacking. Of course that defence can be breached, and almost breached it was a number of times last time out against Swansea, but an inspired performance by Artur Boruc kept a clean sheet that day. When last season it looked like the key area Southampton needed to strengthen was in goal, the form of Boruc is a much-needed boost.
So with a potentially incredibly potent attacking lineup along with a strong defence, solidified by the summer recruitment of Dejan Lovren, Pochettino's side look like they will not only avoid relegation with some ease but could push on further. While it's obviously unlikely they will maintain their current fourth-place form, a top-10 finish looks not only likely but possible.
All of this should be the only evidence chief executive Nicola Cortese needs to justify the often unpopular changes that have taken place at St. Mary's, but he nonetheless defended the club this week.
Cortese was quoted on Sky Sports as saying:
We changed managers on the back of good results and people say 'Why do you change now?', especially in Nigel's case as we came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 (against Chelsea) at Stamford Bridge. But this is progress, especially when you have someone lined up.
Manchester United, who are Saints' opponents this weekend, should be concerned. They alleviated some of the pressure with a face-saving 2-1 win over Sunderland before the international break thanks to an inspired performance by Adnan Januzaj, and of course the inspired decision by David Moyes to play the youngster, but the underlying problems and fragilities were still there, problems that Southampton could easily exploit.
United's home defeat to West Brom last month was a shock. If they lose to Southampton, it will be much less of one.