5 Biggest Biggest Secrets of Southampton's Success This Season This Season
Southampton are flying high this season after putting together a superb opening 10-game slate.
Some analysts saw it coming, and in preseason suggested the Saints would be challenging for a UEFA Europa League place, while others have been caught by surprise.
Whether they have the stamina to achieve that is another question entirely, but what's abundantly clear is that Mauricio Pochettino's men have improved exponentially over the last eight months and look genuine top-half contenders.
Here, we divulge five of Southampton's biggest secrets to success this season.
Team Spirit, Via Youth
Teams can take two possible routes upward: recruit vast amounts of talent and breed camaraderie, trust, confidence and team spirit.
It's fair to say Southampton have done a little of both this season so far, but the basis of this side—and why it's so comfortable in its own skin—is the youthful core drafted in from both the academy and fellow clubs.
A trusting bond has formed between the likes of Jay Rodriguez, Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, James Ward-Prowse and co. They're all the same sort of age, and they're all buddies—the best form of team chemistry.
It's reminiscent of Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa in 2009 who were top at Christmas and eight points clear of Arsenal in fourth at one stage. The bond young players form in a side can lead them to believe they will win every game.
Strengthening the Spine
This time last year Southampton had accumulated four points, sat in the relegation zone and had already lost an astonishing eight matches.
This year they're sixth—one point off second!—and have conceded a league-best four Premier League goals.
It's a dramatic change, and it's come about thanks to natural player growth and key additions in the summer window. Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw have developed quickly, Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren have signed and Jose Fonte has upped his game considerably.
Teams fear attacking Mauricio Pochettino's Saints, as with two world-class defensive midfielders shielding a watertight defensive line, players struggle to find a way in.
The back six never changes (barring injury), and that provides immense continuity and stability in the most important area of the pitch.
Last season it was pretty obvious what you were going to get when facing Southampton.
Under Nigel Adkins it was all-out attack regardless of the venue or opposition, while under Mauricio Pochettino it was press, press, press until they win the ball back.
That's changed this season, as "Poch" has sought to bring about a far more diverse range of tactics to choose from in an effort to become less predictable.
Sometimes they press high, sometimes they don't; the formation changes consistently to accommodate certain players while protecting others. Opposing managers have nightmares game-planning for the visit of Southampton, and that's exactly what keeps your winning streaks alive: versatility in the tactical department.
In the opening home fixture of the season, against Sunderland, James Ward-Prowse was moved to the right side. His goal was to protect the inexperienced Callum Chambers and fire in accurate crosses for Rickie Lambert. He played rather well despite being a central player.
Full-back balance is something every manager at every club should strive for, but it remains an art that many ignore (at their own peril).
Mauricio Pochettino has landed himself a perfect English duo at full-back in Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw.
The former flies forward with regularity, boasts ridiculous speed and has a real impact in the final third. The latter drops in when Clyne attacks, solidifying the formation by retaining a three-man defence presence.
This gives Saints a solid base at all times, and that both full-backs aren't pushing on at the same time is important. It allows the midfielders to venture forward and attempt interceptions and turnovers in advanced areas and gives the attacking players the right to exclusively attack for chunks of the match.
Fluidity in Attack
So you're up against Southampton, and they've named Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Daniel Osvaldo, Jay Rodriguez and James Ward-Prowse in the starting XI.
What formation is it? 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or something else entirely? It's extremely difficult to tell, and often Mauricio Pochettino moves his attackers around during the game to change the shape for five-10 minute periods.
Within that group of attackers Saints carry aerial threat, pace, trickery, guile and technique in abundance. As a full-back you could be facing the blistering Rodriguez one minute, then trying to keep track of Lallana's step-overs the next. It's chaos.
Before Osvaldo arrived you always knew Lambert was to be the focal point, but now even that notion cannot be guaranteed. How the front line shapes up is near impossible to guess before kick-off.