SOUTHAMPTON — On an afternoon where Southampton stood the only club in the Premier League incapable of moving either up or down in the table, they could have been forgiven for taking their foot off the gas.
With the 2014 FIFA World Cup on the horizon and eighth place secured, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Co. deserve credit for their commitment to giving the home fans one last hurrah.
The St. Mary's crowd entered the stadium on Sunday in a conflicted mood: ready to cheer on their heroes in what has been a record-breaking season for the Saints, yet fearful of the fact that once the final whistle went, a summer of torment would start.
Lallana, Shaw, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jay Rodriguez, Dejan Lovren and others have all been linked to bigger, high-paying clubs in the last few months. A select few, notably Shaw, have been dogged for years with links away from the south coast.
The 2013-14 campaign has been one of exceptional growth for Mauricio Pochettino's troops, but when asked in the post-match conference following their final-day 1-1 draw with Manchester United, the Argentine point-blank refused to commit to the club long-term.
"We sit down tomorrow [with the board] and talk," he explained to the media. "It is the end of a five-year project started by Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese. We have achieved what we wanted: promotion from League One to the Premier League."
"Tomorrow, a new project must be formed. The club deserves a new project, and the board decides what it will be."
When drawn upon his commitment to the project Pochettino was noncommittal, preferring to state over and over: "I have one year left on my contract."
His hesitation is both obvious and understandable.
The former Espanyol manager stands guard over more than £100 million worth of playing assets, a young and hungry English team and an outstanding footballing philosophy that has his Saints playing some of the best stuff in the country.
It would be easy to commit to this squad for another four years; they're a manager's dream, but the question is whether or not the assets will still be intact come the first day of the 2014-15 season.
Lallana, Lovren and Schneiderlin could easily make the step to Champions League football tomorrow, with multiple clubs reportedly hovering around the players. Schneiderlin has been scouted by Arsenal, per The Daily Mail, Manchester United like the look of Lovren, per The Metro, and Liverpool want Lallana, per The Guardian.
All three are excellent players, boasting immense positional sense, elite technical talent and beautiful first touches, respectively. Saints will have to fight tooth and nail to keep suitors' hands off them this summer, and a strong World Cup from the latter two could tip the scales against them.
But some realism from the playing staff is required too, and one player in particular must temper his expectations.
Luke Shaw is not ready to step into the mire at a bigger, high-pressure club. The 18-year-old is raw defensively and prone to lunging in; while he attacks with aggression and flair, he's not the complete prospect yet—not by a long shot.
That's no slight on the player—he's 18 years of age, after all!—but a realistic assessment. Fans of the club hope this wasn't Shaw's final appearance in a Southampton shirt, and for the good of his development, he should be sticking around for another 12 months.
This Southampton side has been a wonderful watch and a bed for English talent to grow, and to rip it to shreds a year too early would be a monumental shame.
Not all will stay, that much is clear, but just how many leave will be the deciding factor in Pochettino's impending employment choice.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.