Les Reed's managerial career consisted of one disastrous six-week spell in charge of Charlton Athletic in late 2006, a campaign that saw the Addicks eventually relegated from the Premier League. Charlton have not been back to the top flight since.
It was a comically poor stint, with Charlton winning just one game and going out of the League Cup to League Two side Wycombe Wanderers in the process (Reed would be replaced by Alan Pardew, who could not reverse the damage). Eight years on, however, one of the worst managers in Premier League history has overseen one of the most remarkable revivals in recent English football memory.
As executive director at Southampton, Reed has helped guide the club from League One back to the upper half of the Premier League. In the process, he's helped overhaul a youth system that has produced the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers. He's also refined a recruitment approach that enabled the seamless summer acquisitions of players like Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic.
Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola famously believes that the first and last eight league games of a season are crucial—you can lose a league in the first period, and only really win it in the run-in. After 10 games, Southampton are second in the league, only four points behind leaders Chelsea. By Guardiola's criteria, they might be the Blues' only possible, viable challengers this season.
More realistically, however, perhaps the Champions League is a genuine aspiration for Saints this season. As manager Ronald Koeman said on Thursday (per Eurosport):
We know our situation and we know our ambitions but we live game by game, and it is not important and not necessary to look more forward because, in my opinion, that is not the best way to be successful.
Of course we would like to continue in the good direction the club has been going in the last three or four years. The next step is playing in Europe, we know that.
It is a dream for the club and a dream for the fans. We have to do it but I have confidence that we can reach that.
Perhaps this is a false dawn and, as many suspect, Southampton will regress to somewhere nearer eighth over the course of the campaign. But 10 games is enough time to at least give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest that might not be the case. Saints have been exceptional defensively so far and always look like scoring, a combination that is likely to serve them well over the course of a full campaign.
On Wednesday, the club launched a new £30 million training complex. It's a state-of-the-art base that brings together everything they have been working on over the last few years. Academy prospects train alongside, but separately from, the first team, while specific areas have been built for transfer discussions and team meetings.
It is the next wave for a club that is already talking about its "way" of doing things—avoiding quick decisions, exploring every angle and always giving the next wave a chance to replace the old.
As Reed told Jacob Steinberg of the Guardian this week:
What’s satisfying is that what we call the Southampton Way worked. Keep your focus, don’t panic, you know you’ve got systems and processes in place. There’s no knee-jerk reaction here. Stick to it. See it through. What’s satisfying is we’ve done that and it’s come to fruition. …
…My gut feeling is that we will maintain a position at the top end of the Premier League. Whether that’s eighth—where we finished last year—or first, I don’t know. There’s a long way to go. I feel we will sustain a position in that area, given a fair wind and no horrendous run of injuries.
Such confidence is interesting, but it might not be misplaced. Before too long, it won't just be the young players that other clubs are coming to Southampton to steal. It might be the ideas and methods, too.
Week 11 Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. GMT (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
Liverpool vs. Chelsea (12:45 p.m.)
Burnley vs. Hull City
Manchester United vs. Crystal Palace
Southampton vs. Leicester City
West Ham vs. Aston Villa
QPR vs. Manchester City (5:30 p.m.)
Sunderland vs. Everton (1:30 p.m.)
Tottenham vs. Stoke City (1:30 p.m.)
West Brom vs. Newcastle (1:30 p.m.)
Swansea City vs. Arsenal (4 p.m.)
1. What to watch out for this week
Hammers also on the rise
Considering the above praise for Southampton, it would be remiss of us not to offer similar glowing praise for West Ham United at this stage of the season. After Southampton won the awards double in September—Player of the Month for Pelle, Manager of the Month for Koeman—in October it was the Hammers' turn, with Diafra Sakho and Sam Allardyce receiving the awards on Friday.
Everything seems to have turned around for the east Londoners this term, thanks mainly to the attacking stars they have brought in and the renewed form of Stewart Downing. The winger-turned-No. 10 is back in the England squad, although it is a safe bet he won't play in his new role against Slovenia or Scotland (sometimes you do wonder if Roy Hodgson has any sort of plan).
Allardyce might not care, however. It has been one of the most inspired decisions of the season, almost akin to Guardiola turning Philipp Lahm into a midfielder, and Big Sam deserves plenty of credit for it.
No better time to face Manchester City
QPR manager Harry Redknapp may well be licking his lips at the chance to face Manchester City right now. Not only are Manuel Pellegrini's side low on confidence after the Champions League defeat to CSKA Moscow, but CSKA midfielder Pontus Wernbloom gave away the game plan on how to beat City with some of his post-match comments.
Wernbloom told UEFA.com (via Ian Herbert of The Independent):
We’ve played them four times now in two years and we know they’re going to give us space because like I said before they come forward in big numbers against us—almost eight men who are staying with two central defenders. We know that [Seydou] Doumbia is faster than them and if we just get out the press and get the first pass away from them, when they press us, we know we can counter them out and we managed to do that especially in the first half.
Queens Park Rangers, in Eduardo Vargas, seem to have a similar player to Doumbia and could try to replicate the same game plan. Pellegrini, of course, might anticipate this—but that is where the chess match comes into play.
Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what Redknapp does in this game and whether it causes City similar pain.
Warnock and Palace need to shape up
Since arriving at Crystal Palace, Neil Warnock seems to have complained more about referees than the low number of points his side has picked up. Yes, some of the decisions during the club's 3-1 Monday night defeat to Sunderland were poor, but that was not the only reason the Eagles lost.
To focus on the officiating only ignores the deep flaws within Warnock's system—flaws the normally reliable Mile Jedinak may well have been fixating on when he picked up a silly red card in that match.
This weekend, the Eagles go to Manchester United, a side they frustrated in both games last season before eventually succumbing after giving away two cheap penalties to break the deadlocks.
That sort of obdurate defending, ever-present under Tony Pulis, has been absent under Warnock, and consequently Palace look like a strong relegation candidate.
Warnock needs to show he can fashion a similar spirit soon, otherwise his next officiating rant might come from the pundit's chair during a football show, rather than in a post-match press conference.
2. Video of the week
3. Player to watch
He was called back into the England squad on Thursday and is set to anchor Manchester United's defence in his first full game back from injury on Saturday. For Michael Carrick, this has been a week of surprises.
Roy Hodgson tied himself in knots during his squad announcement, revealing that Glen Johnson was left out of the squad because the player "has a situation at Liverpool where he sometimes plays, sometimes doesn't." This despite the fact he also included Rickie Lambert, Andros Townsend, Adam Lallana and James Milner—players who all fit the same criteria.
Then there were the inclusions of Theo Walcott and Carrick, two players who are yet to play a full 90 minutes this season while dealing with injuries.
Carrick in particular is an interesting selection. The veteran was overlooked by Hodgson as a central-midfield option for the World Cup, yet now he returns to the squad despite the fact that his short-term future at United appears to be in central defence. With Chris Smalling suspended and Marcos Rojo injured, Louis van Gaal has few other viable options.
Carrick has played the position before, but it is still a big ask to step into a back line after such a long absence and command a game. It will be interesting to see how he fares against a Crystal Palace side that lacks organisation but has plenty of individual speed and creativity in attacking areas—and then how he returns to the national team in his preferred position.
4. Game of the weekend
Liverpool vs. Chelsea
The critiquing of Brendan Rodgers' team selection to face Real Madrid has been endless, but the final judgement is still to come. Whether Liverpool ultimately qualify from their Champions League group, and whether they get a positive result against Chelsea this weekend, will determine if his decision paid off.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has already questioned Rodgers' line-up for the Madrid game, but then the Portuguese delights in winding up opposition managers—even those, like Rodgers, he has worked with in the past (he spent four years with Guardiola at Barcelona, remember, and the two men now cannot stand one another).
In many ways, however, it was a Mourinho-esque move; Rodgers going against convention to find a different way of engineering a positive result. It didn't work on the night, but it could still benefit Liverpool.
“You have to be bold enough to make the decisions as a manager and that is why you are paid the money you are paid,” Rodgers told reporters. "If you make more wrong ones than right ones you will be out of work, it’s as simple as that. It’s a big risk but for me I’m happy with the decisions I make. It can be a big call and people might think ‘you took a massive risk there’ but you weigh up the risk and reward.”
The game, of course, is a repeat of last season's crucial title run-in meeting, one Liverpool needed to win to remain on course for the Premier League title. Everyone knows how that ended. Steven Gerrard slipped, Demba Ba scored and Chelsea claimed a smash-and-grab victory that sent the Premier League trophy on a path to the Etihad Stadium.
A few months on, both sides are completely different. Liverpool have lost their attacking vibrancy (i.e. Luis Suarez), while the Blues (with Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas) are a more complete, dominant force than they were last term. It might be a completely different sort of match—Liverpool defending deep for large parts, with Chelsea trying to be the aggressors.
Everyone expects Chelsea to win, it seems. Rodgers, however, has aligned himself with his side following his recent decisions—with the players being maligned for their recent performances, now the manager is being criticised for his.
Revenge and vindication can be powerful motivating forces. In front of their home fans, it would be foolish to write the Reds off completely. It should be an enthralling game.