When Markus Liebherr took over Southampton in the summer of 2009, with the club due to start life in League One ten points adrift after slipping into administration, he set the target of reaching the Premier League in five years. The overzealous ambition was widely ridiculed and mocked, but now it seems to have been a rather cautious target.
With Liebherr having since sadly passed away and control of the club shifted into the arms of Nicola Cortese, the Saints are lying sixth in the Premier League and on the verge, should they beat Fulham on Saturday, of recording their best ever start to a season.
Back in January, Cortese made the brave decision to dispose with Nigel Adkins, the manager who had guided them to the top tier with back-to-back promotions, and replace him with Mauricio Pochettino, an Argentine with no previous domestic coaching experience and who relied upon the help of a translator in order to communicate.
It was an appointment derided as the latest example of the modern restlessness and brutal disloyalty from the continental chairmen who prefer continental managers, though few can argue now with Cortese’s actions, Pochettino’s stewardship has them four points off top spot having lost just one of their opening eight fixtures.
That defeat came at Norwich, conceding one of only three goals they have shipped so far. Home wins over Crystal Palace and Swansea have sandwiched a win against Liverpool at Anfield and a battling draw at Old Trafford where they would have made valid argument that they were worth more than their late point. Southampton had more attempts in total than Manchester United and equalled the champions in possession, indicative of the confidence and fearlessness flowing throughout Pochettino’s side.
It has of course, rather fittingly given Pochettino made his trade as a centre-half during a 17 year long playing career, been built on rock-solid foundations. The three goals they have conceded is the lowest tally in any of Europe’s top leagues barring Roma in Serie A and it is a game-plan based on sturdy organisation and aggressive pressing that has allowed them to succeed.
A higher-line has been a significant feature of the transition from life under Adkins to Pochettino, something Adam Lallana, captain at St. Mary’s, says has been a result of spending time with the new coach over the summer, learning and understanding his tactical approach.
Pochettino has also seen the benefit of a settled centre-half pairing with Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte having been able to partner each other for all of the eight matches so far. It is Lovren who has been particularly impressive having adapted to the Premier League with notable ease after making an £8.8 million move in the summer.
Comfortable on the ball and intelligent in possession as well as strong in the air and in the tackle, the Croatian international has also helped Fonte rediscover his first-team spot when it seemed likely the Portuguese would be shown the door in the summer.
In front of them, Victor Wanyama, the hulking midfielder signed from Celtic for £12 million, has patrolled the deep areas strongly alongside the rabidly tenacious Morgan Schneiderlin, rated as one of the best tacklers in Europe last year.
While goals have not flowed freely, only 8 have been managed in the 8 games to date as the Rickie Lambert and Dani Osvaldo partnership still struggles to click, Southampton’s solid spine has been the most palpable feature of their form and with Jack Cork, Steven Davis, Guly Do Prado and James Ward-Prowse all waiting to provide cover, it is a vast, talented squad at Pochettino’s disposal.
The Argentine was also extremely clever in the transfer window, spending money, £35 million of it in fact, on just 3 players, preferring instead to rely on the togetherness and familiarity in the squad rather than make any wholesale changes to the group of players he had inherited from Adkins.
The biggest provider to Southampton’s squad has been its Staplewood academy, the training facility in the Hampshire countryside that boasts Theo Walcott, Wayne Bridge, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain among its former alumni.
Of its current crop, 18 year olds Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Ward-Prowse are all established members of the first team with the latter pointed out by Pochettino as a role-model.
“James Ward-Prowse is an example of the player we are promoting, the player we want to have in this club,” he said at a press conference ahead of the game with Fulham. “In every training session he gives 100 per cent. He always has an immediate impact in what he does and he is still a player who is growing. He is a figurehead of the sort of player we are looking for at Southampton.”
The England under-21 midfielder started the season, alongside Shaw and Chambers, in the 0-1 win at West Brom, a game in which Pochettino played 8 English players, a seemingly one-club resistance to the Guardian’s findings that the opening weekend of the season was mostly inhabited by foreign nationals.
With Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana having earned call-ups to Roy Hodgson’s full-squad, as well as under-21 caps being handed to Jack Cork and Nathaniel Clyne, the fruits of the advanced training facilities down on the south coast are hugely encouraging, both for Pochettino’s Saints and for England.
A trip to the academy now will reveal construction work taking place, £15 million worth of extension work due to be completed in the Spring. It is a whole different world from the mess that Liebherr rescued back in 2009 and uttered his brash ambitions. The tag-line for the new-look academy is entitled “The Southampton Way”, signifying a club with a philosophy for progress and success.
At the moment, with Pochettino and his stylish, innovative methods at the helm, they are certainly on their way to realising far more than anything Liebherr ever envisaged.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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