We’re past the halfway point of the exciting Barclays Premier League 2014-15 season. There has been no shortage of twists and turns: tumultuous starts at Liverpool and Arsenal, the resurgence of Manchester United, Alan Pardew’s exodus from Newcastle United to Crystal Palace, and West Ham’s surprising success. But no story line has been as stunning or understated more than the success of Southampton.
It’s been nothing short of an incredible rise for the Saints. They were promoted from League One, England’s third tier of football, in 2011, and the following year finished second in the Championship, earning a promotion to the Premier League. During the 2012-13 campaign, their first season in the top flight since 2004-05, the Saints struggled to stay afloat. Frustrations culminated in a managerial switch from Nigel Adkins to Mauricio Pochettino, and they ended up finishing a disappointing 14th.
However, the Saints’ fortunes changed last season. Led by the combined 37 goals and 19 assists of star-studded English trio Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, and Jay Rodriguez, along with staunch defending by newly signed Croatian center back Dejan Lovren and budding young fullback Luke Shaw, the Saints finished 8th. It was their first finish in the Top 10 since 2003 and their 15 wins were their highest Premier League total since 1990.
Unfortunately, in the most typical manner of English football, their team was dismantled during last summer’s transfer window. Whenever a small market team like Southampton enjoys success in the Premier League, bigger, richer clubs come and scoop up their best players. Unfortunately, the biggest result of the Saints’ outstanding performance was a mass exodus of their best players. Lovren, Lambert, and Lallana, the core players integral to their successful 2013-14 campaign, all transferred to Liverpool. Shaw and Calum Chambers, another exciting young English defender, departed to Manchester United and Arsenal respectively. Manager Mauricio Pochettino went to Tottenham. Defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin almost joined him, and was instead kept at the club, much to his chagrin, while striker Jay Rodriguez was set to leave until an he suffered ACL tear last April. He hasn’t played since.
With the majority of their first team gone, not much was expected of Southampton’s 2014-15 season. They were expected to do little more than continue to breed great young players for other teams to poach (Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are all products of their brilliant youth academy who moved on to top level clubs).
But beyond even the most devoted Saint’s fans wildest dreams, the Saints are currently third in the table, fresh off a stunning 1-0 away win against Manchester United. They already have 12 wins, the third most in the Premier League, and their defense has conceded the fewest goals in the entire league, with 15. They have been brilliant, determined, and are one of the best sides England has to offer.
How are they doing this, you ask?
We have to start with the manager. Ronald Koeman has been a revelation at St. Mary’s. The Dutch manager has seamlessly turned what looked like a depleted squad into Champions League contenders.
He has built a team that is incredibly difficult to break down. Signing goalkeeper Fraser Forster from Scottish league giants Celtic was the first step. Forster has the reflexes and talent to be an elite Premier League starting keeper, and he has continuously been pushing to overtake Joe Hart as England’s number one. Jose Fonte and Nathaniel Clyne have also both been outstanding this season: Clyne has the third highest cumulative player ranking for the club on Whoscore.com, and is considered by some the best right back this season in the Premier League. He is now Glen Johnson’s heir as the starter in that position for England. Fonte, a center back, has the club’s 4th highest cumulative player ranking, and has been as good as, if not better, than Dejan Lovren.
But the list of fantastic players continues: defenders Toby Alderweireld and Ryan Bertrand are loanees from Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, respectively, and have been brilliant. James Ward-Prowse, an exciting young midfielder, looks primed to break out as one of England’s finest.
Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama, and Jack Cork are all proven ball-winning central midfielders. The former brings creativity to the midfield, while Wanyama brings a no-nonsense holding midfield approach. Midfielder Sadio Mané, a Salzburg transfer, has 4 goals and 2 assists for the Saints, including a brilliant opener when hosting Chelsea.
But the players who are most responsible for the Saint’s emergence are two new signings from the Dutch Eredivisie: Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic.
The former has brought goals. Pelle, an Italian international, scored 23 in the Dutch top flight for Feyenoord a season ago. His eight league goals are tied for 8th in the Premier League with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
The latter has broughten the creativity. Dusan Tadic signed from FC Twente over the summer, where he tallied 14 goals and 16 assists. Tadic, a Serbian international, has 3 goals and 7 assists for the Saints so far, and has assumed the midfield maestro role that departed captain Adam Lallana filled. Tadic’s winner at Old Trafford this past weekend is just one of the big plays he’s delivered since his arrival on the South Coast: he has created a whopping 55 chances this season, and has completed 79% of his passes, according to Squawka.com.
With a brilliant manager, a cohesive, determined, and talented squad, an unmatched youth development system, and one of the best home crowds at St. Mary’s Park, Southampton have exceeded all expectations this season, and are in prime shape to make a run at a coveted Champions League spot.
And despite all of that, they’re still one of the most underappreciated sides in England. Maybe their latest triumph at Old Trafford will finally make people realize Southampton are quickly becoming one of the best sides in England.