| || |
By Leo Linden
In the past five years, Southampton FC have pulled off one of the largest turnarounds in English football history.
Almost six years ago the Saints went into administration, what English football calls going bankrupt. Southampton were relegated from the Championship at the end of the end of the 2008-09 season and started their following season with a ten-point deduction. That’s where the turnaround begins.
After finishing seventh their first year in League One despite starting
in a huge hole, the Saints finished second the following season to
Back in the top flight, Saints continued to progress over the past two seasons, finishing 14th and eighth while developing multiple homegrown stars. Now, even after selling many of those stars last summer and losing their head coach, Mauricio Pochettino, to Spurs, Southampton are positioned for their best season since 1984, when they finished runners-up.
At the present moment, the Saints are riding a high after a four-game skid dropped them from second to fifth in the table a month ago. Up against a daunting holiday stretch, Southampton have since ripped off a five-game streak where they’ve won 13 of 15 points, with only a draw against league-leading Chelsea preventing them from getting through the brutal stretch of games unscathed.
The draw with Chelsea was a significant result for Southampton. Up until that game, they had no points from four games against other teams in the top six. But they shut out Arsenal 2-0 on New Year’s Day, and looked to take that momentum to Old Trafford for a marquee matchup
with 3rd-place Manchester United on Sunday.
In a defensive struggle, Southampton snuck away with a result for the fifth time in a row. After an hour-plus of cautious football, Serbian winger Dusan Tadic continued his run of impressive form, slotting home the game’s only goal in the 68th minute. His chance came after a nifty exchange of passes set Graziano Pelle in on David De Gea, whose shot clattered off the post to Tadic, who coolly placed the ball past sliding United defender Tyler Blackett.
It wasn’t the greatest of goals, but it exemplified Southampton’s ability to capitalize on their chances that has accelerated their rise this year. With the win, Saints leapfrogged United and, they went to bed Sunday night sitting in third place in the Premier League.
While their attack was lackluster at best, Southampton strengthened their case for having the best defense in the Premier League. Averaging just under .75 goals allowed per game, their defensive core is the single biggest reason they currently reside in a Champions League position and are showing few signs of wear and tear.
On Sunday, the Saints were fortunate that United repeatedly failed to finish promising chances, but they made life difficult for United attackers all afternoon. With the Red Devils playing Van Gaal’s preferred attacking 3-5-2 formation and with the majority of their high-priced stars in the lineup, the center back duo of Jose Fonte and substitute Florin Gardos — who came on for an injured Toby Alderweireld in the 20th minute — kept their hosts from recording a shot on target.
Manager Ronald Koeman, once one of the most electrifying and consistent defenders in the world, has brought his defensive tactics and mentality to the club to help continue the upward trend established previously. His tactics are pushing Southampton to the next level, with a league-high ten clean sheets and a set of young attackers who are only getting better — especially with the addition of winger Eljero Elia, who made his club debut at Old Trafford.
Saints have been the biggest surprise of the season, and one which is welcomed for teams sick of the “Big Teams” dominating. A league normally dominated by a solid group of rich, traditional clubs has new and exciting challengers giving hope to all teams on the periphery. There is still plenty of time to go in the season, and Southampton certainly aren’t home free yet, but the unlikely dream of European football on the South Coast of England is inching closer to becoming a reality.