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From Adkins to Koeman: The modern evolution of Southampton F.C.

Southampton returned to the Premier League in 2012 following seven well documented, unsettled seasons absent from top flight action.

Docked points, administration and constant unrest behind the scenes, lead to the south coast side dropping to the third tier of English football, before remarkably securing back-to-back promotions under the guidance of then manager Nigel Adkins.

Such drama would have seen many clubs of similar stature take decades to recover. However, last season The Saints accumulated a club record 56 Premier League points and equalled their best ever finish of 8th place.

So how can a club with such off-field unsettlement and a seemingly constant flow of big names through the exit door, be thriving in arguably the toughest league in the world?

Upon their return to top flight football, The Saints twice broke their transfer record; signalling their intentions for the forthcoming season.

Initially, Jay Rodriguez joined from Burnley in a deal worth £7 million. This fee was subsequently shadowed by the £12 million deadline day signing of Uruguayan international Gaston Ramirez from Bologna, who had been attracting attention from some of the more established Premiership teams.

Other notable additions to the squad included Nathaniel Clyne and Steven Davis who joined from Crystal Palace and Glasgow Rangers respectively.

After only managing to pick up 4 points from the opening 8 games of the 2012/2013 season, pressure was inevitably mounting on manager Nigel Adkins.

Taking into consideration the achievements of the previous 2 seasons, you have to feel similar form in the lower divisions would have been met with a higher level of tolerance by the club’s board.

But with the money riding on securing Premiership football so imperative to any club, chairmen and owners have to be ruthless with their decisions. This meant sacking a manager less than halfway through a campaign, who had propelled the club from League One to the Premier League in the quickest possible fashion.

While the majority of fans felt Adkins deserved more time to prove his Premier League credentials, there was a sense that he had taken Southampton as far as he could and that his ever humble and positive outlook on his side wasn’t getting the results at the highest level.

Pundits and fans alike were understandably shocked at the decision to relieve Nigel Adkins of his duties in January 2013, but it became clear that Chairman Nicola Cortese had the best interest of the club at heart and had an instant replacement lined up in the form of Mauricio Pochettino.

Following 3 positive seasons with Espanyol, Pochettino had quietly been building a reputation as one of the world’s most promising young managers. Having featured over 250 times for the La Liga outfit as a player, the former Argentinian international oversaw the transformation of the Spanish club from relegation strugglers to comfortable mid-table finishers.

Coinciding with the appointment of Pochettino, Southampton’s form improved dramatically. The new manager was given freedom to inflict his style of play upon the squad he had inherited and victories against Premier League heavyweights Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea followed.

The Saints faithful quickly warmed to the Argentinian’s free-flowing passing game and his emphasis on building from the back. Due to only recently ending his playing career, Pochettino’s knowledge of the modern game was arguably far superior to that of his predecessor. This resulted in a much more contemporary and therefore, much more competitive Southampton.

Southampton ended their first season back in the Premier League in 14th place. Pochettino was given immense credit for saving a side that looked destined for the drop when he took over. Cortese also gained recognition for the part he played in the transformation of the club. Originally ridiculed for the sacking of Adkins, the bulk of critics admitted the change was necessary in order to turn the club’s fortunes around.

In the close season, The Saints again broke their transfer record twice. Kenyan international Victor Wanyama was signed for £12.5 million from Celtic, before Dani Osvaldo joined from Roma for a fee reported to be in the region of £15 million. The often controversial Italian striker played under Pochettino at Espanyol and the manager was hoping his physical nature would suit the Premier League.

Dejan Lovren also signed after establishing himself as one of the world’s top central defensive prospects. An estimated £8.5 million was enough to prise him away from French club Lyon.

Such fees signified just how far Southampton had come in such a short amount of time. Struggling in League One just 3 seasons before, many couldn’t have imagined the club forking out millions of pounds for such high quality players.

Perhaps Southampton’s biggest achievement preceding the start of the 2013/2014 season was keeping hold of their youth academy graduates that had performed so well in the previous campaign.

Southampton have always been a producer of top quality youngsters and have always been inclined to sell them if the price is right. It’s in the club’s DNA and it’s what has kept them afloat in recent times. Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are just a few examples of household names that began their careers at the south coast side.

By this time, the likes of left-back Luke Shaw and midfielder James Ward-Prowse had begun to attract interest from some of league’s top sides. The Saints were able to keep hold of their prized assets whilst also adding to the squad.

The club made a much stronger start to the season in comparison to the previous term, conceding just 3 goals in their first 10 league games. It was evident Pochettino’s defensive minded attitude was being inflicted on the team’s performances. New signing Dejan Lovren struck up an instant and formidable understanding with fellow centre back Jose Fonte and Pochettino was named Manager of the Month in October.

After such a strong start to the season, reports began to emerge that things weren’t going as smoothly behind the scenes as they were on the pitch. There was friction between Chairman Nicola Cortese and owner Katahrina Liebherr due to rumours that Liebherr had intentions to the sell the club.

Liebherr became the owner of Southampton in 2010 following the death of her father, Markus. Since taking over the club there has often been suggestions she was looking to sell the club. Cortese wasn’t happy with the uncertainty surrounding the future of the club and resigned from his post in January 2014.

This immediately raised questions over the future of Mauricio Pochettino as manager. The Argentinian had long made it clear that he would be the first to follow Cortese if he left the club. He believed the Chairman had faith in him and stated he would not ‘understand a Southampton without him’.

Despite his previous comments, Pochettino pledged his future to club; at least until the end of the season. The club then went on a 5 match unbeaten run in the league which saw them climb to 9th in the table by mid-February.

In this time, club record signing Dani Osvaldo was involved in a training ground altercation with Jose Fonte and the underachieving front man was sent out on loan to Juventus in an attempt to maintain harmony in the ranks.

It wasn’t Southampton’s big money buys that were taking centre stage in the 2013/2014 season however. Players who were with the club in League One and the Championship were blossoming into Premier League stars. Pochettino was managing to get the most out of players at the top level; something that former boss Adkins had failed to achieve.

Rickie Lambert, who had been scoring goals all his career in the lower leagues, was now doing exactly the same in the top flight. Adam Lallana was also finding the net on a regular basis and dominating games at the heart of Southampton’s midfield. Young full-backs Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne and Calum Chambers were all putting in consitently strong performances on a weekly basis and started to gain international recognition.

In March, a new Chairman was appointed in the form of former ice hockey coach, Ralph Krueger. Many saw this as a sign that owner Liebherr wasn’t planning to sell the club and Southampton could once again focus on matters on the pitch; aiming to finish as high in the table as possible come the end of the season.

The Saints did finish the season strongly, recording a victory over high-flying Everton, a 4-0 thumping of Newcastle and a draw on the final day against Manchester United. This meant Southampton finished in 8th place in the Premier League, a feat that very few thought was possible before the campaign began.

Inevitably, there was immense interest in the club’s young talent after such a glittering season. So often the case in previous seasons, it looked inevitable that the club would not be able to hold on to their top players if their valuations were met.

Before the impending transfers would commence, it was announced that manager Mauricio Pochettino was leaving the club after 18 months in charge. Ever since the departure of ex-Chairman Nicola Cortese, it had always seemed likely that Pochettino wouldn’t be at the club the following season. Tottenham Hotspur quickly recruited the Argentinian after he proved to everyone in the Premier League that he had what it took to manage at the highest level.

Dutchman Ronald Koeman was quickly appointed as Pochettino’s replacement. The former Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord player, who incidentally went on to manage each of these teams, also played for Barcelona where he was assistant manager between 1998 and 2000. His record was there for all to see and he was seen as the right man to take the club forward.

As the weeks ensued, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert all departed for Liverpool. Cashing in on an ageing Rickie Lambert, despite his obvious goal scoring ability, didn’t seem like such a bad idea. But the loss of long serving club captain Lallana was certain to extract a monumental measure of creativity from the side. Lovren was sold for a reported £20 million, over twice the price The Saints paid for him just a year before.

Manchester United were next to pounce on another one of Southampton’s high achievers from the past campaign. Just 2 years after emerging from the club’s highly acclaimed youth academy, Luke Shaw left the side for and estimated £27 million. The left-back had been a stand out performer all season long and had recently earned his first England cap.

Calum Chambers was next to move. Arsenal snapped up the promising young defender for around £16 million. He followed former Saints stars Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott in moving to The Emirates.

After just under a month of the summer transfer window, Southampton had lost 5 regular starters of the first team. Each one of these players had featured heavily in the starting line-up in the previous season and the heart had seemingly been ripped out of the team.

New manager Ronald Koeman had a challenging task on his hands as he went about rebuilding the squad. The task was made somewhat easier however, with substantial funds available following the big money departures.

He began by bringing in Serbian attacking midfielder Dusan Tadic from dutch side FC Twente. A few days later, Graziano Pelle joined from Koeman’s previous club Feyenoord for £8 million. The manager had obviously seen a lot of the Italian striker from his time in Holland and clearly saw Pelle as a player well suited to the Premier League.

Ryan Bertrand was then signed on a season-long loan from Chelsea. The left-back, who has never been able to cement a place Chelsea’s first team, was seen as the prefect replacement for the departed Luke Shaw.

With the club failing to find a consistent goalkeeper throughout the 2013/2014 season, Koeman saw it fit to bring in a fresh pair of gloves between the posts and opted for Celtic’s England international, Fraser Forster. The giant keeper cost Southampton £10 million but it was a fee that would prove to be worth every penny.

Irishman Shane Long was next to join from fellow Premier League side Hull City, before Sadio Mane signed on the final day of the transfer window. The Senegal international boasted a goal every other game ratio for Red Bull Salzburg that persuaded Southampton to fork out over £10 million for the young forward.

The club also signed Belgian international defender Toby Alderweireld on loan until the end of the season. Part of Atletico Madrid’s title winning side the year before, this appeared to be a highly successful loan bid.

So, after some clever purchases and a couple of shrewd loan singings, Ronald Koeman’s new look Southampton side was ready for action. The forthcoming season would be a test of the club’s transfer policies and would in turn show how life after so many crucial players leaving the club would unfold.

The Saints made a great start to the 2014/2015 season and fears of a monumental loss of momentum in the club’s progression due to so many changes, were forgotten. With 4 wins from their opening 6 games, new striker Pelle was taking to the Premier League like a duck to water and players such as Jack Cork and Morgan Schniederlin were also noticeably stepping up their performances.

Sunderland were  on the wrong end of an 8-0 demolition in October that saw the club record their biggest ever victory. Although Sunderland were extremely below par that day, 8-0 is an almost unheard of result at this level and proves Southampton’s ruthlessness under Koeman.

As it happens, Southampton currently sit 3rd in the Premier League after 21 matches. Only last season’s champions Manchester City and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea sit above them. Off the back of a draw against Chelsea, a comfortable 2-0 win over Arsenal and an astounding victory over a rejuvenated Manchester United at Old Trafford, Southampton look to be the real deal under Koeman.

This season, despite a number of high profile departures and yet another change of manager, Southampton continue to grow as a club and proceed on their quest to establish themselves as one of the Premier League’s top sides.

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