Every single season a Premier League team wins the love, affection and attention of the fans. It was Wigan last season as they gallantly fought for their Premier League lives (unsuccessfully in the end) while incredibly winning the FA Cup and staying true to the passing philosophy of manager Roberto Martinez. This season, it is arguably Southampton who have taken this mantle but not because of cup glory or their attempts to pass their way out of relegation trouble.
The Saints have been one of the most consistently entertaining sides this season with their high intensity pressing and willingness to attack each and every team they face. At the time of writing, they sit in 8th place in the Premier League with a number of impressive results under their belts, including a win at title-chasing Liverpool. The big question now for Mauricio Pochettino and the club is how do they take that next step and secure European qualification?
Perhaps the most important step Southampton has to take during the summer is to ensure they keep all of their stars from this season at St Mary’s. The Saints have fought off potential suitors for their players in the past couple of windows but it might become harder and harder to do so. Recent speculation has linked star man Adam Lallana with a big money move to one of the top four while teenage sensation Luke Shaw is constantly being linked with Chelsea and Manchester United. Even summer signing Dejan Lovren (who has been outstanding in his debut season on the south coast) has been linked with a move away after just a season.
There is undoubted quality in this Southampton side that was bound to draw admiring glances from elsewhere but when you look at the key men you realise that many of them played a key role in getting Southampton to this point. Lallana was with Southampton when they were relegated to League 1 and led them back through the divisions, while Rickie Lambert was bought by former manager Alan Pardew while the Saints were in the third tier and has been a consistent source of goals throughout his time on the south coast. French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin is another who suffered the heartbreak of relegation with the club before bouncing back and becoming a key component of their Premier League campaigns.
The key to the success of the Saints in recent years is these players who make up the heart and spine of the team. They have been together through the divisions and understand what it means to play for the club. Most importantly though is that they all have a winning mentality. This is a side that has won consistently for the past three or four seasons and replacing players with this kind of winning mentality and belief is difficult and, in the current transfer market, undoubtedly expensive. Having this kind of cohesion and mentality in the dressing room is almost priceless for any team and makes it imperative that Pochettino and the club stand strong in their refusal to sell in the summer.
Another important point for Southampton’s progression is that they must improve their squad depth this summer. Pochettino has used many of the same players in the starting eleven this season and, while they have been very lucky with injuries for the most part, there has to be some concern over the cover for key men like Lallana and Lambert.
The best example of this was at Manchester City recently when Pochettino had to play third choice Paulo Gazzaniga in goal due to injuries. This is a goalkeeper that has rarely played in his two seasons at St. Mary’s and he was expected to keep out one of the most fearsome attacks in the Premier League.
It is a real concern and the depth is even more worrying further forward. Behind Jose Fonte and Lovren in the heart of defence are Maya Yoshida (who has left a lot to be desired) and Jos Hooiveld (the man Lovren replaced in defence) and that is it. Jay Rodriguez is out for the next six months and it seems the only like for like replacement in the squad is Guly Do Prado who has never been a convincing Premier League footballer.
The case can be made that Southampton are admirably using a lot of youth team prospects in the side this season but unless they are all Luke Shaw-like quality from the get-go then Southampton do need more depth. There is the impending return of loaned out players at the end of the season but these are all young players needing game time or players that seemingly have no future at the club.
Players like Danny Fox (almost immediately replaced by Shaw upon their return to the top flight), Emmanuel Mayuka (contributed nothing) and Dani Osvaldo all seem to be heading out the exit door permanently this summer when they return. It leaves Pochettino in a tough position because he needs a deeper squad to be able to go for an entire season at the same consistent level in a push for Europe.
The big thing for Southampton if they want to reach Europe is that they must win games more consistently against sides lower down the table. This is not to say they must win every game since that is impossible but they cannot afford to drop points at home to sides like Sunderland, West Ham and Stoke or lose at Norwich if they want to get into Europe. The top sides in the Premier League are able to pull out wins from the majority of their home games as well as picking up victories when they’re visiting tough places like West Ham and Stoke. Consistency is key in attempting to push forward in the Premier League and Southampton’s push for Europe in 2013/14 has been derailed by a number of poor results against teams below them in the table. If Pochettino and his men want to reach the European places next season then this has to change.
It will be a challenge for Southampton to reach Europe and by the end of the summer transfer window we should be able to gauge a little better whether or not they could do it. However, if they can hold on to their key players, improve their squad depth and be more consistent against sides lower down the Premier League table then there is no reason why Southampton can’t find themselves in the European places next season.
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