Can Southampton manage the Champions League chase?
When Nigel Adkins was shockingly sacked from Southampton in January 2013, with the Saints going reasonably well in their first season back in the Premier League after a seven-year absence, the south coast club seemed destined for doom. Instead, Mauricio Pochettino came in and not only kept them up in his first four months in charge, but guided them to a finishing position of 8th last term. Once he was lured by the vacant manager’s job at Tottenham and many of his key players flocked to the bright lights of Liverpool, London and Manchester, the gloomy forecasts were again out for Southampton. Ronald Koeman appeared to have taken on a steep challenge last summer.
Beyond the halfway mark of the season, Southampton are 4th in the Premier League, with only the big-spending Chelsea and Manchester’s top two ahead of them. Considering that some were tipping the Saints for relegation at the beginning of the campaign, Koeman is already a sure-fire contender for Manager of the Year. His signings wouldn’t have been known by too many English football followers, but before long we got to know all about Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle, Sadio Mane and latterly Eljero Elia and what they had to offer. It also helped that, even with the mass summer exodus, Southampton held on to two of their most important, and often overlooked, players, namely Jose Fonte and Morgan Schneiderlin.
A team that could plunder goals, kept it very tight at the back and developed a happy knack of securing narrow away wins sat in the top three going into December, before a four-game losing streak threatened to drop them back into mid-table. Just as Southampton’s early season form looked like being consigned to the past, however, they held Chelsea to a draw and promptly beat Arsenal and Man United, the latter in a famous 1-0 at Old Trafford. The early December setbacks had gone from a shattering reality check to a mere blip. The Saints could most certainly live with the big boys of the Premier League.
However, the last couple of weeks have raised questions about Southampton’s staying power again. A 3-2 home defeat by Crystal Palace in the FA Cup didn’t set alarm bells ringing as it meant that Koeman’s side could focus their full attention on league matters until the end of May. More worrying, though, was the subsequent 1-0 loss to Swansea at St Mary’s. It wasn’t just the result that grated, either – Southampton dominated the opening 60 minutes but could not find a route to goal. Frustration set in, passes went astray, their decision making was poor and Jonjo Shelvey made them pay with a stunning strike eight minutes from time. The Saints’ misery was compounded by Ryan Bertrand stupidly getting himself sent off, thus ruling him out of the next three games.
With close rivals Man United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool all winning while Southampton lost, it was a woeful weekend for Koeman and co. Magnificently and all as they have been performing, they have still accrued seven league defeats, the same total as a Liverpool side whose season has only got going since Christmas. February’s fixtures look tricky for them, too. A trip to QPR is their next assignment, one which doesn’t sound too daunting but the Hoops have a good record at home and could be catching the Saints at a good time. When Southampton have one bad result, another few seem to follow, in the same manner that one win after that extended run of defeats a couple of months ago set in motion a superb winning streak. After their trip to Loftus Road, they host West Ham and Liverpool, both of whom are in the chase for European places. The Hammers have dropped back in recent weeks, although they boast a good record against the Saints of late, while Brendan Rodgers’ men are slowly rediscovering their mojo and could well be in a position to move ahead of Southampton by the time the clubs meet later this month.
Although Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City are still to come later in the season, it is the games against teams bidding to avoid relegation of which Southampton will need to be wary. Their record against such clubs has been quite good thus far, aside from a draw at Aston Villa and defeat in Burnley, but when the closing weeks of the season draw in, teams near the bottom of the table can suddenly summon one win that will trigger a heroic run of results towards survival. Last year, Sunderland looked dead and gone until, in the space of four days, they drew at title-chasing Man City and won at 3rd-placed Chelsea to spark a tremendous escape. Successive away games in May against Sunderland and Leicester are the type of fixtures which could trip up the Saints, especially if they are tantalisingly close to a top four finish at that stage of the campaign.
Unlike the other teams currently pushing for Champions League football next season, Southampton have never been in this position in recent years. Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham know all about trying to get into that top four, while Man United are better versed than anyone in season management. Koeman only needs to look at Everton last season to see how a seemingly nailed-on 4th place can fall away with the finish line in sight. After the Toffees beat Arsenal 3-0 with a month of the season remaining, they looked primed for the Champions League. Instead they lost their nerve while the Gunners drew upon their experience to regroup and slip into that coveted 4th position to earn the ticket to Europe’s top table. Southampton have managed to overcome one bad run of form this season to maintain their lofty position, but with the teams immediately behind them all motoring well at the moment, and all fully confident they can keep the points coming from now until May, Saints will know that they cannot afford another four-game losing run like the one they had a few weeks ago.
As the pressure cranks up over the coming weeks, Southampton just need to stick to the basic principles of all they have done right this season. Patience will be key; there will be games where they struggle to break down resolute defences, like against Swansea last week. They lost their cool and composure in that one where other top four contenders may well have kept going and dug out a vital goal – Tottenham have been particularly proficient at turning one point into three in the closing minutes of matches this season. Discipline will also be crucial for Southampton. Again taking the Swansea defeat, they failed to get tight enough to Shelvey for the decisive goal, although full credit must go to the bald midfielder for the excellence of his strike. Also, Bertrand will be kicking himself for his impetuousness in getting sent off needlessly, even though he isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, player to let frustration get the better of him.
Even if Southampton do fall back and end the season in 6th or 7th, it will have been a very good year for them. Considering their current position, though, and bearing in mind how difficult it will be to regroup and go again for 2015/16 if they miss out on the top four this time, it would be anti-climactic were they to loosen their grip on a Champions League place. Five years ago, the club was in administration and endured League One football. Now, in 2015, they have the golden opportunity of completing one of football’s most remarkable Lazarus acts if they can persevere through the inevitable tricky moments and end the season with at least 16 teams below them in the table. A 4th-place finish would, of course, mean that they still have a tough two-legged play-off to overcome if they are to get into the Champions League group stage, but even to have a crack at it would be among this proud club’s finest ever achievements.
It’s still in their hands. They simply need to keep their composure, keep doing what they have been doing and have the mental fortitude to put bad results behind them quickly. Otherwise, the chasing pack, who have been there and done it before, will pounce.