When Sir Alex Ferguson started tossing around the phrase “squeaky bum time” (definition: the tense portion of a season where champions are typically made) you could usually count on two things. One, there were maybe ten or so weeks left in the Premier League season, and two, Manchester United were planning on winning it. That’s all contextual though, as “squeaky bum time” to the teams propping up the table means a fight for survival in the last few games, while for the teams on the fringes of European qualification it means doing everything to be in one of those qualifying slots when the final whistle blows. SBT can mean a lot of things, but the common denominator is this: the final few months are the most important. For Southampton, that time has come a few months early.
At the beginning of the season, more people were getting ready to talk about the adjustments the Saints would have to make when they were inevitably relegated back to League Football, while a smaller, perhaps more sensible group predicted Southampton to coast into May with another modest survival campaign tucked neatly in their back pockets. So far, the latter is certainly more likely, but the Saints have gone and done one better. Nobody saw them going into December third place on 26 points, four points ahead of fourth placed Manchester United.
[DISCLAIMER: Before we get into what has made the Saints so successful thus far, yes, I am aware of the results of their last two games. We will get there.]
So let’s ask the question, why have the Saints started as they have? And should we be surprised? The second question can be answered pretty quickly: a little bit maybe. Former Dutch League duo Dušan Tadić and Graziano Pellè were the top assisters and second top goalscorers in the 2013-2014 Eredivisie respectively. The evidence to build a case was there, and so was the potential, but nobody saw these two adapting, let alone flourishing, so quickly. A quaternity of assists for Tadić in the 8-0 unzipping of Sunderland and a self-made bicycle winner for Pellè against QPR are just a few of the highlights that define the quality these two players bring the Saints week in and week out. Add that to supplemental talents like Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama, and of course toss in the best defensive record in the league (I could write a whole separate article on Clyne and co. but since Clyne as a former Palace man leaves me reeling in “what if?” wonderland, I won’t) and you might find yourself with a recipe for success.
However the biggest, and arguably most important benefit Southampton has moving forward is infrastructure. For any team, having a quality player is valuable. If you’re an English team, having a quality English player is really valuable. The fee Adam Lallana commanded last year is just one relevant example. The Saints have quality English players. Quite a few of them actually. A quick look at Premierleague.com’s squad lists shows that out of Southampton’s nine homegrown players (basically a player who has been a part of English football in some capacity for a total of three years before his 21st birthday) seven of them are not only English, but also English with Premier League success. A youth program that develops players like James Ward-Prowse promises that if another club comes along looking to splash the cash on a first-team starter, there is a ready-made replacement waiting to prove himself on the biggest stage.
In many ways Southampton serves as a model antidote to what many believe are big problems with not only the Premier League, but English football as a whole. In the modern game, problems like lack of a league identity, exorbitant spending, and in the English game, a lack of quality English players are things you hear about more often than not. This is why, as a fan of football, you want Southampton coming out the other side of this long December firing again. Because if they do, then they have a real shot at a Europa and maybe even, dare I say it, a Champions League spot. And if that happens, then we know for sure it’s possible.
We know it’s possible that a team like the Saints, who were playing League One Football as recent as 2011, can reach heights that in today’s game, we thought were reserved only for those teams that could buy the climb. We would also have a tried and true method for developing players in a country that is increasingly concerned about its credibility on the world’s stage. National teams like Spain and Germany excel as their domestic leagues improve in quality, England proves more and more to be the opposite. In Southampton, you have a team exemplifying what these countries have done best, which is take the focus back to youth development for longer league sustainability. Southampton’s campaign thus far has stirred that pot a little, but a place in Europe has a better chance of taking that paradigm from discussion to practice all across the league.
December is here. Six games in 25 days for the Saints against teams including Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea promise to be taxing. This is where most mid-level teams like Southampton see their European dreams crash against the rocks (and for the record, Southampton’s three losses to date are from teams who last year represented three of the top six). But the talent is there for a genuine push, and the system is there for prolonged success. A trip to the Emirates is up on Wednesday. I think many will be looking on with interest.