You’ll probably not remember but at the end of last season, I’d written a column called ‘Moneyball: The art of winning at an unfair disadvantage’. It was about how teams like Southampton cope with their success and try and rebuild after the big clubs inevitably come calling for their best talent. I’d finished off that particular piece with something about how the club would react in the wake of all the departures and that those actions would define it. Going by this season’s events to date, Saints’ board deserve a knighthood.
Their victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford yesterday evening was their first there since 1988. They did so with a tempestuous, tactically brilliant display that guffawed in the face of the idea that this Southampton side would eventually run out of steam – a point of view most definitely being peddled by a certain section of the media. Maybe now, Ronald Koeman’s side will start getting the full credit they deserve. How have they achieved such success after being veritably asset-stripped over the summer and left for spare parts?
Continuity has been absolutely key. Not in terms staff turnover, obviously. They had lost their revered head coach, Mauricio Pochettino; Adam Lallana, their best player; Rickie Lambert their talisman; Dejan Lovren, their best defender; Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers, their outstanding young talents – it didn’t look good. Not just in the sense that they were giving off the impression of a fire sale but in essence, they were losing the soul of their club. Of course they were remunerated handsomely for their losses but all the money in the world means nothing if you don’t have the right people at the helm to spend it.
This is where Saints have soared, and again, where continuation has been king. In Pochettino, they had a progressive, tactically-adept coach who played football that was easy on the eye. In replacing him, Gareth Rogers, their CEO, and owner, Katharina Liebherr, stuck to the letter of their law. Feyenoord’s Ronald Koeman – renowned for his own brand of stylish football – was sought out and convinced to come to the south coast.
He had the unenviable job of rebuilding a squad bereft of their previous major talents. It mattered little to Koeman. He immediately set about persuading the rest of his squad not to worry, that more talent was on its way. He wasn’t wrong. The former Barcelona star dove straight into the market. In came Fraser Forster, Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle, Saido Mane, Shane Long, Florian Gardos, Toby Alderweireld and Ryan Bertrand. A number of names you wouldn’t have classed as ‘household’ but would adequately, and in most cases, exceedingly replace those who had left for pastures’ new.
Koeman’s real success, though, was keeping hold of their midfield titans, Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin. With hindsight, these two are the true beating heart of this squad - their display at Old Trafford testament to that.
The dynamism, physicality and technical ability with which they dominate the midfield area, it has left Koeman to concentrate on other aspects of the side. Dusan Tadic has replaced and improved upon the creativity Adam Lallana once purveyed whilst Graziano Pelle, Saido Mane and Shane Long have added pace and directness to a slightly more static and flat-footed Rickie Lambert.
Looking back, one wonders now whether Rogers and Liebherr knew exactly what they were doing during all those negotiations over the summer. Whilst all around them became openly alarmed, you never got the sense there was any panic behind the scenes. They managed to squeeze as much money out of each transfer as possible whilst making sure the ethos that the most modern version of the club has been built on was continued.
Roy Keane’s favourite adage “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” has never seemed more apt in Saints’ case. You get the impression now that, rather than being the hunted, Southampton were the ones doing the hunting. This chapter in their history is a shining example to all clubs about how glass ceilings can sometimes be smashed.