Footballing personalities and pundits alike stood by wide-eyed and baffled to bits when Nigel Adkins got the boot at St. Mary’s this January. Not even in the current climate of frequent managerial changes could anyone anticipate the sacking of the man who had taken Southampton back into the top tier before making them not only easy on the eye, but a solid mid-table team. As much as everyone questioned Chelsea’s judgment in relieving Roberto Di Matteo of his duties not even six months after being crowned champions of Europe, the Adkins sacking was quickly branded pure lunacy.
Fast forward ten months and the scorned scouser’s replacement, Mauricio Pochettino, has taken the Saints to a current fifth spot in the league. Not only is the Argentine’s Southampton side getting results, they are stunning the very best teams in the league with their intense pressure and possessive football. Pundits are even discussing whether they can make it into Europe next season.
Which begs the question: did the Southampton board know something we didn’t?
When Nigel Adkins furiously left St. Mary’s he had finally built some momentum for his team. After a vigilant but tough start to the season, the Saints had to fight their way out of the bottom three, playing positive attacking football, but suffering from a defensive line that leaked worse than John Terry’s publicist after hitting an ice berg. The flair and reliability of Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana, though, kept the Southmapton ship floating, and the fans loved it. Adkins was regarded a true hero.
But if we compare that to Pochettino’s team, it is easy to spot a few contrasts. Southampton has become a defensive solidity, claiming the majority of possession in most games, and even daring to stand toe-to-toe with the mighty Manchester United at Old Trafford. Their pressing style has been compared with the approach used by Barcelona, the current universal football ideal, and this is hardly a coincidence.
Newly appointed Barcelona boss Tata Martino was greeted with maybe as much bafflement as Pochettino when he arrived at Camp Nou. However, the Catalans tend to choose their managers by approach rather than merit, and Martino fit the bill in terms of carrying on the tradition of high pressing, possessive game. This philosophy is shared by Pochettino and Martino, as they were shaped as footballers in the same environment.
In the early nineties, they were both integral parts of Marcelo Bielsa’s Newell’s Old Boys. Bielsa, one of the architects of the modern pressing game, shaped his strategy while at Newell’s and can be credited with some influence on how teams like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Spain play football today. Although Martino and Pochettino’s approaches are not entirely the same, one of the main principles are identical: they both have heavy emphasis on regaining possession through a high pressing game.
Pochettino’s results with this have been truly remarkable. Southampton have only conceded three (!) goals so far this season; the best defensive record in the premiership. They aslo average above 50 per cent of possession, and this is a natural bi-product of their pressing style. If you regain possession effectively, you will own the ball for the majority of the game. Combine this with the attacking threat of a Lallana, who is forcing his name into the England international discussion, and the always reliable Rickie Lambert who’s justifying Roy Hodgen’s recent selection, all balanced by an excellent Morgan Schneiderlin, who might receive a France call up if he keeps his level. This way we can easily understand that the Saints have turned into a formidable opponent over the last year.
If we take a look at the stats from their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last weekend, we can see that he ball spent more time in Manchester United’s half than Southampton’s. They were deemed lucky to get a late equalizer, but in fact they had two attempts more on target than the champions. United are struggling with getting into their stride at the moment, but the intense and well organized pressure inflicted by the Southampton midfield restrained the Red Devils from finding space and paid of through a late goal and an impressive away point.
If we compare Pochettino’s stats with Adkins’s when they had played an equal amount of Premier League games, 22, we find that the Saints have conceded only about half as many goals (22) with the Argentine at the helm, and their possession have moved from an average of 49,8 per cent to 55,9. Little doubt that despite his unwillingness to speak English in interviews (rumor has it he’s actually quite the skilled in the language) Pochettino has conveyed his message effectively to his players.
The Southampton board must simply have identified Pochettino as the chance of a lifetime. The sacking of Adkins was certainly a case of acquiring an invaluable asset rather than disposing of an unqualified one. And sadly for Nigel Adkins, it all came at his cost.
There is little suggesting the points tally at St. Mary’s should halt immediately, as Southampton take on Stoke and Hull in the coming weeks, before they will get tested away to Arsenal and Chelsea. Although European football in 2014 might be a dream too audacious, they are certainly moving in the right direction.
Is Southampton capable of finishing in the top six this season?
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