At the start of this season Southampton were just 7/2 for relegation, after selling most of the key players that had gained them an excellent eighth placed finish.
The grass is not always greener though, as they say. Just ask Rickie Lambert.
In the kind of cruel irony that football so often brings, after 21 games the Saints sit above Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, where these players departed to.
Brendan Rodgers stole Southampton’s midfield playmaker, defensive leader and top scorer yet the Saints now sit seven points above Liverpool.
Thus after 22 games the Saints are third with 42 points, bettered only by Chelsea and Manchester City. They deserve better than being patronised as being a ‘surprise package’ or ‘a breath of fresh air’.
Southampton are fully deserving of top four status and are an excellent side.
The Saints have defied the odds throughout this campaign, and now they can finish the job to complete a superb top four finish. Here’s four reasons why:
Southampton have the Premier League’s best defensive record, conceding just 0.71 goals per game and keeping clean sheets in 45% of matches. Staggeringly this rises to 64% in home games – it’s clearly much easier to win when you only need the one goal.
Fraser Forster has been outstanding in goal, whilst Nathanial Clyne has emerged as an international-class full-back, whilst Ryan Bertrand has been equally good on the opposite flank.
However the team’s collective shape and discipline without the ball has been most impressive aspect of their record.
Recent clean sheets against Everton, Arsenal and at Old Trafford shows the Saints backline is resilient against even the best attacks – they have conceded more than one goal just thrice in 21 games.
To reach the top four you need to win, or at least be competitive, in the mini-league of your rivals, and Southampton are managing the latter.
The Saints have lost at Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool whilst losing at home to the two Manchester clubs. However they squared their records with two of those sides by winning at home to Arsenal and at Old Trafford, meaning they have already faced two leading sides twice.
Based on their excellent home record (64% win rate) there is every chance the Saints will do the same in upcoming home games against Spurs and Liverpool.
Southampton also gained a highly creditable point at home to current champions elect Chelsea and Saints also won 3-1 at West Ham United who, by currently sitting above Liverpool, must be considered part of this discussion.
Southampton are competing respectably with the sides around them in head-to-head encounters suggest they can maintain a top four position.
This Southampton squad clearly has the quality Ian Dowie so famously coined, evident in recovering brilliantly from a horrific spell in December.
After suffering five successive defeats in all competitions, including losing to Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs, according to many Southampton were headed for the abyss.
Those studying the performances, rather than raw results, could see Southampton had not played that badly. Man City are a top squad who played well, leaving them near unstoppable, whilst the defeats the following four defeats were by just a goal.
With six games coming across three weeks in the busy festive fixtures, it appears that everyone had totally forgotten quite how formidable Southampton had been thus far.
Not being a ‘big’ club, whatever on earth that means, seemed to me the players would simply be unable to recover after the first string of bad results.
The Saints have now gone seven unbeaten in all competitions, kickstarted by comfortable wins over Everton and Crystal Palace. Two days after handling the rowdy Selhurst atmosphere they gained a superb point at home to Chelsea.
Southampton completed the exorcism of their demons by defeating Arsenal and Man U, who had both beaten them the previous month.
That’s bouncebackability for you.
Southampton have the attacking prowess to sustain a top-four challenge. Just look at £12 million signing Shane Long, who can barely get a game.
Long has taken his chance when offered it, grabbing two league goals and a winner against Ipswich in the recent FA Cup match, where he was a constant menace.
Graziano Pelle has led the line superbly with 11 goals, though but it would be wrong to say they are wholly dependent on him.
The Saints have been excellent at sharing the goals around the team, with Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane contributing four each, with Tadic securing nine assists, too.
The midfielders have more than contributed as well, with Jack Cork, Morgan Schneiderlin and the beast that is Victor Wanyama all notching at least three strikes.
James Ward-Prowse has not scored but is second in the assist charts with six, all in the Premier League – no under-21 player across Europe’s top 5 leagues has more. Even the defenders have seven goals between them, with Clyne scoring three.
Add to these strengths a top-class manager in Ronald Koeman, and there are plenty of reasons why Southampton can be celebrating a top-four finish in May.