Southampton have been tipped to implode for months. They were the team separating the title chasers City and Chelsea in November. They lost heavily to a rampant City side, and we all thought that was the beginning of the end.
Fourth place was still on, though. But they look too far away at this point.
The goal now is to beat Spurs -and former manager Mauricio Pochettino – to a Europa League spot. Easier said than done, of course, but Southampton are in a bit of a dilemma just at the moment.
This season the Saints have been a revelation. Which is strange – they captured hearts last season, with Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez as a front three lighting up the league, Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren solid at the back, and Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama starring in the middle.
All of those player, though, attracted more glamourous suitors, and there was a bit of an Exodus from St Mary’s in the summer.
The team everyone tipped to struggle, though, have really had a great season by anyone’s standards under Ronald Koeman. Not just by the standards of a team missing its best players after a summer of departures.
But although this season has been wonderful for Koeman’s side, we do always look to the teams doing well and if they aren’t playing European football alongside their league and domestic cup games, we wonder if their form would have faded if they had played games in midweek too.
This might be one reason for Southampton’s success this season, but it’s harsh to say it’s the only one. They’ve certainly played some wonderful football, and they’ve based their attacking prowess on top of the meanest defence in the league.
So perhaps European football – especially in the dreaded Europa League – next season might be a bad thing for the Saints as they try to build on their wonderful season this time around and cement their place among England’s elite.
The last teams to threaten the cartel who dominate the European places, Everton and Newcastle who both finished fifth, ended up a long way down the table the next season. Newcastle were involved in a relegation battle, and it’s still unclear if Everton will be sucked into it. Though they’ll more than likely be OK.
Travelling to exotic destinations would really test the mettle of Koeman’s men, and they’d need to strengthen in the summer to be able to deal with all the games and travelling. The Thursday – Sunday turnover seems to mess with most teams, and there’s no reason to think that Southampton would be any different.
Yet, although the Europa League may be a blessing in some ways, not getting a European place could be even worse for the team’s future development.
Clubs were circling like sharks for Southampton’s best and brightest stars in the summer. Lambert left to play Champions League football for his boyhood team, and the fans have accepted that as a valid excuse for leaving, but they are bitter about the departures of the rest.
Without European football next season, Southampton may struggle to hold on to other top players like Schneiderlin and Wanyama or even Nathaniel Clyne and Fraser Forster who have earned England call-ups because of their wonderful form.
These players could tempt bigger clubs, and could be tempted themselves by bigger wages and Champions League football. Callum Chambers, for example, seems to have gained an England call-up quite simply on the back of his move to Arsenal.
So this is the dilemma facing the Saints over the last few games and over the summer. If they qualify for the Europa League, they might be able to hold on to their best players, and maybe even attract new players to strengthen the club. Yet they run the risk of fading away next season, and maybe still losing some important players to bigger teams anyway, and that’s the kind of thing that sets a club back and halts progression.
But if they don’t qualify, the situation may be even worse, strengthening the squad would be tough, and losing players would look all but inevitable. Yet they’d have another season to try to continue to build and create a squad capable of qualifying for Europe next time and competing on two fronts.
Europe can be a blessing and a curse, and not qualifying for Europe could also be a blessing and a curse.
Southampton face uncertainty over their future, but only a few short years ago they were languishing in League 1, so the fact we’re even talking about Europe is incredible. It might not be an easy situation in which to find yourself, but it’s never easy at the top – and that’s exactly where the Saints hope to be.