Southampton overcomes roster purge to excel early in EPL campaign
The English Premier League team that won 8-0 this past weekend wasn't unbeaten big-money Chelsea, nor defending champion and bigger-money Manchester City. Nor was it Liverpool, the club that bought three very expensive players from the club that did it.
No, it was Southampton, written off by many over the summer after a high-priced yard sale of its best talent, that thrashed Sunderland by that margin. It was just the eighth time in Premier League history that a team had scored that many goals.
Yes, the same Southampton that was relegated in the middle of last decade after 27 years in England's top flight, the one that then ran into massive financial difficulties and ended up relegated again to the third-tier League One. The one that spent two seasons down there, in large part due to a 10-point administrative penalty that caused them to miss the playoffs on the first try. The one that had to sell off teenage talents developed by their top-notch academy like Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to help balance the books.
The one that then earned back-to-back promotions to get back to the big-time, and was a couple of faulty transfer buys away from a real run at the top four last season. Then they sold off a ton of top talent for top dollar this past summer, and seemingly starting the process all over again.
So, times certainly have been tougher for the Saints than having to figure out a way to spend a $150 million-plus war chest. But no one saw this level of early success coming after manager Mauricio Pochettino also left, for Tottenham.
Enter Dutchman Ronald Koeman, who actually inherited a financially distressed situation at his last job, at Eredivisie club Feyenoord. Mostly a bust at his two jobs before that, at La Liga side Valencia and Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, Koeman has – so far, anyway – cobbled together an opportunistic offensive side with an extremely stout defensive backbone. It's not clear which development is more of a surprise.
Fueling the attack are Dutch League imports Graziano Pelle, who has six goals at striker, and Dusan Tadic, a nifty attacking midfielder brought in to replace Adam Lallana (sold off to Liverpool) for around half the price, and who already has seven assists.
While it's always risky to spin the Eredivisie Attacker Roulette Wheel seeing how inconsistently quality there translates to the Premier League, both players came with the familiarity of the manager, which helps. Koeman managed Pelle, a late-bloomer and newly minted Italian international, at both AZ and Feyenoord, and Tadic was very well known in that league last season, as he compiled 46 more chances created than anyone else and also leading the Eredivisie in accurate crosses. The combination has been deadly in the early going. (Now imagine if Southampton hadn't blown $20 million on Shane Long!)
While the offense certainly has been prosperous – the Saints already routed Newcastle 4-0 earlier this season, and stand with second-most goals in the league after the 8-spot vs. Sunderland – it's on the defensive end where they really are making a name for themselves and giving hints that this early form may be sustainable.
It felt like they overspent a bit for new goalkeeper Fraser Forster, but he's been excellent. The huge key, though, was drawing the line and refusing to sell defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin over the summer. He has combined with players like Victor Wanyama and Jack Cork to provide an imposing shield in front of a revamped back four that's also performed above expectations.
While the departed Dejan Lovren struggles at Liverpool, the Saints are receiving strong play from Jose Fonte and Toby Alderweireld centrally, and outside backs Nathaniel Clyne and loanee Ryan Bertrand also have been very good.
The net result is Southampton, while sitting back a lot more than it did under Pochettino last season, has become extremely stingy in terms of conceding goal-scoring opportunities. According to WhoScored.com, Southampton is currently allowing just 8.8 shots at goal per match, the second-lowest rate in the league. The club also leads the Premier League with more than 24 tackles a game, thanks in large part to the defensive midfield. So far, the Saints have only allowed five goals through eight games, three fewer than anyone else in the league.
This run may not end anytime soon, either. The Saints' next four league matches are home to Stoke City, at Hull City, home to Leicester and at Aston Villa. Southampton could enter the Nov. 30 home date with Manchester City with serious designs on a Champions League finish.
Of course, that's still a very long way off with 30 matches left to play, but Southampton's already come a great distance – from this past summer, from its past financial indiscretions, from its past ignominy as a third-division side. The academy is still kicking out top products that contribute to the senior team, and the club could enter January actually in position to buy thanks to its league standing and the leftover cash from the summer sell-off.
Everyone suspected the UCL tussle would remain among the five or six biggest clubs in the country, but early trends are suggesting they may have to make room for one uninvited guest.