Southampton has become the biggest surprise of this Premier League season. After being promoted just last year, they have catapulted themselves into third place after the first 11 matches. Even more amazing, they have the chance to go top of the league this Saturday if results go their way between Liverpool-Everton, and against Arsenal.
In looking back over last season, Southampton finished in a respectable 14th place with 41 points. Their -11 goal difference came from allowing 60 goals and scoring 49. What is interesting is that when they sacked Nigel Adkins they were in 15th place with a 5-7-10 record and 22 points. With Mauricio Pochettino in charge they finished the season going 4-7-5. This included finishing the season through April and May going 1-4-2. It didn’t look like much of a difference at the time.
I bring all of this up because the trend in Southampton seemed to be leading to them dwelling in lower table mediocrity. The Saints looked like a team that could possibly build into a middle of the table side in a few years, but probably a team that would need to fight to stay in the Premier League for another season or two.
Now that the 2013-14 season is 11/38 in, Southampton has shocked us all. My own preseason EPL predictions had them finishing in the bottom half and spending at least part of the season worrying about relegation.
In looking over statistics (thanks to WhoScored? as well as Barclays Premier League official website) the team isn’t dominating any particular area (except defensively), but seems to have put together a quality squad that knows how to play as a team and get results.
As a comparison between last season and this, we can look at the results they managed from the same set of eleven teams they have faced so far this year. Since Crystal Palace and Hull City are newly promoted sides, I used QPR and Reading as similar teams from last season (with both being promoted last year along with Southampton).
2 – 0
0 – 1
0 – 1
1 – 1
0 – 0
1 – 0
1 – 1
0 – 0
1 – 0
0 – 1
1 – 2
2 – 0 (Crystal Palace)
1 – 1
2 – 0
2 – 1
1 – 1
2 – 2
2 – 0
3 – 3
1 – 1
1 – 0
4 – 1 (Hull City)
As you can see, they went 1-5-5 while scoring 10 goals and allowing 15, along with two clean sheets. In this same set of fixtures this season they are now 6-4-1 scoring 15 and allowing five, with six clean sheets.
Through eleven matches in the 2012-13 campaign, they had a 1-2-8 record and only five points while giving up 29 goals and scoring 15 (as many as they have scored this year). They ended up finishing the season with a 9-14-15 record and 41 points.
Defense Makes the Difference
Southampton’s biggest change this season has been its defense. They really could have at least seven clean sheets if not for the wind assisted goal from Stoke City’s goalkeeper, Asmir Begovic, but will be more than happy with the six they have. Artur Boruc has done well this season, with 26 saves to go with the clean sheets, but he has really benefited from the defense in front of him.
Again, Southampton aren’t beating any records, but merely being a solid team. They have averaged a tenth best 13.3 interceptions per game, 20 tackles, two blocked shots, and 9.6 shots allowed (third best). Where they do lead the league is in the most fouls per game (tied with Stoke) with 13.6.
The interceptions and tackles, especially from midfield, are what have led this team. Morgan Schneiderlin is among the best in the league this year where he has an average of 2 interceptions and 3.9 tackles per game (sixth best). Behind him he has Dejan Lovren with 2.2 tackles per game and 2.5 interceptions (17th best in EPL) as well as Jose Fonte with 2 interceptions and 1.4 tackles per game.
While Victor Wanyama has made mistakes (like Hull City’s goal), his partnership with Schneiderlin has benefited them both in the center of the pitch. Wanyama has averaged 1.6 interceptions and 2.7 tackles per game. He also has a team high 2.6 fouls per game, which is enough to put him second in the league.
They do, however, only have 13 yellow cards and zero red cards. This does put them third in the discipline table (behind Cardiff and Norwich).
Offense Doing Enough
Offensively Southampton is doing enough, but does need to kick it up a notch, especially if they intend to challenge for a top four, or even top six. While they have averaged 13.6 shots per game as well as being sixth in possession percentage with an average of 56.9% they have scored 15 goals. This is somewhat deceiving considering that they put four past Hull City last weekend. Prior to last weekend they had scored more than one goal only three other times, all in home matches, against Crystal Palace, Swansea City and Fulham.
On offense, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez have made their claims to a spot on the England team by scoring four, three, and three goals respectively. Lambert has averaged 3.1 shots per game and has added three assists while Lallana has set up two assists and Rodriguez adding an assist.
Lallana has been the offensive catalyst for the team with an average of 1.7 shots per game resulting in a 15% goal conversion rate. Additionally he has added an 81.4% pass success rate as well as averaging 1.8 key passes per game (20 on the season and 19th best in the league).
So What? Statistics Can Be Misleading
Yes, statistics are fun to look at. So, I’m going to throw out a few more. Last season West Brom began the season quite hot and at week 11 were in fifth place. At this point of the season they had a 6-2-3 record by scoring 17 and allowing 12 to give them 20 points. By Christmas they had dropped down to seventh with 33 points (10-3-6). They would continue to drift from that point and finished the season in eighth place with a 14-7-17 record, a -4 goal difference, and 49 points. This is an excellent finish for them, but this was still 12 points behind Liverpool in seventh place and 23 points behind Tottenham in the final Europa League place.
This is where the big questions come. Can Southampton really sustain this form? Statistics can only show so much. There comes a point where teams need to be able to buy into a manager’s tactics and be able to put them into effect on the pitch. This is what Southampton has been able to do. They don’t go out and dominate. They go out and get the job done. They work hard, they press, they press some more, and they force teams to make mistakes while limiting the amount that they make. That is how you win games. My college volleyball coach used to say that it’s the team that makes the fewest mistakes that wins. We used to work on becoming mistake free and that is what I feel this Southampton team has been doing.
Coming up they have their biggest tests of the season. Following the international break are two away trips to London to face Arsenal then Chelsea. Southampton do manage to go home to take on Aston Villa (eyeing three points I’m sure) followed by Manchester City. December is filled with even more difficult matches for them including Tottenham at home just before Christmas, then Cardiff City in Wales on Boxing Day and Everton away. Just for fun, they get to start 2014 with a match on New Year’s Day against Chelsea.
We could hash out how these matches all went last season, but while history can always teach us something, this is a case where it’s best to forget the past and focus on the future. Southampton seem to be taking this approach and will continue to push their luck.
In making predictions for the Premier League, teams like Southampton make it very difficult. This is the most dangerous type of team to come up against since they are now a threat to every team in the league and have proven that they will challenge.
Where the Saints are right now, they know that other teams will not be taking them for granted. It is going to become a matter of how much they want it and if they can maintain their mental strength for the duration of the season, especially with the rush of holiday matches coming up.
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