Why the Next 2 Weeks Will Determine If Southampton Are Ready For a Top Four Challenge

Southampton is currently third in the Premier League table and have already taken points from English giants Liverpool and Manchester United. Their early season success raises the question: “When are people going to accept Southampton as a serious Top Four threat?”

The rebirth of Southampton has been one of the better Premier League stories this season. Over the next two weeks, Southampton will play four matches, three of which will be against clubs challenging for the Top Four: Arsenal (away), Chelsea (away), and Manchester City (home). To this point, the Saints have done everything that could be asked of them. They’ve taken twenty-two of a possible thirty-three points in the league and only trail league-leading Arsenal by three points.

As timing would have it, Southampton’s latest challenge will take place this Saturday against the Gunners. Should the Saints win at the Emirates, there is a possibility that they would catapult to the top of the Premier League table. It would be hard to find a Premier League expert or fan who would have dreamed this possible at the beginning of the season. But the club’s resurgence is something that Saints’ chairman Nicola Cortese envisioned when he developed his plan to take Southampton from the bottom of League One to Champions League qualification.

Southampton has a well-documented history of producing talented players: Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shearer, Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are some of the more recognizable names. The foundation of the academy was laid down by former chairman Rupert Lowe as he employed Huw Jennings, Steve Wigley, Stewart Henderson and Malcom Elias to recognize and develop young talent.

Cortese and Southampton’s head of football development Les Reed analyzed the best way for the club to be competitive on the European stage. They have stated time and time again that they did not “copy” any other clubs. But Cortese feels Southampton were best suited to follow the example of Barcelona’s La Masia academy. The La Liga giant has nurtured young Spanish players to their style of play with enormous success. Since Southampton has been regarded for its development of young English talent, Cortese’s plan was to invest more funds into the club’s academy and implement a playing style that is taught from the bottom to the top of the club.

While many experts were down on young English footballers in general, Southampton and Mauricio Pochettino were optimistic of the players at their club. “The future of English football is good,” Pochettino recently told the Guardian. “English players are technically good, they are brave, daring and they only need to be allowed to show that on the field and that’s our responsibility. I think this club has been a pioneer in bringing up youth players and taking them to the top divisions. Moving forward, that is how we want to proceed, just reinforce that nucleus of home-grown players from the academy.”

Pochettino was recently named Barclays Manager of the Month for October, while Southampton’s on-the-field success also brought the attention of England’s national team as Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana were called up by Roy Hodgson for recent friendlies against Chile and Germany (joining Saints’ striker Rickie Lambert). Defender Luke Shaw and midfielder James Ward-Prowse (who joined Southampton’s academy when he was eight years old) are two 18-year-olds who play for England’s U-21s and have shined for the Saints. Ward-Prowse has been tipped by his manager to be “the next big thing” in English football. Full-back Nathaniel Clyne has previously played for England’s U-19 and U-21 squad and was recently pushing to be the fourth Saints player to be called up by Hodgson.

When asked if he would be adding to his squad during the January transfer window, Pochettino said this in the Guardian: “We don’t see that as a problem. We have a lot of young players coming from the academy that are pushing really hard. They are making a case for being in the senior team. Players like Sam Gallagher and Harry Reid – very exciting players. We have a lot of young players that guarantee us a very good future in the immediate future. We are covered.”

Southampton also boasts the second-best defensive record in all of Europe (trailing only AS Roma). The club has only allowed five goals in their eleven Premier League contests. The club’s high-pressing style and ability to squeeze the ball from its opponents has allowed Southampton to dominate possession. When they do lose the ball, they collectively win it back as a unit. Rather than defending their opponents individually, the Saints’ players attack in packs until they steal back the ball. That ruthless team ethic is evident in the way Southampton go forward too, breaking at a high pace and with continuous support.

Similar to Barcelona, there appears to be no “Plan-B” for Southampton. Whether the Saints are on the road at Old Trafford or at home in St. Mary’s, Southampton doesn’t adjust their tactics. Their opponents have to adjust to them.

The Saints’ belief starts from the top. Cortese and Pochettino are confident in the club’s direction and in the players who have led Southampton from the lower leagues of English football to its current position. But no one at Southampton is getting carried away by early results. “It is a good pressure to be vying at the top of the table, and it is good that we have gained respect but we can’t be complacent and let this go to our heads,” Pochettino said.

This mindset is reflected by Southampton’s young stars. When asked about the club’s ability to obtain European football, James Ward-Prowse responded: “I can’t see why not. If we continue improving every day in training and heading towards the game days making sure we’re focused in the right way, I can’t see why we can’t go all the way.” The midfielder continued, “From the first whistle, we put them [opponents] to the sword and we do that right through the game.”

Whether or not Southampton is deserving of its lofty league status will be better understood following the club’s next two league fixtures against London-powers Arsenal and Chelsea. The Saints then entertain Aston Villa before finishing up their testing two-week period with a home contest versus Manchester City.

Heading into the match at the Emirates, Southampton have an added incentive — revenge. The Saints lost last season’s match in London by a score of 6-1. Forward Jay Rodriguez spoke of the upcoming match, “Last year was a nightmare to get beat 6-1 there. But we’ve got a point to prove and we’ll go there looking to do that.” Asked if he was looking forward to the matchup, he said, “Of course I’m looking forward to that game, it’s going to be a great game and we’re going to take it to Arsenal so it’ll be a great occasion.”

Adam Lallana agreed. “We’ve got a busy December coming up, so I’m happy that I’m fully-fit. I’m just really looking forward to getting in amongst it this weekend at the Emirates. It’s a massive game. It’s top versus third so why can’t we go there and get a result? We’ve done it at Old Trafford and at Anfield already this season, so the lads will be full of confidence and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Southampton has put itself in a perfect position and it can sense that European football is within its grasp. The following two weeks will provide the club’s most difficult tests. As you can see, the Saints are primed and ready for this challenge. It’s time for them to seize the moment.

Editor’s note: For the latest Saints news, analysis and opinion, visit the Southampton team page.

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