Last year Southampton were the apple of the Premier League’s eye under Mauricio Pochettino with all of the homegrown English talent they produced. Under manager Ronald Koeman, with much of that talent now at other Premier League squads, the Saints are even better than before. They are second in the table with only two losses and one draw to their name. Some have asked whether this start is a fluke or not. The answer is far more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.
Koeman has Southampton playing some truly beautiful football, and he’s getting the best out of his summer signings. Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle have been inspired finds from the Eredivisie, where signings can often be very hit and miss (see Wilfried Bony and Jozy Altidore for example). Sadio Mane has proven to be a revelation coming over from Austria, Ryan Bertrand has blossomed into a possible England international, and striker Shane Long has made an impression. The key players from last year have improved. They also have a quietly impressive goalkeeper in Fraser Forster (after a few bad gaffes this season), who has a 79% overall save percentage this season, which is the best in the Premier League by a significant margin. On a whole the Saints have benefitted greatly from three factors:
1) The Premier League’s overall lack of quality besides Chelsea this season
2) Having an uncrowded fixture list compared to their top four rivals
3) Playing only Liverpool and Tottenham thus far from last term’s top eight.
Those factors have converged in a Liverpool-like fashion of last season and combined with attractive and inspired football. Undoubtedly, the Saints are where they deserve to be right now. Staying there though will be difficult, as their fixture list becomes more cluttered and even more difficult as games against Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal loom. And if their form against Liverpool and Spurs is any indication, those games will not be easy. Both of those games ended in close losses, however, on the balance of play they probably deserved at least a point. If Southampton can achieve a string of decent results against the bigger clubs, then they will most certainly have proved their credentials as a candidate for top four honors come May.
Even the underlying analytical numbers are in favor of Saints. They have the best Shots on Target Ratio in the Premier League at 0.72 – the highest in the Premier League by a fair margin (Chelsea is 2nd at 0.64 – anything above 0.5 is credible).
Southampton’s start is no fluke. Their football has been brilliant, and they can only play who the fixture list tells them to. As the fixtures get tougher and more frequent, some may expect the Saints exceptional form to dwindle, but they’ve already surprised everyone this season by being one of the frontrunners in November.
Don’t count the underdogs out; the Premier League is a strange and increasingly competitive environment more than ever before.
Advanced Stat Numbers courtesy of Sam Gregory of sportsnet.ca. His piece on Southampton here: http://www.sportsnet.ca/soccer/southampton-premier-league-ronald-koeman-graziano-pelle-analytics/
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