The Premier League table is starting to take shape. If you have disposable income and/or a gambling addiction, now would be a good time to start placing bets. The usual suspects are scrapping for the top places, the three promoted clubs have settled uncomfortably into the relegation places, and the season’s only surprise package — Southampton — is now looking distinctly less Cinderella-ish in seventh place, just one spot ahead of where it finished last season. After flying high earlier this season, the Saints have regressed to the norm.
Even as the air is let out of Southampton’s balloons, however, this season should be seen as vindication of its approach. Despite predictions of an apocalyptic season, Southampton’s “everything must go” approach to last summer’s transfer market worked to perfection. Despite losing the likes of Adam Lallana, Ricky Lambert, Dejan Lovren and everybody else with an “L” last name from the payroll, Saints smartly rebuilt. They more or less picked up where they left off last season, catching the rest of the league by surprise.
As cynical as it sounds, a case can even be made that qualifying for the Champions League probably doesn’t even fit the model of what the Saints are trying to do. A fourth place finish may mean spending significantly on new players and wages in the summer. At a minimum, it will mean a great distraction as the club divides its attention between Europe’s premier club competition and the domestic haul. All this just to have a chance of keeping up with England’s real Joneses.
The chances of turning a profit in the transfer market (as happened last summer) will go up in smoke. The extra revenue next season will compensate for this, but only in the long run. And let’s face it – Southampton won’t be in the Champions League in the long run. United or Arsenal or whichever club’s place it takes will quickly outspend them. Southampton is almost better off having another fire sale, and then trusting in the ability of its manager, the productivity of its academy, and the track record of its scouting network to keep the team competitive.
Inasmuch as the Premier League is an unapologetically capitalist enterprise, running a soccer club should never be about turning a profit. So to advocate for Southampton to persist with an approach that puts money into the pockets of the ownership rather than investing more money into the team feels icky. But after selling off everything that wasn’t bolted down last summer (except for Morgan Schneiderlin, right), the string-pullers at the club managed to replace those players with cheaper, equally good replacements. Even Ronald Koeman has coached at least as well as Mauricio Pochettino. The people at Southampton seem to know what they’re doing, and if the model ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Some perspective is also needed on the scope of Southampton’s achievements this season, before getting too carried away. As impressive as its form has been, the level of competition isn’t what it used to be. The 2015 Premier League is the “Michael Jordan on the Wizards” version of the English top flight. It’s still good, but the old magic just isn’t there. Southampton has improved from last year, without doubt, but it hasn’t made some quantum leap. Had the season ended in January, then maybe there would be a case for changing tack. After all, it would be hard to justify blowing up a Southampton team that finished in the top four in the top flight for only the second time in its history. But as things stand, a sixth or seventh place finish is hardly the kind of irresistible temptation that would have fans baying for a large scale investment in the current team.
Sports are supposed to be ambitious and aspirational, and as fans, we all want our teams to take their shot at the big time. But the cost of flying too close to the sun can be almost impossible to recover from. Ask Leeds. Without a Manchester City/Chelsea style sugar daddy takeover, there’s only so far Southampton can go. Overachievement is a wonderful feeling, but a fleeting one. There is real danger in a club buying into its own hype and leveraging its future for the sake of a few away days in Turin or Barcelona.
So when Tottenham comes begging for Schneiderlin this summer, cash in. That desperate Serie A side whose imagination won’t see beyond overpaying for Graziano Pellè? Don’t dissuade it. Jose Fonte, Dusan Tadic, and Saido Mané to the continent? We’ve seen it before, just as we’ve seen players like Nathaniel Clyne draw ridiculous fees because England is on their birth certificates. And every time Southampton cashes in, it finds a way to rebuild.
Southampton can see the last two years as an excuse to consolidate and spend its way into dreams, or it can stick with a model that’s produced such a stable, enviable reality. Sometimes, the smart move is to just stay the course.