There are few things saps like us love more than a plucky underdog, part of the reason Southampton was the undeniable feel-good story of the 2013-14 Premier League season. Thanks to guidance of bright young’un Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton gave us high-tempo, confident, attacking soccer, often taking the game to teams with bigger names and far bigger payrolls. His team comprised largely of young, mostly English academy products became a perfect example for
hipsters purists who value old-school team building, swaggering its way all the way up to eighth in the table, For teams beyond the “big five” and the somehow-always-up-there Spurs and Everton, it was practically first.
But nothing so pristine can be allowed to survive in this cruel world, meaning Southampton’s fun, young core was destined to be dismantled this summer. Pochettino was the first to jump ship thanks to a combination of displeasure at his BFF no longer being in charge, knowing ownership was ready to cash in on players, and the fact that Tottenham throws silly money at a new manager every 12 months. Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren all followed (to Liverpool), while fullbacks Luke Shaw (Manchester United) and Calum Chambers (Arsenal) also departed up the table. If the rumors are to be believed, only injury prevented Jay Rodriguez from following his former manager to Tottenham, as well.
It was like Everything Must Go, but with more soccer, and less crippling alcoholism. The fairy tale was over, and the team was being plundered; that is, if you consider the club getting a return of 100 millions pounds “plundering.” Owner Katharina Liebherr decided that the only thing better than having shitloads of money is having a shitload or two more than before.
Then, a few weeks before the close of the transfer window, something strange happened: Southampton stopped selling players. Morgan Schneiderlin, the France international who’d become the Saints’ linchpin in the middle, had attracted interest from both Spurs and Arsenal. Saints rebuffed both, leaving poor Morgan behind. He was the kid whose parents forgot to sign his permission slip, and he let his feelings be known.
But Saints also seemed to realize that they needed at least 18 players to suit up every weekend. They actually signed some replacements – players new boss Ronald Koeman felt could be actually useful. Still, with their core ripped up and a manager new to the league, most predicted that they would do a Hindenburg this season. Regression was a virtual guarantee, and relegation was not out of the question. Ownership had chosen money over success.
Funny thing, though: The results haven’t turned out quite as predicted. The Saints started the season with a loss away to Liverpool, followed by a dull draw against West Brom. Not exactly disastrous, but nothing to suggest those preseason predictions weren’t on the money. It’s all downhill from here, lads. You can’t sell half a team and expect to get away with it. Then came a routine win at Millwall in the League Cup, a pair of absolute twattings dished out to West Ham and Newcastle, and a hard-fought win away at Swansea. Not bad, but still nothing to see here. Those teams are all in trouble themselves anyway. Next Southampton proceeded to knock Arsenal out of the League Cup by beating the Gunners at the Emirates. Fucking betting aggregator ruined again. Throw in another comfortable win against QPR (scoring the goal of the season, just for good measure), and it’s time to take this team seriously. Again.
So how did this happen? Annoyingly for those of us who hate being made to look like clueless asses, Koeman has continued to be a very competent manager after all. Graziano Pellè keeps forgetting he has an extra ‘L’ in his name, and two players you never heard of — Sadio Mané and Dušan Tadic — are providing guile and creativity in the final third. The summer leftovers, instead of sulking about the place like the last kids picked at dodgeball, are playing just as well as they did last year. (Better, in Schneiderlin’s case), while Fraser Forster and Ryan Bertrand have slotted right into the side. With Southampton’s fabled academy continuing to produce fresh-faced gems, the Saints are threatening to be decent.
Southampton has essentially bantered off with shithousery every soccer expert and casual fan that questioned the wisdom of purging its squad one transfer window. If the team continues this season on anything close to its current form, the campaign will be a victory not just for clever club management but for shameless asset stripping and profit-margin chasing.
The Saints will have shown that you can run a football club just like any other business, despite what the fans think, as long as the product on the field is good enough to keep them quiet. Malcolm Glazer must be dancing in his grave.