There’s a plinth with a Ronald Koeman statue on it in the 1990s wing of English football’s hall of shame, as for the Three Lions, the former Dutch defender was one of the decade’s most notorious villains.
In 1993, England traveled to Rotterdam with its qualification hopes for the Diana Ross Soccer Shootout, um, USA `94, on the line. With the game goalless, Koeman hauled down David Platt as he raced clear on goal – a clear professional foul, yet he escaped with only a yellow card. Four minutes later, Koeman scored from a free kick.
England lost 2-0, didn’t go to America having made the semifinals four years earlier, and manager Graham Taylor was turned into a turnip by The Sun. Which at the time seemed massively disrespectful to root vegetables.
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Now here’s Koeman again, embarrassing England once more with his transfer acumen, solid tactics, and confident man-management.
Guy turns up at Southampton in the summer with the club in turmoil after losing its manager and selling most of its best players, leading plenty of wise, extremely intelligent observers to conclude that the Saints’ success would evaporate quicker than Carly Rae Jepsen’s.
Wrong! After beating Hull City 1-0 on Saturday, Southampton is second in the EPL with more than a quarter of the season gone, and Koeman’s outsmarting British managers who’ve been in the league for years. Southampton spanked Sunderland 8-0 and has conceded a ridiculously negligible five times in 10 league games. That’s half as many goals as Chelsea. It’s only one more than Juventus and Barcelona, and two more than Bayern Munich.
The “time to gel” truism (hey, Manchester United) hasn’t applied on the south coast, as Koeman has laid down some quick-set foundations. Southampton beat Hull with a starting lineup featuring only five players who were at St Mary’s last season. But the midfield trio of Steven Davis, Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin are still there, providing important continuity. Their ball-winning helps protect the defense, while full backs Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand are in outstanding form.
What’s Koeman’s secret? Maintaining a balance of British and foreign players, of youth and experience, and replacing like-for-like rather than grabbing the best player the club could find regardless of how well he’d fit.
“[Adam] Lallana left, so we have to bring in a similar player to Lallana. [Ricky] Lambert goes, so we have to bring in another striker. Spending the money in the positions that we needed was the most important thing,” Koeman said in the Independent.
“But what happened is not normal. Normally you would have to change one or two new players, instead of six or seven players. But this way it is more my team as I have my own players rather than what was left by the other manager.
“Good players, good quality players, can adapt, although it usually takes some time. This team looks like it has already been together for two seasons. But that is down to the players because they are good players.”
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Southampton chose to reinvest most of their summer transfer windfall back in the team, and it spent wisely. Sales brought in $140 million, but 10 players arrived for about $90 million. The club out-spent Manchester City and paid out less than only Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. Four clubs, Leicester City, Burnley, Aston Villa and Stoke, spent less than the $20 million Southampton lavished on Shane Long (who hasn’t scored in the league).
And the manager bought for today. Of the players Southampton paid transfer fees for, only Sadio Mane, at 22, could still be called young; the rest ought to be in their primes: 25, 27, 29, 26, 26. Two of their best players, winger Dusan Tadic from FC Twente and striker Graziano Pelle from Koeman’s former club, Feyenoord, were known quantities in the Eredivisie. They weren’t especially risky buys.
Southampton is next at home to Leicester then away to Aston Villa so its success ought to continue for a few more weeks. Then comes the acid test: Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United in consecutive games.
It’s not all down to them, of course. Whether Southampton opponents can solve it matters. So far – and it’s still early – the league only seems to have one outstanding team, Chelsea. And they’re far from flawless, notably at the back. Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool are all performing below expectations, raising the hope that this could be the year a genuine underdog finishes in the top four.
Money’s so entrenched and dominant in the Premier League that even a club of Liverpool’s status can look like an overachiever when challenging for the title. Since 2001-02, the first year that the top four English clubs qualified for the Champions League, no team with an average attendance below 35,000 has finished in the top four. Everton and Tottenham Hotspur have been the only eyebrow-raisers.
Laying aside Southampton’s defensive excellence, though, it’s not that unusual to find a minnow swimming with the sharks at this time of year, before the current becomes too strong to keep up:
- At this point in 2013, Southampton was fifth with 19 points from 10 games – only three fewer than today (they finished eighth).
- In 2008-09, Hull was fifth with 20 points from 10 games (they finished 17th).
- In 2006-07, Bolton was third with 20 points from 11 games (it finished seventh) and Portsmouth was fourth with 19 points from 11 games (it finished ninth … and are currently in the fourth tier).
- In 2003-04, Birmingham City was fourth with 19 points from 10 games (it finished 10th).
- In 2000-01, Leicester was third with 22 points from 12 games (it finished 13th).
You have to go back two decades to the formative years of the Premier League, when (bankrolled) Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest were good, to find clubs of similar stature to Southampton challenging at the very top of the standings late in the season.
Still, given the massive player turnover, a new manager, and the expectations that they would struggle mightily, that Southampton has started so superbly certainly counts for something, whether it lasts or not.