The first six months of Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure at Southampton were a strange paradox. The Argentine failed to beat QPR, Newcastle, Norwich and Wigan — all, bar but Norwich, finished beneath them on the table — but led his side to victories over Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
This season, that rather odd trend has slowly been dispelled, with Southampton’s results approaching a more rational baseline. The results against lower ranked sides have improved, even if wins over Crystal Palace and Swansea have been tempered by two draws and a loss to Sunderland, West Ham and Norwich respectively. The fixture list has been kind but somewhat unsurprisingly the one major challenge, against Liverpool, resulted in three points.
If Southampton’s form over 2013 is any indication this weekend’s clash against Manchester United should, at the very least, represent a serious challenge for the defending champions. Judging from the table alone this match is a role reversal, what with United struggling under David Moyes and Southampton sitting in the Champions League places. A win here would remarkably put the away side top of the table temporarily but even in that circumstance the feeling is that the high-flying is only fleeting, and Pochettino is understandably keen to downplay expectations.
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“I’m fully aware that what we’ve done up till now doesn’t count for anything,” Pochettino said. “The players need to be a lot more self-demanding and ambitious and learn how to withstand the great expectation that is being placed on them.”
However the steady growth that the Argentine has fostered cannot be ignored. This time in 2013 Southampton were naïve, conceding eighteen goals in their first six games — largely attributable to a lack of discipline in wide areas. Nigel Adkins, to his credit, rectified the issue by shifting towards a more conservative, counter-attacking approach, and the timing of his sacking was odd.
But the appointment of Pochettino clearly illustrated the board’s desire to progress towards a more proactive style of play, even if features of the style are, in themselves, naïve. The principles of intense pressing, a high defensive line and furious, one-touch passing are different to the system Adkins started the season with, but similar in their risk — and it is why Pochettino deserves much credit for Southampton’s measly defence this season: they’ve conceded, remarkably, just two goals in the league.
It is not in spite of the high octane philosophy but because of it. Southampton box opponents in, and make it incredibly difficult for them to find space, even if it is conspicuously noticeable in the yards left in behind the back four’s incredibly high line.
What was interesting about their match against Swansea was the contrast between two of the Premier League’s most distinguishable sides. Swansea have become more direct under Michael Laudrup, but they still tend to keep the ball in deep areas, as a means of defence – whereas Pochettino is all about rapid, forward attacks, encouraging his side to play quick one-twos and risky through balls. It’s why their pressing is so noticeable: they lose the ball almost as quickly as they win it.
The opening five minutes against Swansea were an excellent demonstration. The Welsh side significantly struggled to implement their much-famed possession game, with Michel Vorm finding himself being hounded by a hard-running Pablo Osvaldo. Seconds later, the record signing had another opportunity to shoot, after Southampton caught Jonjo Shelvey in possession.
Osvaldo in himself represents Southampton’s new direction. At £12.8 million, he’s a club record investment, just shading the £12 million spent on Gaston Ramirez the previous summer. He’s effectively replaced the Uruguayan in the starting line-up, in the centre of a 4-2-3-1, and although the suspicion is Ramirez may help link the defence to attack Osvaldo’s ferocious work rate makes him ideal for Pochettino’s intense style of defence.
In an attacking sense, the combination between Osvaldo and the other attackers is yet to genuinely click. The 4-2-3-1 effectively becomes 4-2-4, with the physical midfield duo of Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama primarily sitting deep and allowing Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, Ricky Lambert and Osvaldo to interchange higher up. All four, though, tend to vacate that pocket of space between their own midfield and the opposition’s back four, and this tends towards unwanted long balls.
With the way Southampton have still managed to propel themselves into fourth position the temptation might be to say that things could get even better when they do finally ‘click’. But we have seen surges like this from mid-table sides before and Southampton’s energy-intensive style tends to lead to burnout towards the end of the season.
Like West Brom last year, Southampton will probably consolidate their fine start with a regression back towards the mean. Exactly what that mean is remains unclear but a win against United, followed by a loss to Fulham the following week wouldn’t be particularly shocking. Southampton might be the league’s most predictably unpredictable team and that, along with a very ‘hipster’ system, is part of their charm.
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