It’s just not the way the Premier League is expected to work is it? What on earth are Southampton doing up in the Champions League qualifying places?
A simply wonderful achievement, hugely deserved, and a giant pin in the bubble of those with the money, size and entitlement – Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal – Liverpool and Tottenham to an extent as well.
I haven’t expected their lofty position to last. And I still don’t. They won’t qualify finish in the top four for the Champions League, with apologies for pointing out that you don’t need to be a party pooper to understand their talented, well drilled, high achieving young squad is neither good enough nor big enough to sustain this through to the end of May. Really it isn’t, I’m sorry.
So let’s celebrate it now. And let’s focus on the moment I for one threw my hands in the air and conceded: “These guys. They really can play.”
The 1-0 victory at Manchester United was one of the greatest achievements in the club’s history. I’m serious. This was the moment the reality check should have arrived properly. Yet they were never in danger!
Traditional wisdom pre-game pointed otherwise. An improved United v Southampton punching above their weight. United win. Venue, Old Trafford: United win. United’s goalscoring potential with Van Persie and Rooney reunited by Di Maria: United win. Van Gaal the supposed master v the younger pretender Koeman. United win. Southampton would leapfrog United into THIRD if they took three points! Yes, no doubt, United win.
But United didn’t manage a shot on target. Southampton weren’t just well organised by Koeman, it was an absolute masterclass. The longer you watched the action unfold the more certain you were that United couldn’t break Southampton down. When Van Gaal ludicrously called Southampton ‘lucky’ post match it failed to deflect from the lesson he should have been taught about how to win an away match.
Southampton better than the mighty Manchester United in every department. That’s quite an event, regardless of United’s problems in the last couple of seasons.
Many have more faith than me in Southampton’s ability to stay up there, that’s why I’m languishing mid-table in ‘fantasy football’ this season! I’m not picking their players, I am still waiting for the natural order of things to be restored.
They have a first team that embodies the word team but they better hope injuries don’t catch them out because if and when the boys are playing, not the men, they shouldn’t be expected to keep Southampton up there in the top four.
But how on earth do they find these players? I speak figuratively of course because their academy system, coaching and scouting is world famous. Like a conveyor belt the stars emerge, shine and are sold. Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chambers, Shaw and Bale among the recent diamonds. Ward-Prowse and Reed still at St Mary’s. For now.
It seems a long time ago, but it was less than five years ago, Southampton were in League One. But they developed a long-term plan and look where it’s taken them.
It also seems a long time ago Nicola Cortese dramatically left the club and the doom mongers predicted dark times ahead.
And the summer of 2014 seems a lifetime ago. When Schneiderlin (the Frenchman who has been superb in midfield) despaired of the stars who shone last season being sold.
But three of them, the three Ls Lambert, Lovren and Lallana could have formed a group called the Lost Boys. They Lost their form as soon as they arrived at Anfield. And back down at St Mary’s those who took their places have sparkled. Let’s face it, none of us outside of Southampton saw them doing this well. But
what it clear is that THEY believed in themselves all along.
So it’s quietly and reluctantly I say I am not sure they have got this long-term plan entirely right. To me they sold too many players as usual, and have indeed required an element of luck to have most of their star players fit and retaining form. In fairness to them they have been without striker Rodriguez and their signings have been excellent.
It’s a nice development that Les Reed, whose spell in the England set-up was tainted by some hapless dealings with the media under Keegan – in Euro 2000 he was pretty much made a fool of – and who ‘failed’ as a manager has been instrumental in their development of talent.
But perhaps the main revelation is Koeman, so well respected but who has hardly pulled up trees in his coaching career so far. And while his team have done the talking he has remained every bit as cool as the player
who shone for the Netherlands, and famous won the European Cup for Barcelona against Sampdoria at Wembley.
Let’s cherish this unexpected story, let’s hope they CAN sustain it, but please let’s not EXPECT too much.
There must be something in the air on the south coast of England at the moment because Bournemouth are seriously threatening to reach the promised land of the Premier League.
I believe Bournemouth will sustain their challenge until May. I suspect Southampton won’t. But that doesn’t lessen the admiration one bit.
The world should respect and be inspired by the achievements in a league dominated by the big boys.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport