Most people laughed back in September when newly-signed midfielder Victor Wanyama claimed: “I believe one day Champions League football is achievable at Southampton”. And yet now, one month later, the south coast club are sitting pretty in fourth place, level on points with Chelsea and above the likes of Man City, Tottenham and Man United.
While it is almost certain that Southampton won’t maintain their high position throughout the season, it does warrant asking if the Saints are becoming set as a strong Premier League outfit that can start challenging for European competition?
There has been a noticeable trend in the last few Premier League seasons, whereby at least one ‘outsider’ has exceeded all expectations and given the big boys a serious run for their money. Last year West Brom finished eighth; the year before Newcastle ended above Chelsea in fifth; and two years prior it was Aston Villa who came sixth, finishing above Liverpool.
Unlike all of those teams though, Southampton’s strength lies in its defence more than its attack. Through seven matches, they have conceded just twice. The next tightest back four is Chelsea’s, who have let in double that. Centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte are forming an almost impenetrable continental combination in the middle, but have also scored crucial goals. Lovren got the winner at Anfield, while Fonte secured a point against Sunderland. Behind them, Artur Boruc is a decent early bet to be goalkeeper of the year.
Wanyama himself has also proved rock solid at the base of the midfield, and is clearly one of the strongest and most athletically gifted players in England. He is well supported by overlapping left and right backs who have the confidence to get forward because of the excellent centre-back combo. Danny Fox, Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne have all shown intent and confidence in helping out when the team is pushing up the field.
On attack, Southampton have hardly been world beaters. Before their win over Swansea at the weekend, they were averaging less than a goal a game. Even so, they have found a way to score at crucial times, and the combination of Dani Osvaldo and Ricky Lambert upfront is tricky for any side to mark. They also have some pretty exciting attacking English talent in the midfield and on the flanks. 18 year old James Ward-Prowse is one to watch, while Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez have continued their good form from the end of last year.
While the starting line-up is very solid, squad depth could become an issue as the months roll on. This will be especially crucial when they hit tough patches in the schedule. Liverpool are the only ‘big’ club Southampton have played thus far, so it won’t get any easier. In November and December, they will face Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Tottenham amongst others in one hectic four week period.
That said, there won’t be a team this season that finds it easy to break the strong defensive triangle of Wanyama, Lovren and Fonte. Don’t be at all surprised if Southampton end the season with one of the top four defences. Yet you can’t help but feel that they are one or two injuries away from imploding. It’s going to be an interesting ride this season for the Saints. They have young attacking talent, fantastic defensive structure, as well as a tactically astute and passionate manger. They also spent well in the summer which would suggest they could do so again in January. Now all that needs to be tested is their resolve and consistency as the season wears on. Still, things look very bright for this south coast club at the moment. Who knows? Victor Wanyama may have been right after all.