It’s been a quite brilliant season for Southampton Football Club – is there anyone whose expectations they did not exceed?
Think back twelve months to when Mauricio Pochettino “masterminded” the Saints to eighth in the league with a record points tally and you would struggle to find any fan that would have predicted an even better campaign this time around.
Now think back nine months, and never mind struggle to, you wouldn’t have found a single fan who would’ve predicted it. The loss of first Pochettino, then Lambert, then Shaw, then Lallana, then Chambers, and finally Lovren left Saints fans not just fearing a bottom half finish, but one at the bottom of the league altogether.
While replacement manager Ronald Koeman had recorded successes in The Netherlands, he remained much of an unknown quantity in England and left with a largely depleted squad. He faced a difficult challenge. To his credit, as much as there was no shortage of outgoings from St. Mary’s last summer, Koeman was adamant to stamp his authority on his new club immediately, bringing in no fewer than nine fresh faces.
Defeat on the opening day to Liverpool would prove to be Southampton’s last for seven weeks as they went on a fabulous run of form, beating teams home and away, before being stopped in their tracks by a single Christian Eriksen goal at White Hart Lane. Yet they couldn’t have responded in better fashion as just six days later Koeman’s side put eight past Sunderland to record their best ever Premier League result. More wins followed away at Hull, home to Leicester and before a clash with Manchester City on November 30th, Southampton were second in the league. With twenty-six points from twelve games, relegation was no longer a consideration – suddenly Europe was on the cards.
It was a difficult December for the South-coast club though as they suffered defeat at the hands of Arsenal, Manchester United, Burnley and Sheffield United in a League Cup quarter-final, before eventually beating Everton on December 20th.
Koeman’s side bounced back though and despite being dragged back into ‘the pack’ by New Year’s Eve, wins at Old Trafford and at home to Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal left Southampton still very much in the top four race by the end of January. A fourth round FA Cup exit left Saints with only the Premier League to concentrate on for the closing four months and with goals banging in from left, right and centre, as well as the shrewdest of defences, the prospect of Champions League qualification was no longer a distant dream or a laughing matter. Expectations had changed, the pressure was on.
And soon they would get found out. As the season entered its final third, a squad that had used just twenty players all year began to suffer from the gruelling length of a Premier League campaign. The goals previously supplied by Graziano Pellè dried up; the dynamism of Dušan Tadić in midfield was missing and Fraser Forster was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury.
Two wins in eight followed and at a time when top four rivals Manchester United recorded six wins on the bounce, their chances of securing a Champions League qualification spot had all but slipped away. As May approached it was becoming abundantly clear that three clubs (Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton) were now vying for two Europa League spots. Despite a crushing 6-1 victory against Aston Villa on the penultimate weekend of the season, defeat at Manchester City on the final day left Southampton two points behind Liverpool in seventh.
While the European dream is not entirely shattered, Southampton’s final league position will only qualify them if Arsenal win this weekend’s FA Cup Final. Failure to do so and Southampton will still have their Thursday nights free next year.
Had it not been for the stuttering end to the campaign, Southampton would certainly have booked a top six place this season and so perhaps some may look back on the Southampton FC 2014-15 campaign disappointed at what might have been. There is no reason to be though: having been written off before a ball was kicked by nearly every pundit going last August, to finish seventh with the second best defence is nothing short of incredible.
Koeman was shortlisted for Manager of the Season and picked up two of the monthly awards this year, so there is no doubt that the work he has done at St. Mary’s has been remarkable. Rumours of more outgoings will surround Southampton all summer but if they can resist the sales and hold on to key personnel like Clyne, Schneiderlin, Tadić, Mané and Pellè, the fire-power is certainly there to compete amongst the Premier League’s best again.