Southampton Were Once Innovators, But Those They Influenced Have Surpassed Them

Brighton and Brentford are doing what Saints used to do, but better
08:00, 13 May 2023

A club promoted to the Premier League, consolidating their position in the top tier by closing the gap between their modest resources and the riches of their rivals through clever recruitment, intelligent promotion of youth and by employing rising coaches and players who eventually get poached by the big boys. Brighton & Hove Albion? Brentford? Nope, this is the story of Southampton.

The three clubs do have plenty in common though. Brighton and Brentford have both overachieved since promotion through a mixture of canny signings bought before the big boys could gazump them and starlets nurtured in the academy. Brighton have seen Graham Potter poached by Chelsea and carried on seamlessly with Roberto De Zerbi at the helm. Brentford manager Thomas Frank has been mentioned in connection with some big jobs and will surely depart for a top six side one day.


But before these clubs were the hipster faves of IPA-sipping, SmarterScout users everywhere, it was Southampton winning the battle for geeky hearts and minds. It’s easy to see why. They came up to the Premier League as an unfashionable yo-yo club who controversially dispensed with proper football man Nigel Adkins when it wasn’t working. But what they built in his place became the model for how to do a lot with very little in the cutthroat modern Premier League.

Mauricio Pochettino was mocked by call-in shows and grizzled pundits alike for the fact he couldn’t speak English and the perception he was out of his depth. But the former Espanyol manager quickly changed people’s minds, as he replaced a rudimentary style that had the Saints heading for the Championship with a modern approach. After steering Southampton to a serene 15th-place after taking over from Adkins, ‘Poch’ led the club to 8th place the following year. 

The high-pressing style Pochettino preached would prove influential and eventually netted him the Tottenham Hotspur job. But rather than revert to type with an old-school firefighter, Saints looked to build on their newfound status as rising stars of the English game. Ex-Ajax boss Ronald Koeman joined and took the club to even greater heights. Finishing in seventh place, he followed it up with their highest ever Premier League finish the following season. After steering Saints to sixth, Koeman departed for Everton.


Pochettino and Koeman each built their empire on  cleverly-assembled squads. Academy stars like Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana rubbed shoulders with peaking veterans like Rickie Lambert, who came up through the leagues with the club, and future superstars like Sadio Mane and Virgil van Dijk. Southampton’s ability to unearth and polish the latter was a particular driving force in their success. It is a model Brighton in particular are now using to great effect, securing talents like Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo and then creating a demand for them.

Koeman’s replacement Claude Puel couldn’t replicate his high league position, but 8th was not to be sniffed at. What’s more, the Frenchman took his charges to the EFL Cup final, their first since 1979. But the low-scoring, defensive style Puel preached was not enough to satisfy Southampton’s success-hungry fanbase. Spoiled by the feast of the Pochettino and Koeman years, a season they would have killed for five years before suddenly felt like famine. Puel departed and the slow decline set in. There has been no more cup finals and Southampton have also not finished in a top-half position since. Be careful what you wish for…

Now they stare relegation in the face and it is easy to see why. Southampton, like many innovators, failed to move with the times. The once-cutting edge recruitment and best-in-class academy have been matched by other clubs. Like the advent of Prozone or the marginal gains made in nutrition, advantages only last so long before everyone else catches on. Everyone is looking for the next Sadio Mane now. Everyone is trying to appoint the next Mauricio Pochettino. If Southampton remain rooted to the bottom of the table and return to the Championship, they will need to take stock. Other clubs have usurped them. It is time to find a new identity if they are to breathe the rarefied air of the top tier again in the near future.

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