x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Manchester United next for ruthless Saints

Clash with the languishing defending champions is a stark pointer to reversal of fortunes, but can they hold their own again, wonders Richard Jolly.

There is healthy competition for places at overachievers Southampton. Glyn Kirk / AFP
There is healthy competition for places at overachievers Southampton. Glyn Kirk / AFP

One side is fourth, the other ninth.

When the fixture list pitted Manchester United and Southampton in October, it may have appeared a little pessimistic to predict the defending champions would be outside the top three after a couple of months of the campaign and a little optimistic to suggest the Saints would be in the top half. But it would not have been outlandish.

Except, of course, that it is the other way around. Southampton occupy the Uefa Champions League spot while United are marooned in mid-table.

Mauricio Pochettino’s team may be the season’s greatest overachievers, while David Moyes’s side are the premier underachievers.

“There is a lot of the season left to play,” Pochettino said.

Now, however, Southampton are in their highest position for almost a decade. A 3-0 win over Portsmouth in December 2003 took them to fourth; 17 months later, they were relegated.

Go back three years to the day and they were 15th in League One, 59th in the footballing pyramid. They have climbed 55 places since then, a rise that only a man with the vaunting ambition of the executive chairman, Nicola Cortese, could have considered possible.

Three years have made a difference. So has one. Southampton conceded 20 goals in their first seven league games last season. Now their defence has been breached only twice, by Sunderland’s Emanuele Giaccherini and Norwich City’s Nathan Redmond. It is the most frugal in the country.

Including the League Cup tie against Bristol City, they have gone 472 minutes without conceding.

If they can keep Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie at bay and make it 562 minutes of unbroken resistance, the back four may be find themselves bracketed among the division’s best.

It is pertinent that while Southampton again were big spenders in the summer, their cheapest addition was also the best, the £9.5 million (Dh56.5m) centre-back Dejan Lovren, who has defended impeccably and also contributed their winner at Anfield.

A glance at Southampton’s goals-against column may suggest they are a negative team, but the reality is that players are committed high up the pitch in Pochettino’s pressing game. Morgan Schneiderlin led the division in interceptions last season; this time, he is nearer the top of the tackle count, because he is willing to chase the ball.

“The players fully believe in how we’re playing,” Pochettino said. “That enables us to get the results we’re getting.”

That Schneiderlin’s sidekick, Jack Cork, lost his place to the summer signing Victor Wanyama is also a sign of the swift pace of change. Two other stalwarts of last year’s team, Jason Puncheon and Steven Davis, have been loaned out and relegated to a bit-part role, respectively. With expensive imports such as Wanyama and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, others have had to make way. One theory is that Rickie Lambert, who is yet to gel with Osvaldo, may be the next loyal servant to be demoted. The ruthlessness of Cortese, who fired the popular and successful manager Nigel Adkins so he could upgrade to Pochettino, is being mirrored in selection.

And yet theirs may not be an inexorable rise. “Teams are already looking at us in a different manner and respecting us more. With every win, matches become harder,” Pochettino said.

But solid as Southampton have been and deserved as their memorable victory over Liverpool was, the fixture calendar has done them favours. They have played teams at the right time: Sunderland, who still took a point at St Mary’s, during Paolo Di Canio’s odd reign; West Bromwich Albion before they were revitalised by deadline-day signings; Swansea City three days after Michael Laudrup’s team had played a demanding European game; and West Ham United when they were short of both strikers and creators.

The acid test of their credentials comes during a 30-day period in November and December that brings meetings with Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham, but this is a serious examination. If Saints go into that demanding run still ahead of United, more will be convinced.

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