EPL: Mauricio Pochettino and the Saints' revival
It was Jan 18th 2013, the day Southampton FC would embark on a new journey. It was the day when Nigel Adkins was fired on the back of a fighting display against Chelsea, and Mauricio Pochettino, the former Espanyol boss, was appointed at the helm. The timing of the sack was shocking to say the least. Questions were asked as Adkins was a fan favourite who had just led them to promotion, which was on the back of impressive results against Chelsea and Arsenal. So were Southampton right in sacking Nigel? Yes.
Mauricio Pochettino had brilliantly assembled one of the best youthful attacking teams at Espanyol during his 3-year stint at the Spanish club. In his first season in charge, he saved them from relegation by winning 8 of the final 10 games after losing his first 9 games as the Espanyol head coach. He turned the club from ordinary to enthralling for fans and supporters.
And he was expected to do the same with the English team.
Now, after 11 games in charge, Pochettino’s team sit a comfortable 11th in the BPL table. They have scored 16 goals in 10 games and average 1.5 points per game with wins over Chelsea, City and Liverpool.
Along with Pochettino came his bright, high-pressing, fluid style of play to Southampton. The squad at St. Mary’s was a young bunch and had to acclimatise to this brand of football pretty quickly in order to avoid the drop. However, from the very first day, the Argentine knew how he had to deliver results and take the club forward. It all began with the players pressing high up the pitch and the defence holding a high line. Whenever possession went back to the opponents, the Southampton players would press for the ball as a coherent unit. Not just the strikers, but even the midfield would press up in the opponents’ half to retrieve the ball. The players definitely had to run more in this organised set-up. They began to take the attack to all their opponents, be it Chelsea or Norwich. The Argentine made them fearless. But along with this style, Southampton carried a risk of getting caught out in case of a concentration lapse. That said, the number of tackles and interceptions made increased and surprisingly enough, Morgan Schneiderlin has made more interceptions than any other player in the EPL this season with 112 to his credit. Credit Mauricio for that.
It has been the form of English striker Jay Rodriguez that has been the vital stimulus to the club. Ever since the change in management, Jay has scored against Manchester United, Chelsea , Liverpool and Reading, taking his tally to 4 goals. He had managed only 2 in the league under his former boss. He has re-ingnited his career, and is playing with a lot of grace and showing immense composure and impeccable technique to finish his goals. And through the revival of Jay Rodriguez, Mauricio Pochettino has formed a deadly duo of Jay and Ricky Lambert, who have been in scintillating form since the start of the campaign. To compound the attack further, he put in Gaston Ramirez in the hole with captain Adam Lallana taking the left flank and Davis the right. Morgan Schneiderlin played the holding mid which allowed the front five to press high up the pitch to win back the ball in the opponents’ half. This formation has made goals easy to come by, with versatility and quality both through the centre and the wings.
The coach clearly wants the Barcelona set-up at the club. He recently took his players to Spain to use the facilities at the Azulgrana’s training ground in order to familiarise his team with his ideology. The high pressing is something the Saints have started to do well but it is their passing in the final third that needs to improve. Playing that neat one-touch passing to create goals is what is being demanded of them, which is something that a newly promoted team normally doesn’t favour in the English game where muscle and strength take precedence over the technical aspects. Moreover, as a defending unit, they need to show more maturity as conceding goals has been their man vulnerability this season.
The freshness and the change brought to the system has seen a reversal of fortunes, but these are still early days for the Saints to be celebrating. They still have a hard road to travel on and with the Premier League getting more competitive every season, it can be said that Southampton have only just formed an identity and need to put in tons of work to carry it forward.