After eight games of this current Championship season, Southampton fans were panicking. They had just watched their side lose 2-1 to Middlesbrough, their fourth consecutive defeat in the league and a result that saw them slip to 15th in the table.
The pressure on newly-appointed Russell Martin was simply huge. Despite the small sample, fans were already questioning the appointment of a manager who had only finished 15th and 10th with Swansea City at this level. The defensive mistakes were infuriating as Martin refused to change from his build from the back, possession-heavy philosophy.
While they were toiling away in the bottom half of the table, Leicester City and Ipswich Town were delivering the best starts to a Championship season we have ever seen. Seven wins from their opening eight matches apiece, they were setting a relentless pace and the duo were already 11 points clear of Saints.
With Leeds United also starting the season well, it was clear Southampton were not meeting expectations. They were losing ground, and the fans were losing hope in the new vision. But Martin stayed true to his principles in a bid to turn things around.
Inspired by Spain and Barcelona, as well as his own experiences as a player, Martin wants his team to have the ball. Always. When Southampton rocked up to Hillsborough for the Championship’s curtain-raiser, they broke the second-tier record for the most passes made in one half - 477 in total. It was a clear statement of intent from the new manager, who was keen to prove that he had what it takes to lead a promotion-chasing side to the Premier League.
Even when the losing run struck, which included a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Sunderland, he didn’t change. Some would call it stubbornness, but the young manager clearly held a belief that what he was attempting to do was correct. And he has been proven right in spectacular fashion.
Since that defeat to Middlesbrough on the 23rd September, Southampton haven’t lost. A quite frankly ridiculous run of 21 matches without defeat in all competitions has seen them rocket up the table, and they have now broken into the top two, ahead of Leicester vs Ipswich on Monday night.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround, and the Saints have set a new club-record for unbeaten matches during this run. They now sit top of the tree for that particular stat in English football, with Liverpool currently 14 league matches undefeated, Peterborough United 11, and Barnsley ten - which gives some sort of context to just how good Southampton have been over the past three months.
The principles haven’t changed, but the errors at the back have been eradicated as this Southampton squad got to grips with what Martin was after. In the recent win over Swansea, they scored a goal that typified what they have been doing this season ,as every single outfield player touched the ball in a 22-pass move that saw Saints eventually find the back of the net.
Martin’s win percentage as Southampton manager is now at 60%, which sees him tied third on the club’s all-time list. Given the revival for the current Saints boss, it’s easy to forget just how dismal they were last term in the Premier League, across a woeful campaign that culminated in relegation.
They finished bottom of the top flight, amassing a paltry 25 points, as Ralph Hassenhuttl, Nathan Jones and Ruben Selles all failed to get a tune out of the players. The appointment of Jones in particular was one that ultimately led to relegation. The former Luton Town manager was in charge from November to February, a key period in which the club won just one league game.
Remarkably, he was also the only man that prevented Manchester City winning the quadruple, as Saints also knocked Pep Guardiola’s men out of the Carabao Cup in January. Football makes absolutely no sense sometimes. By the time Southampton had realised their mistake, it was too late, and Selles - another inexperienced manager - was not the man to save them.
As is often the way, relegation is portrayed as a complete disaster for Premier League sides, yet it has allowed Southampton to properly press the reset button. They had lost their way in the Premier League. Once the vibrant fountain of youth products that consistently stunned the big boys, and made up a healthy chunk of the England squad, the club even reached Europe.
But over the last three years, there was a clear drop off in both academy products, and talented new signings. Once Mauricio Pochettino left, it was going to be tough to hit those heights again, but the club lost its way and slid down the table over a sustained period of time.
Rasmus Ankerson and Sport Republic, bought an 80% share in the club in the summer of 2022, and an ambitious summer of recruitment saw them purchase top young stars such as Romeo Lavia, Samuel Edozie, Gavin Bazunu and Armel Bella-Kotchap. The relegation season that followed was a surprise, but the club have regrouped in the second tier. The combination of relegation and the new ownership has provided them with the perfect chance to rediscover what their club is all about.
The squad remains one of the finest we have seen in the Championship. And because of that smart investment last summer, they made around £165m in player sales across the summer alone, including selling Lavia after just one season for a £44m profit.
It allowed them to continue their investment in young players this summer, going back to the well of Manchester City’s academy to pick up Shea Charles for £10m. It’s a solid business model, that’s for sure, but only if the players are getting results on the pitch. Fortunately, that is now happening and with the likes of Adam Armstrong, Stuart Armstrong, Kyle Walker-Peters and Taylor Harwood-Bellis, they have players who shouldn’t be playing in the Championship, spread all across the pitch.
There’s a rather large elephant just perched in the corner of the room as we speak so highly about this Southampton squad, and Russell Martin. They’ll likely only get one crack at this. Those players I’ve just mentioned won’t hang around in the Championship for long, while it also feels like Martin himself is destined to manage in the Premier League sooner rather than later.
It’s all gone swimmingly over the past three months, and Saints are the in-form team in the league at the moment. But they are also competing at the top of the best Championship season we have ever seen, and they can’t afford to put a foot wrong as they battle Leicester, Ipswich and Leeds for those two automatic places.
With 5th and 6th place still up for grabs, the play-offs this year are going to be stacked. It’s something that Southampton will be more than aware of, as they continue their relentless hunt for a top two spot. If they keep up this incredible form, the league title may not be out of reach.
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