Southampton FC, Europe and This Summer

Eljero Leap Newcastle

January has been a hell of a month for Southampton FC fans. Who’d have thought that at this stage of the season, we’d be in third place, and in with a genuine chance of qualifying for at the very least, a European spot? I certainly didn’t

I think, as I’ve said before, that I have to eat a bit of humble pie when it comes to Les Reed. Over last summer, which was traumatic for everybody at the club if Ralph Krueger’s interview in the Mail Online is anything to go by, the club seemed at times to be falling apart at the seams. Many people, myself included, were asking big questions about the future of the club, and about Reed’s stewardship of the footballing side of the club. And then…

Well, several inspired signings later, we find ourselves going into the end of January in fine form.

The biggest turning point for me was the victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. Funnily enough, it wasn’t just the result, but it was the way we set about it that was most impressive. To be able to go to United, a team who had spent over 150 million on striking options in the summer transfer window, and prevent them from registering a single shot on target, was a Herculean feat. And much of the credit for that has to go down to the tactical nous of Ronald Koeman, who has to be manager of the season, along with Sam Allardyce at West Ham.

The most impressive thing to me about Koeman is his pragmatism, which has gone a long way to securing our impressive points tally this season. He doesn’t set us out to try to blow away teams like Manchester United and Chelsea with a display of open and attacking football – he looks to invite these teams to attack, and try to steal something on the break, and with the pace we have wide with Clyne and Bertrand, Mane and Elia

Gone are the days of gung-ho football that we saw under Pochettino. It’s been replaced by a steely resolve to shut out teams, and the confidence and the ability to do so. I think that in a way, much of this is down to Koeman’s decision to give the captaincy to Jose Fonte. Fonte has been one of the exceptional performers this season – calm and composed on the ball, so much seems to flow through him, and we are certainly not a team that is scared of building moves from the back. In fact, Jose has completed more passes than any other player in our team this season (794 to be exact, with an 86% completion rate), showing his value to us in being able to build moves from the back. Liverpool definitely signed the wrong player in my view – thankfully.

Two questions remain though…

1. Will we qualify for the Champion’s League?

We have our destiny in our hands with this one. Looking at our fixture list, we have a lot of winnable games coming up. We are definitely out of the woods when it comes to consecutive difficult fixtures. But all of the teams we’re playing against have something to play for this season – the Premier League is tighter than ever.

We have never had a better chance to qualify for the Champion’s League – and a top four finish is certainly possible at this stage. But a lot relies on the depth of the squad going into these difficult few matches. In a way, it’s great that Mane and Yoshida were away during January when we were motoring along – they can come back into a side that is full of confidence, and hopefully add to that. Eljero Elia has been excellent so far for us, and I am excited by the prospect of playing Mane through the middle, just behind Pelle, with Tadic and Elia out wide. It’s a dangerous attacking line.

Elia Newcastle

If we add to the squad over the next couple of days, with the rumoured incomings of the highly-rated Tonny Vilhena and Filip Djuricic – I would be confident that we can keep our good form going for the remainder of the season.

Yes, it will be tough – a lot like our two promotion seasons. The other teams around us will win games, and keep winning. We cannot rely on other teams slipping up – we must rely on our own form. This is a test of our mental toughness and our squad depth. If both of these hold out for us, then I see no reason why we can’t qualify at the very least for the Europa League, and at best, the promised land of the Champion’s League.

2. What happens next?

With Jack Cork leaving (as I predicted) and joining Swansea, and James Ward-Prowse signing a new contract, it’s clear that the club are already starting to focus on next season. Much of what happens between now and the end of the season will influence the squad that we have going into the start of next season.

Players like Schneiderlin, Alderweireld and Clyne will be playing in the Champions League next season – regardless of whether they are with us or not. As long as we are in the Champion’s League spots, I think they’ll be happy to stay. If we fail to qualify, we can kiss them both goodbye – with our best wishes.

The good news is that we have ready-made replacements for these players in Matty Targett and Harrison Reed, who have both excelled this season when called upon. A lot was made about Jack Cork’s departure, and yes, whilst he was an excellent servant for us over the five years he was here, at some point you have to put the faith in the players you are developing internally. I can see bright futures for both Reed and Targett in our first team, but I think that Koeman will be looking to bring in at least one more experienced replacement in the right back department.

At the moment, next season is very much a ‘wait and see’ scenario for us. Last season, it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to be pushing for Europe, or in a relegation tussle at this stage of the season, which allowed us to look ahead to the summer, and the following season with a mixture of excitement and dread. This season, we have to keep our options open for as long as possible – and you can bet the players will be too.

But let’s try remember through all of this that this is what top-level football is all about – the ups and downs on the pitch should be dictating the ups and downs off of it – not the other way around.

These are good problems to have.

This is proof that we are growing.

So let’s enjoy it.

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