Should Southampton be venerated for its transfer policy?
Southampton lost to Liverpool on the weekend. In a process that took years, it essentially amounted to the club beating itself. The Reds are often looked upon as the Saints' first team; the club has sold so many players to the Anfield side. They've also sold a couple to Manchester United and Arsenal respectively. Football's economic model is what it is, but what might So'ton have been had they kept most of that talent?
One has to believe it wouldn't be the relegation-threatened side it currently is under Mauricio Pellegrino. The club has begun to pick up points of late, but what can only charitably be called an indifferent start to the campaign has them in trouble.
The Saints let the more defensive-minded Claude Puel leave in the summer, fearing they were losing the attacking flair for which they had become known under Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pellegrino. In doing so, they ignored that the Frenchman had led the squad to its highest top flight points tally ever, as well as to a League Cup final at Wembley.
A cavalier attitude towards player and manager turnover will eventually exact a price. The fact Puel has gone to Leicester and so quickly restored the Midlands club to one that can compete with virtually anyone in the Premier League, Manchester City being the universal exception this season, raises even more eyebrows with regards to the decision.
So, again, what if that attitude did not exist? How many from Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Morgan Schneiderlin, Luke Shaw, Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne, Ricky Lambert, and, most recently, Virgil van Dijk would still be playing at St Mary's? What about Jose Fonte, Victor Wanyama, Calum Chambers, and Jay Rodriguez, had he still come over from Burnley? How formidable might that squad be? And which manager would be guiding it? Nigel Adkins? Pochettino? Koeman? Puel? Certainly it wouldn't be Pellegrino.
There are further questions that could be asked as well. Would Liverpool be back in the top four frame without the seven players they wheedled and bullied from the South Coast club? Would Walcott have developed better by not moving to Arsenal as a teenager? And Spurs. Would they have taken it to the next level without their Argentine manager?
Southampton has survived through all the changes, but compare that to the good they have done other clubs.
Ricky Lambert has retired. Still, who is to say he couldn't have continued his form at St Mary's instead of struggling Merseyside? At worst, he would have provided veteran leadership for a young squad spilling over with talent but lacking experience. Whoever the manager, it isn't difficult to imagine Lambert wearing the captain's armband. He would likely have passed that duty to Adam Lallana, who was the inspirational leader at St Mary's before making the move Merseyside.
Injuries have diminished the impact a handful of the emigrants had on their new clubs. Walcott at Arsenal, Clyne at Liverpool, Shaw's horrific leg break at Old Trafford. Could all or some of those been avoided in this alternate reality? Health and form might have played out differently.
The current batch of So'ton stars would also be on different career paths. Could Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse have fought their way into a starting XI filled with the players who now don different kits? Would Victor Wanyama be a starter or splitting time with Mane rather than Willian? Would Manolo Gabbiadini have arrived to spearhead that cup run? It's difficult to say, but on paper Southampton could have had the type of side that might have done a Leicester before the Foxes coined the term.
Most importantly to the current Premier League reality, would Virgil van Dijk ever have wished to leave when surrounded by that lineup and guided by a long-serving capable boss? Liverpool paid £75 million for him last season because he was arguably the league's best defender in 2016/17. He and another top defender who was briefly in the side might have been branded the Premier League's strongest centre-half pairing.
Nigel Adkins was harshly sacked after guiding the club from League One to the top flight in the minimum span possible, three seasons. The club obviously bought into the popular opinion that the Premier League is an entirely different competition than the lower tiers. Never mind that Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche have thrived in the top flight. The Birkenhead native made the long journey from third tier to first with a core group including Lallana and Lambert.
The board's verdict on his ability was damning. He has never been given the opportunity to manage a Premier League side. Nor was he able to replicate that magic run while in charge at Reading and Sheffield United. He now has another opportunity with Hull City, although the ownership at the KCom doesn't inspire faith in such a feat.
Adkins was replaced by Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinian had a resounding season at St Mary's, leading Southampton to an eighth-place finish. A pragmatic, attack-minded coach, the former Espanyol boss made his players walk on hot coals during a pre-season tour in order to increase both their pain barrier and mental toughness. Pochettino also took Toby Alderweireld on a season long loan from Atletico Madrid. The Belgian certainly made an impression during his time on the South Coast. What might he and Van Dijk have done as a Low Countries pairing?
Promising season aside, Pochettino abruptly changed his mind about staying, perhaps when he saw his squad being auctioned off to bigger clubs. Had Southampton been willing to stay the course with its squad rather than make quick money, what might Pochetttino have achieved with players literally ready to walk over hot coals for him?
Ronald Koeman was next in and out the door. The Dutchman had more patience than his predecessor. He stayed two seasons. As well, he surpassed Poch's point total with the side before realising he would be asked to begin anew every season, and making the fateful choice to move to Everton.
Claude Puel had a fine campaign on paper. A seventh place finish and an unlucky League Cup final defeat to Manchester United were positive achievements. Yet his paper was printed in black and white when the board desired colour. Leicester proved more pragmatic than artistic.
And so the club has painted itself into Pellegrino's corner. The Saints are now in the first relegation place, although a single win could lift them as high as 13th. Such is the compact nature in the table's bottom half. If the Argentinian can convince his squad to forget the Liverpool result and focus on the positive ones prior, he has the talent to keep the club up. In the offseason, however, he will lose players and be faced with rebuilding all over again. Assuming he remains at St Mary's himself.
Southampton clearly have a very good infrastructure given the academy players who have come and gone through its ranks. More are on the way. Matt Targett is one to look out for. The young English fullback recently joined Fulham on loan. So'ton's policy is to keep producing and developing raw talent at academy level. It is also vital they continue scouting talent across the globe. The club is excellent at both. Even in this area, though, Southampton has its staff poached. Chief scout Paul Mitchell joined Pochettino at Spurs in November 2014, but has since moved on to RB Leipzig.
Economic reality made Southampton the Premier League's version of Benfica. However, the television money distributed to even the worst-performing clubs raises the question whether the Saints have become too attached to their transfer policy. The club would have needed to sell players to remain competitive, yes. But so many? Here is a sample starting XI that, barring injury, might be at Mauricio Pellegrino's disposal today:
GK: Paulo Gazzaniga (Spurs)
DB: Nathaniel Clyne, Virgil van Dyke (Liverpool), Toby Alderweireld (Spurs), Luke Shaw (Manchester United)
MF: Morgan Schneiderlin (Everton), Victor Wanyama (Chelsea), Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana (Liverpool)
F: Jay Rodriguez (West Brom), Theo Walcott (Arsenal/Everton).
You decide how ambitious Southampton should have been.