SOUTHAMPTON: The Saints of Southampton have surprised themselves. Some 11 games into the Premier League season they sit third in the table, a mere three points behind leaders Arsenal and heading the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester City.
This was not in the script at the start of the season. Had Southampton been sitting in midtable they would have pleasurably surprised opponents, media and even some of their own fans who questioned the strategy of Mauricio Pochettino.
His media-shy style did not help perceptions but his team ‘do all his talking’ out on the pitch. A team who conceded a floodtide of goals before his arrival in the middle of last season have lost only one game and let in only five goals so far this term, the best defensive record in the league.
More, they play a passing game which betrays admiration for Barcelona and Arsenal and mimics, at a more modest and aspirational level, the likes of Swansea. Any doubts about the validity of the rise of Southampton have been washed away by the sight of Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana being summoned into the England squad.
But then, national manager Roy Hodgson is a long-time admirer of a Southampton academy which has also produced the likes of Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain plus Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive footballer.
More young Saints may be bound for senior international honours, such as England under-21 left-back Luke Shaw.
He is as aware as anybody that the next two fixtures, both away against Arsenal tomorrow and Chelsea Sunday week, represent a massive test of their mettle.
Shaw says: “These games will show whereabouts we are and whether we can really challenge for the top. If you take points from either of these places, you know you are doing well. They are two of the biggest clubs in the league and hopefully we are going to go there positive – to pick up points.”