02 December 2014

What, if anything, can Arsenal learn from Southampton?

Southampton are by far one of the darlings of the season thus far, sitting third despite losing five key players and a manager a summer after their best-ever Prem finish. Most, if not all of us, had written them off as relegation-stragglers after seeing Pochettino, Lambert, Lallana, Chambers, Lovren, and Shaw leave for what appeared to be greener pastures. As it currently stands, of course, all of those who left are looking up the table at their former club, perhaps wondering why the grass again appears greener on the other side. After all, with just over a third of the season gone, the Saints have already earned 26 points—almost half what they finished with a season ago, when they ended on 56 points. What gives? What if anything can Gooners glean from their success to this point?

First off, let's admit that Southampton have had a bit of a soft ride so far. Their loss at home to Man City comes with a heavy asterisk to indicate the absence of Morgan Schneiderlin, and beyond that, their toughest fixtures came early in the season in trips to Anfield and White Hart Lane, also losses but losses attributable to the growing pains of bedding in so many new players under a new manager. However, as the season has proven, there are few if any easy fixtures, not when we see results like West Ham 2-1 Man City, Leicester 5-3 Man U, Crystal Palace 3-1 Liverpool, or Tottenham 0-1 West Brom. Pulling those previous two sentences together, it's striking to see how well Southampton have done while losing so many key players and adding so many new ones when Liverpool and Tottenham before them have struggled to do the same.

We at Arsenal haven't faced the same degree of turnover as Southampton faced in the summer, but we know what it means to lose key players. Losing a talisman like van Persie or Fàbregas, around whom an entire squad might be built, is a challenge. Tottenham couldn't do it last season. Liverpool are struggling to do it this season. Losing five players in one window might feel insurmountable. Among other metrics, the Saints lost 24 goals and 17 assists from last season's squad, not to mention the other, intangible qualities that a squad depends on: familiarity, chemistry, friendship, etc. The five players who left account for 152 starts (36.4% of a Prem season)—and that doesn't include the depature of other key players like Pablo Osvaldo or Artur Boruc.

Southampton's transfer business this summer is a model of shrewdness. Southampton took in a tidy £105m in transfer-fees this summer, inflated a bit in a seller's market. At the other end , Southampton paid out a mere £64m in transfer-fees. In what might amount to heresy when the £37m acquisition of Alexis Sanchez seems to have paid handsome dividends, which club seems to have done the better business? Instead of wringing our hands over the players we lose, we might do better to wring the clubs who sign those players out of every last pound. An 18-year old left-back sold at £33m? Done. A solid centre-back who helped his club win La Liga and very nearly win the Champions League, loaned in? Done and done. And on and on.

Stop me if you've heard this before. A manager comes in and institutes a new practice regimen that focuses on training, technique, fitness, and exercises. He focuses on good possession play, technical skill, and movement. If we were to go back in time nearly two decades, we might be talking about Arsène Wenger: an attractive, highly-technical playing style, shrewd transfer-dealings that consist of selling off prized assets and unearthing diamonds in the rough, the development of young players...however, it's 2014, and the preceding description is of Koeman. It's enough to make Gooners feel like they're looking in a mirror that is at the same time a fountain of youth. We've gotten a bit jaded, a bit besotted, by early successes and have as a result been eclipsed by clubs more-voracious in their transfer-business. In Southampton, we face a rival who may not match us for finance but who just might equal if not exceed us in ambition.

It's perhaps telling that we at Arsenal are calling for an international curtain-call for Thierry Henry, who made his last appearance in 2012, while Southampton are eyeing up first-time international call-sup for the likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Graziano Pellè, and José Fonte. The contrast is stark: Arsenal, the "big" club, looks back to its glory-days while Southampton, the "plucky" club, looks ahead to glories yet to come. Should Arsenal win on Wednesday (yes, please...), well, all of the aforementioned amounts to folderol. Should Southampton win (or draw, fates forfend), well, I don't want to contemplate that just yet.

Let's hope that the returns to fitness of Koscielny and Giroud, and the absence of Schneiderlin, are enough to expose Southampton's underbelly to a point that allows Arsenal to claim all three points.