The young English soccer season now has its first historic achievement. For the first time in the Premier League’s 28-year history, Southampton climbed into the top of the table, at least for a couple of days. In fact, this was the club’s first reign at the top of English soccer since 1988, making Friday’s comfortable 2-0 win over Newcastle United not just a boon in the moment, but a ground-breaking moment in the history of the 134-year-old club.
An early goal from Ché Adams and a late-game capper from Stuart Armstrong saw Southampton pick up all three points at St. Mary’s Stadium against a toothless Magpies side, a worthy result for the biggest surprise of the Premier League season to date.
With the win, Southampton has now gone six games without tasting defeat, after losing its first two matches of the season to Crystal Palace and Tottenham. During that unbeaten streak, it has defeated previous surprises Everton and Aston Villa, drawn Chelsea with a rollicking 3-3 scoreline, and dispatched lowly Burnley, West Bromwich Albion, and now Newcastle. The side even got a shot in at Donald Trump on Twitter following the win, so you could say that everyone in the South of England is feeling the hype:
This has been the type of run that Premier League sides need in order to over-achieve their projections, and picking up points against the lower side of the table should ease the Saints into, at the very least, a mid-table finish. Yet, there are enough positives to take away from the club’s first eight matches to believe that Southampton could have higher aspirations this year.
Perhaps the most impressive factor is that Southampton grabbed a comfortable victory without its top goal-scorer on the field. Danny Ings picked up a six-week knee injury in the closing minutes of the Saints’ 4-3 win over Aston Villa last week, and there was enough reason to worry about a goal-scoring drought coming into Friday’s game; after all, Southampton fell off a cliff last season whenever Ings was out with an injury. This is an improved side, though, despite not signing any new attackers beyond a loan signing for former academy prospect Theo Walcott from Everton.
Adams has been a big part of helping to spread the goals around; though Ings leads the club with five goals in seven appearances, Adams is right behind him, with three in eight. He’s tied with Southampton’s captain and youth academy product James Ward-Prowse, who has been a magnificent midfield maestro for the Saints so far, completing 85.6 percent of his passes and averaging nearly two key passes per game. Walcott has also been a playmaking machine after years of struggling in the post-hype comedown; he has two assists and leads the team with two key passes per contest.
Credit must go, in part, to Austrian manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, who has turned Southampton around from a side barely scraping by in the lower-mid-table to one flying high at the peak. He was on the hot seat last October, when Southampton lost a shocking 9-0 match to Leicester City, but the club stuck with him, saved itself from relegation, and is now reaping the rewards for the steady hand.
Hasenhüttl runs Southampton out in a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 hybrid that sees the side hold a high defensive line, while Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu patrol the middle of the midfield. The tactic has helped Southampton maintain some defensive rigidity while also allowing the front four to drive up and make runs into the box, where they flood the opposing goal with shots: 11.4 per game, with about half of those on target. The side isn’t the most creative in terms of dribbling, but they don’t need to be with so much off-ball movement.
Southampton will likely not pull a repeat of 2016 Leicester City and win the title; hell, the club isn’t even at the top of the table anymore, after Tottenham’s last-gasp win over West Brom took Spurs into first place on Sunday morning. But the Saints don’t need to be title contenders to be a success; it was only after a late-season spike in form that the side even stayed in the Premier League last year, following a lengthy scrap in the relegation zone. That it appears to be a solid contender to crash the European soccer qualifying spots after a fifth of the season is its own reward. Given how important it is to remain in the top division, the calm that comes with great early-season performances should also not be diminished. Southampton may only have one player considered a star, but the top-to-bottom quality on the team might just be enough to get them to new heights.