By Jon Shay
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 Mauricio Pochettino, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Calum Chambers, Dejan Lovren, and Luke 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 of last term’s 56.
What gives? What if anything can Gooners learn 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 Manchester 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 losses at Anfield and White Hart Lane - 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 City 5-3 Manchester United, 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 Robin van Persie or Cesc Fabregas, 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, 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. Saints took in a tidy £105m in transfer fees this summer, inflated a bit in a seller's market. At the other end, they paid out a mere £64m. 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.
Ronald Koeman has come in and instituted a new practice regimen that focuses on training, technique, fitness, and exercises. He focuses on good possession play, technical skill, and movement.
Let's hope that the returns to fitness of Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud, and the absence of Schneiderlin, are enough to expose Southampton's underbelly to a point that allows Arsenal to claim all three points.