As the final whistle blew at Wembley confirming Arsenala s second FA Cup win in as many years, celebrations also erupted some 75 miles away, on the southern coast of England. The result in the cup final meant that Southampton had qualified for European competition for only the second time in three decades a a remarkable finale to a season that had defied all odds.
For most of Englanda s elite, the Europa League is at best, a poisoned chalice; at worst, a second-tier competition not worthy of serious attention or effort. For a club like Southampton, however, Europa League qualification is an outstanding achievement a a just reward for their record-breaking season. When St.Marya s saw the departures of manager Mauricio Pochettino as well as the likes of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Callum Chambers in the summer, some pundits predicted Southamptona s doom a touting them as contenders for relegation to the Championship. Absolutely nobody could have quite expected what was to follow a a seventh placed finish with the cluba s highest points tally in Barclays Premier League history.
Transfer Window Success
In retrospect, it is clear that the groundwork for the season that the Saints had was laid very early on, thanks to their excellent business in the summer a starting with the appointment of Dutch manager Ronald Koeman from Feyenoord. Koeman came in with the club very much in transition, selling some of its most important players from the previous season to the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. However, those sales meant that Koeman had significant funds to rebuild the team. Crucially, the money recouped from player sales was, for the most part, spent very wisely by the club a a key factor in the fantastic season the Saints had.
Koeman wasted no time in raiding the Eredivisie, bringing in Italian target-man Graziano Pelle from his old club Feyenoord, as well as creative Serbian midfielder Dusan Tadic from FC Twente. Defender Toby Alderweireld was brought in on loan from Atletico Madrid whilst left-back Ryan Bertrand was recruited on loan from Chelsea a a deal which was made permanent in January. Keeper Fraser Forster, winger Sadio Mane and striker Shane Long also joined the club from Celtic, Red Bull Salzburg and Hull City respectively. Southamptona s intelligent summer recruitment was boosted by the fact that the club were able to retain the coveted midfield duo of Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama a the former, in particular, one of the stand-out performers of the season. Almost every single one of the Saintsa signings proved themselves to be great value for money, and the start they helped Koemana s side make to the season set them up for their success.
Blistering Start to the Season Sets the Tone
Although Southampton went down to Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield on the opening day of the season, the Saintsa fans would no doubt have taken pride in the performance put up by their team. It was a sign of things to come, as Southampton put the Anfield loss behind them and began to pick up wins, helped in particular by their new signings Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle.
Koemana s side won 7 of their first 10 Premier League games, with Pelle contributing 6 goals and 2 assists in that period whilst Tadic chipped in with a goal and 6 assists. Their fantastic start included an 8-0 mauling of Gus Poyeta s Sunderland in October a a record margin for a top-flight win in the cluba s history a as well as a thumping 4-0 win against Newcastle at St.Marya s and an impressive 3-1 away win at an in-form West Ham United.
Koemana s side played some of the best football in the league during this period a rapidly gaining admirers with their technical attacking displays and fast transitions, utilising their full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand to great effect when going forward. At the end of the first 10 weeks of the Premier League, Southampton were at a remarkable second position in the league, behind only eventual champions Chelsea and ahead of the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool a thanks, in no small part, to their water-tight defence.
A Case for the Defence
Much of Southamptona s success this past season can be put down to their defensive solidity. Whilst the likes of Tadic, Pelle, Long and Mane plundered goals for the Saints, the defensive unit of Fraser Forster, Nathaniel Clyne, Toby Alderweireld, Jose Fonte and Ryan Bertrand kept them out at the other end, with a total of 15 clean sheets through the course of the season a conceding fewer goals than any other side in the league bar Chelsea. Fonte was a real leader at the back for the Saints, his consistency and brilliance throughout the season seeing him named, deservedly, as the Fansa Player of the Year as well as the Playera s Player of the Year at the cluba s end of season awards.
Both Jose Fonte and Nathaniel Clyne can be forgiven for feeling slightly aggrieved at their omission from the PFA Team of the Year, although left-back Ryan Bertrand did make the cut. Fraser Forster, were it not for his injury at the end of the season, could well have picked up the Golden Glove award, keeping 13 clean sheets through the season. Collectively, Southamptona s defensive unit was second a marginally a only to champions Chelseaa s. The defensive discipline that Koeman was able to successfully instil in his side was thus one of the most salient contributors to their record-breaking league season.
Inconsistency in the Second Half Costs Champions League Spot
To say Southampton missed out on a Champions League spot is more a testament to the standard of football Koemana s side played in some parts of the season, rather than a criticism of the team or recognition of failed objectives. There would be unanimous agreement that the Saints met their season targets a a respectable seventh placed finish and a spot in next seasona s Europa League. However, the blistering start Koemana s side made had fans hoping, if somewhat optimistically, of a top four finish. Unfortunately for the Saints, their season began to unravel somewhat during the festive season in December.
Going into December, Southampton had played just two games against opposition of a relatively high standard a Liverpool and Tottenham a and had lost them both. The newly assembled Southampton side headed into a particularly difficult run of fixtures in fine form, but what followed was a baptism by fire. Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United all registered wins against Koemana s side, as did the now-relegated Burnley. To their credit, the Saints did manage to recover from this poor run of form, but in truth, never truly regained their early-season swagger.
The conspicuous lack of goals from Pelle and the dip in form of Tadic undoubtedly contributed to the sidea s inconsistency in the second half of the season a the Saints won just five Premier League games till the end of the season after picking up three points against Newcastle on the 18th of January. Senegalese winger Sadio Mane was arguably the Saintsa best player in the second half of the season, scoring 9 goals after Christmas, including winners against Queens Park Rangers and Crystal Palace a accounting for two of Southamptona s five wins post Newcastle a as well as scoring against Arsenal and league-winners Chelsea. Mane also provided one of the seasona s most incredible performances against Aston Villa in the Saintsa 6-1 mauling in May, scoring the fastest ever hat-trick in Premier League history; the Senegalese required just 2min 56sec to get his three goals, breaking the previous record of 4min 33sec held by Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler.
Unfortunately for the Saints however, losses against Crystal Palace, Swansea, Stoke, Sunderland and Leicester City amongst others, as well as the resurgence of Arsenal and Manchester United meant that Koemana s side ultimately finished well short of the Champions League spots.
FA Cup and Capital One Cup Campaigns
This, perhaps, is an area where the Saints will feel they could have done far better. Despite an impressive start to the Capital One Cup campaign, including a win in the third round against Arsenal at the Emirates and a hard-fought win away at Stoke City, the Saints ultimately fell at the quarter-final stage to third-division side Sheffield United.
Their performance in the FA Cup also left a lot to be desired, as they struggled past Ipswich Town following a 1-0 win in the 3rd round replay, before falling to Crystal Palace at home in the 4th round. Koeman will be disappointed that despite the relatively early exits from the cup competitions, there was no intelligible advantage to their league campaign for the second half of the season, despite his teama s focus being on a solitary competition.
Player of the Season
The 31-year old Portuguese centre-back was probably the best defender in the league this past season behind John Terry. An ever-present in the Saintsa back-line, Fonte marshalled his defence like a true leader and was arguably the main reason behind Southamptona s miserly defensive record. The Southampton centre-half absolutely deserved a place in the PFA Team of the Year ahead of Gary Cahill, but did receive deserved individual recognition from his club a winning both the Fansa and the Playera s Player of the Year Awards.
Goal of the Season
Shane Long vs Aston Villa
In a game that will perhaps forever be remembered as the one in which Sadio Mane scored three goals in as many minutes, Shane Long scored one of the goals of the season. Stealing possession near the centre circle, Long advanced with the ball before deciding to curl one in from all of 30 yards with the inside of his foot a a simply outstanding strike from the Irishman.