In Paul Scholes’ recent Independent piece on Manchester United, he stated that, “the third and fourth places – with respect to the likes of Southampton and West Ham – really are there for the taking”.
He’s right about the Champions League qualification places being open but he’s wrong in assuming that Southampton won’t grab one of them. They currently look far more like a top four side than not just United, but also Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs.
Having beaten Leicester 2-0 this weekend, Southampton have recorded seven clean sheets this season and conceded just five goals in total. That is an amazing statistic in a season in which no other Premier League side have let in less than double figures.
They’re equally effective in attack, with only Chelsea having scored more goals. The 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland might have skewed things a little but the fact remains that there’s only been one game in which Southampton have failed to score this season.
In the Premier League era, when a smaller team surprises everyone with a great start, it is generally only a matter of time before the wheels fall off and they find themselves back among the also-rans. Yet there is reason to believe that this is the time for Southampton to prove the exception to the rule.
Normally a smaller club will eventually pick up injuries which will derail their season. In Southampton’s case, they have more of a chance of holding things together. They still have players like James Ward-Prowse and Jay Rodriguez ready to return in the new year and plenty of money left over from their summer fire-sale to invest in a deeper squad.
When Southampton do spend, they do so wisely. In the summer they sold Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Luke Shaw for around £79m and replaced those players directly with Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle, Toby Alderweireld (loan) and Ryan Bertrand (loan) for less than a quarter of their summer income. The team is no weaker but the pot is full and ready to make the squad stronger.
Even if Southampton’s results do dip a little are the bigger clubs going to be able to sort out their shortcomings? They are eight points ahead of Arsenal, nine ahead of United and eleven in front of both Liverpool and Spurs. Arsenal are the closest to becoming a full-functioning team but it’s debatable as to whether Arsene Wenger will eschew his normal stubbornness to buy the players they need.
December is the month in which a lot of questions will be answered. Southampton have lost just two games this season, yet those defeats did come to the most feted teams they’ve faced - Liverpool and Tottenham. The run-in to Christmas sees Ronald Koeman’s side face Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea.
If they come through that relatively unscathed then perhaps even Scholes will become a believer. After all, the idea of Southampton playing Champions League football is not really that far-fetched, in a season in which their academy products Gareth Bale, Callum Chambers, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have all graced the competition.
It’s an idea that the whole country - including supporters of the top four’s usual suspects - should get behind. It would be a positive for the English game if a club like Southampton broke the monopoly. They play great football, produce homegrown players and have progressed by defining a philosophy and showing commitment to it.
Come to think of it, they sound a bit like a side that Scholes should recognise. Manchester United under Alex Ferguson.