Southampton: Will England Call-Ups Spell The Beginning Of The End?
There is an effect in Renaissance painting called chiaroscuro, a marked contrast between light and dark, used to delineate difficult parts of a painting for dramatic effect and depth. Southampton FC, basically, is in a period of chiaroscuro itself - over-achieving in the table against a backdrop of uncertainty and potential upheaval come the summer. While yesterday’s announcement of the England squad highlights the good work done by Mauricio Pochettino’s team, will it simply accelerate the onset of gloom on the south coast?
Roy Hogdson’s squad for the friendly against Denmark features four Southampton players, more than any team except Manchester United and Liverpool. While it contains many of the same old faces, there is a vibrancy too, injected in part by the selection of a trio of young Saints, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, and, of course, Luke Shaw. The old-stager, in league terms at least, Rickie Lambert also receives a call-up.
This is, without doubt, a recognition of Southampton’s superlative start to the season which, while it has dropped off of late, saw Pochettino’s squad combine defensive solidity and high pressing with a short, incisive passing game, plenty of pace, and some scintillating football. Shaw has been outstanding, learning from a few early defensive lapses to become one of the stand-out left-backs in the Premiership. Lallana has grace and poise, drifting laterally behind Lambert and bounding into the box to finish off moves, and Rodriguez, a one-time record signing for the Saints, has impressed as a left inside-forward. With Southampton’s much vaunted youth system and impressively scouted catchment area yielding new prospects like Callum Chambers, who has recently impressed at right-back, the future for the club seems rosy, further excitement generated by the international selection granted the players by Mr Hodgson.
However, all of this is occurring against a backdrop of uncertainty, if not outright turmoil, at the club itself. The much-publicised departure of Nicola Cortese, who tendered his resignation last autumn and left at the beginning of the year, has doubtless unsettled the club and the playing staff. It was Cortese who brought in Pochettino to replace Nigel Adkins, a move widely derided at the time that has since shown itself to have been a masterstroke. However, Pochettino, whose reputation has grown leaps and bounds since leaving Espanyol, was very much Cortese’s man and, indeed, suggested he might leave the club if the Swiss financier ever did. Disputes about the level of control exerted by Katherine Liebherr over finances and signings are said to have prompted Cortese’s decision and this kind of behind-the-scenes friction can unsettle even the most united and focussed squad.
And the squad are united and focussed, certainly. However, as has been recently suggested by José Fonte, part of the reason for this is that players are trying to get themselves in the frame for World Cup selection, as Southampton are unlikely to finish much higher than seventh or eighth and have no cups left to compete for. The continued success of the players is also largely down to a manager who may not want to stay at the club past the end of the season, especially if Southampton do not qualify for Europe, and who has surely been doing well enough to attract envious glances from La Liga, where he played successfully for years and started his coaching career.
If Pochettino leaves, players like Shaw are likely to be further unsettled and there are already suitors out there for them. Shaw is the most widely linked with other clubs, including Arsenal, Chelsea, and both Manchester teams, but the way all three young Englishmen play would suit any of those teams, as well as Liverpool. A team of the size and financial clout of Southampton simply could not compete, and the corollary to having an excellent youth system is that there is always a temptation to cash in on interest in players as the club feels it has more young starlets waiting in the wings. The greatest lures for players, after money, are winning and loyalty to a manager who has got them playing well enough to be selected for a national team. Southampton are light years away from that kind of success, except maybe in a cup competition next season, and if Pochettino goes, the temptation for gifted players like Lallana and Shaw to agitate for a move may increase. Being in the shop window afforded by a place in the national squad is only going to increase this kind of interest from other clubs, especially when having home-grown talent is still a significant driver for the large teams when it is available.
Southampton, therefore, may be a victim of its own success. By playing the sort of football that has received envious glances from bigger teams, and even beating some of them, its players have received well-deserved call-ups for the England team. But, come the summer, with potential managerial change, a mooted sale of the club, and potentially significant exposure for its players on the world stage, Southampton’s shining season may give way to darker times. It would not surprise me if the sole player left at the club come September 2014 from Mr Hodgson’s squad is Rickie Lambert. Southampton’s manager and players might be leaving the club the victim of its own success.