End of Season Review: Southampton make the grade
There is no question that Southampton have had a fantastic campaign in 2013-14. After a summer of expectation, I wondered whether manager Mauricio Pochettino could live up to it. He and the team did, and then some. After a start that saw Saints have one of the best defences in Europe, they had a natural dip when a couple of injuries exposed the squad's lack of depth. But they recovered and got back on track, finishing with their best-ever Premier League points haul (56). An eighth-place finish and a host of World Cup call-ups for the squad has been a great end to a thoroughly enjoyable season.
There are many contenders, but ultimately it has to be Adam Lallana. Having been with Saints since he was 12 and giving his all for the club in the dark days of Championship relegation and the rise again from League One, it could be argued that his first season in the Premier League was reasonably disappointing.
His second, however, was anything but, as he tore Premier League defences to pieces and drew comparisons to the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi! A player of the year nomination from the Professional Footballers' Association, international recognition, and more than likely an England starter in Brazil. Not bad.
Detention Now let me think, has anyone really been that bad for Southampton this season? No, can't think of anyone. Hang on. What about a player who joined the club as a record signing, got suspended for fighting with the Newcastle bench, head-butted a teammate in training and thus forced a club suspension before heading back to Italy on loan? Yes? In that case, Dani Osvaldo. His nightmare season was compounded by being dropped from Italy's squad just in time for the World Cup. I think they call that karma, Dani.
Put it this way: Brendan Rodgers was named the League Managers Association's Manager of the Year for improving Liverpool's league position by five places. Pochettino improved Southampton's by six, arguably a much harder feat given the clubs' respective resources. Pochettino has done a brilliant job as Saints head coach and some, like myself, fear losing him far more than any of the talented squad. If I have one criticism, it is that the FA Cup was not given the respect it deserves in a year that Saints could easily have made the final. Clearly, the Argentine has a bright future in management, gaining results with the added bonus of some of the most attractive football in the league. Let's hope that future is at St. Mary's, at least for a few more years.
Final Grade They deserve an A. To break into the top eight is a more difficult task than I think most understand. But to do it having been only three seasons out of the third tier and with a squad largely made up of homegrown talent is even better. Pochettino and his men deserve all the plaudits they receive, and also the speculation linking them with "bigger clubs." It might not be overly nice for supporters to hear, but it is the byproduct of people realising that Saints are a force now.