You might think that Ronald Koeman would be a little irritated. Twice, his Southampton side have led Tottenham Hotspur at home. Twice, they have been pegged back, once by an Erik Lamela handball. They have been the better team, they have played the better football, but they are left with just a single point from a match that will prove crucial in the battle for European qualification. And yet Koeman seems entirely unruffled.
“It was a fantastic football game,” he beams. “I enjoyed it very much.”
Koeman has been like this since he first arrived at the St Mary’s in the summer. When star players seemed to be leaving the club on a daily basis, he made light of it, posting pictures of an empty training ground on Instagram. When an unexpectedly successful season raised the possibility of Champions League football, he didn’t let it affect him or his players. As that possibility faded with sad inevitability, he remained calm. In these parts, triumph and disaster are treated just the same. “That’s football,” says Koeman of the Tottenham game, and apparently he says this quite a lot.
Sadly, something else that is typically ‘football’ is the feeding frenzy that follows every impressive season by an unfancied club. Southampton lost Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert last year. Koeman has already felt moved to hold a meeting with his players to warn them about the distractions of transfer gossip. Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin are the two most likely to leave, but there are others who must have pinged the radar of the Champions League teams, most notably Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand. For Southampton, this summer will be every bit as anxious as last summer
In this, they are hardly alone. Already the predators are circling Eindhoven where PSV have finally broken Ajax’s lock on the Dutch league. Wolfsburg, nearest challengers to Bayern Munich in Germany, will be picked apart before long. By August 1, Lyon’s dressing room will look like the inside of a Hatton Garden vault. Welcome to modern football where the elite kill their competitors in the cradle.
Koeman insisted this week that he at least would be staying at Southampton next season and there’s no reason to disbelieve him. The 52 year old was linked with Barcelona earlier in the campaign, but that was at time when their manager Luis Enrique was struggling to find a way to play Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in the same team. Barcelona have won 13 and drawn one of their last 14 games. They are no longer struggling and there will be no vacancy at the Nou Camp this summer.
You can see why Koeman is so cherished. It’s not just his attitude and it’s not just the results. There’s an air of professionalism about this team, orthodox disciplines providing the foundations for invention and individuality. Through it all runs a profound sense of team spirit. Sadio Mané, quick and tricksy, works as hard to regain possession as Schneiderlin in the midfield. Clyne and Bertrand cover so much ground that their names should appear twice on the team sheet. This is not a team playing above its level, Southampton deserve to be here. But for how long? Borussia Dortmund have shown this season that even champions cannot expect to sell their best players to their rivals and get away with it every year. Sooner or later, the replacements will fail to make the grade.
Les Reed, Southampton’s Director of Football, has spoken frequently of the ‘black box’, the club’s recruitment and analysis room where plans are drawn up long in advance for the departure of key players, and the manager too. Southampton, rather more than Liverpool, have made the partnership between the manager and the recruitment department work well, but they’ll need to repeat their success this summer.
It is to be hoped that they do. Koeman’s smiling realism is as necessary a riposte to the hyperbole of the Premier League as Southampton’s progress is to the notion that only the biggest clubs can succeed. Perhaps neither will prove resilient enough to stand the test of much more time, but for the Southampton fans who followed to their team to the third flight and back, it will certainly be fun while it lasts.
Can Southampton keep this up or will Koeman experience a Difficult Second Season in 2015/15? Let us know: [email protected]