Southampton totally surpassed expectations a couple of seasons ago by establishing themselves in the Premier League and playing a highly effective brand of football based upon patient possession and pressing high up the field. Their football was easy on the eye was and rewarded with a fully deserved eighth place finish, equalling their best ever Premier League position. Their manager Mauricio Pochettino marshalled his troops efficiently and effectively and incredibly, three players from such an unfashionable team, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Rickie Lambert were named in England’s World Cup squad.
Everything in the garden seemed lovely with the club on the crest of a wave – and then the vultures pounced. Lallana, Shaw and Lambert were the first out of the door, swiftly followed by star defender Dejan Lovren and the impressive young Calum Chambers, all for vast sums. Manager Pochettino left for Spurs and it seemed only a matter of time before two of the remaining stars, Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez joined him.
The fans wailed and gnashed their teeth, the club was accused of greed and lack of ambition and were nailed on favourites for relegation last season. So what happened? Dutch manager Ronald Koeman seamlessly replaced Mauricio Pochettino and The Saints made a number of astute signings in the summer, including winger Dušan Tadić, striker Graziano Pellè, goalkeeper Fraser Forster attacking midfielder Sadio Mané and loanee centre back Toby Alderweireld. None of these players were as heralded or expensive as the stars they replaced yet the newly built squad improved on the previous season and finished seventh.
This close season has yet again seen the departure of even more high profile players in Schneiderlin, Alderweireld and Nathaniel Clyne but they have all been replaced by players of apparently comparable ability at far less cost. Schneiderlin’s replacement, Jordy Claisie was signed for well under half the twenty-five million pounds the club received for their departing midfielder as was the case with Clyne’s replacement at right back, Cedric Soares.
Southampton’s business model is brave and innovative and should be examined closely by every other far-sighted club in the country. Everyone has his price and can go if that price is achieved. Nobody is irreplaceable. Every football market around the world is scrutinised for emerging talent and potential bargains not yet spotted by less astute rivals. New recruits are carefully identified and scouted before being brought in at under market value and they all ideally have massive development and resale potential.
The structure and system is far more important and long-lasting than any one individual and analysis and knowledge are the keys to success as they enable the club to buy low and sell high.
I hope that any Brentford fans reading this have had the patience to stay with me to this point as I am sure that they will fully recognise the massive similarities between what Southampton have achieved over the past couple of years and how they have done it, and what is happening now at Griffin Park.
I am writing this article on the eve of a new season and am trying to assess the evidence as to how Brentford will do over the coming months. Can they match or even surpass their incredible fifth place finish of last season or will we become also-rans or, perish the thought, return in ignominy from whence we came so triumphantly in 2014?
We have lost a number of players from last season’s tight-knit squad. Tommy Smith and the under performing Nick Proschwitz were both gently ushered out of the door. Alex Pritchard and Jon Toral returned to their parent clubs after jobs extremely well done. Young defender, Alfie Mawson, understandably preferred the prospect of immediate first team football at Barnsley rather than an uncertain future at Brentford. Striker Will Grigg was deemed not to be up to scratch and was despatched to Wigan in return for a seven-figure fee. Tony Craig returned to Millwall with our heartfelt best wishes and thanks for three years of unblemished service. Stalwarts Richard Lee and Kevin O’Connor both retired and Jonathan Douglas moved to Ipswich when it was made clear to him that after four good years he was now surplus to requirements. Stuart Dallas wanted the opportunity to play every week, something that was likely to be denied him at Brentford and rejoined Uwe Rosler at Leeds for a fee of well over a million pounds. More contentiously, star full back Moses Odubajo left this week for fellow Championship rivals Hull City who met his release clause fee of three and a half million pounds.
The supporters have understandably been disturbed and unsettled by the loss of so many players as well as the Andre Gray saga which still remains unresolved. Hull have been banging at the door for him for the past week or so but have not matched our asking fee which is reputed to be in the region of eight million pounds, along with another two million pounds in add-ons. Whether the deal is resurrected or another club comes in for him is unknown at this stage but the star striker, so impressive in preseason with four goals to his name, is expected to lead the attack against Ipswich on Saturday. The situation there is quite simple, the club currently holds all the aces and Gray will only leave if we are overwhelmed by an offer and he would, of course, be replaced by another player of a similar ilk.
We are in a confusing new world where players will regularly come and go, with the ones that either surpassed themselves or even fell short of expectations being replaced by cheaper, younger and ideally more promising new arrivals from off the conveyor belt that hopefully never stops.
Odubajo made it clear in his interview today that he considered Hull to be a bigger club than Brentford, and however much it hurts and angers us to hear such comments, I am afraid that they are the unpalatable truth for the time being, until we identify and obtain new revenue streams. I fully suspect that Moses has at least tripled his salary after his move and unfortunately money talks and Hull City, bloated and replete with Premier League television money and now parachute payments, have far, far more of it than us.
Let’s look on the bright side, we have brought in eight high quality recruits with, I am sure, more to come before the end of the transfer window. Andreas Bjelland and Yoann Barbet look as if they will strengthen our central defensive options. Konstantin Kerschbaumer has impressed as an all-action midfielder, Andy Gogia has shown pace and trickery on the flanks and strikers Philipp Hofmann and Lasse Vibe have excellent track records. Midfielder Ryan Williams is a promising low cost gamble in midfield and unfortunately Josh McEachran has broken his foot and is hors de combat for the forseeable future.
However unsettled supporters are feeling, they need to take comfort from the fact that no less than eight of the members of the successful team that began our last few matches last season remain at the club with only Odubajo, Douglas and Pritchard having departed. Moses will undoubtedly be replaced shortly and stringent efforts are being made to identify a playmaker who can replicate or even better Pritchard’s achievements of last season. Perhaps Jota will be given the chance to play in the middle where he could well prove to be more influential than he is when isolated on the wing? Players like David Button, Jake Bidwell, Harlee Dean and Alan Judge can also only improve after the experience and confidence they gained last season.
How will they gel as a team? The jury is still out as the preseason preparations were hampered by injuries and uncertainty. Premier League Stoke City were well beaten as we demonstrated our full potential but we were similarly outplayed last weekend at Norwich City. There is also a totally new management and coaching team who are also settling down in their new surroundings.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This needs to be our motto and mantra for the foreseeable future. Let’s simply look at the Southampton model, acknowledge its success and then replicate and adapt it. It will take some time to get used to the new way of the world and it might well be a little while before our new squad finds its feet but I am certain that this season will ultimately prove to be as exciting, fulfilling and successful as last year.