When Southampton walk out of the Wembley tunnel to face Manchester United in Sunday’s EFL Cup final, they will do as huge underdogs. Inconsistent form without arguably their finest player, few are backing the Saints to do anything other than show up for 90 minutes before Jose Mourinho gets his hands on the trophy for the fourth time. And that is just how Claude Puel’s team like it.
For years, Southampton have been routinely written off. The sale of their best players as well as the loss of some fine managers has led many to believe that the bubble around the St. Mary’s Stadium would eventually burst. Surely no club can routinely have their squad decimated and survive in arguably the world’s most competitive league? Southampton have proven it can be done.
That is not to say there have not been bumps along the way. Saints fans feared a relegation battle was on the cards during the first half of last season before Ronald Koeman worked his magic to ensure a top-six finish, while this time around Puel has struggled to ensure the same stability that previous Southampton sides have showcased, leading to some disappointing results and an early Europa League exit.
Despite that, a club that was relegated to the third tier of English football just eight years ago now stand just one victory away from their first major silverware since 1976. And that is certainly no fluke.
Southampton is a club built on its impressive academy structure, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain going onto enjoy stellar careers with Champions League regulars. The profits made from selling such individuals have played a huge role in building the club back up from the bottom, but it is not just the development of youngsters that has taken the club to where they are today.
Huge profits have been made on the likes of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert, Nathaniel Clyne, Jose Fonte and Victor Wanyama, and Virgil van Dijk will likely continue that trend this summer with the Netherlands international seemingly able to pick from any of the Premier League’s top six ahead of next season. It is this impressive scouting and player identification – spearheaded by director of football Les Reed – that sets them apart from most of their top-flight rivals.
Very few players come into St.Mary’s and totally flop. Even the likes of Dusan Tadic and latest signing Manolo Gabbiadini, both of whom arrived on the south coast with no prior Premier League experience, were able to hit the ground running. Perhaps the only man to fail to repay the faith shown in him by the club was Dani Osvaldo, who cost around £1 million for each appearance he made before being released. That said, with the Italy striker having gone well off the rails since his departure, it may not have been the worst thing to allow him to depart.
That is all history for this current crop of Southampton stars, however. Their EFL Cup run has seen them vanquish both Arsenal and Liverpool, and they are yet to concede a goal in the competition. Gabbiadini’s three goals in his first two matches since arriving from Napoli suggest the United defence will have to be at their best to keep out a genuine goal threat, though some might question whether the Italian should really be eligible to play given he was not with the club for the entirety of their run to the final.
At the other end of the pitch, with Van Dijk injured and Martin Caceres unlikely to be handed his debut having joined on a free transfer earlier this month, youngster Jack Stephens looks likely to again partner Maya Yoshida at the heart of defence and attempt to keep Zlatan Ibrahimovic at bay. Behind them, Fraser Forster’s penchant for huge occasions will likely need to be rediscovered from his Celtic days when Barcelona famously christened him ‘The Wall’ so strong were his performances against the Blaugrana.
They might be underdogs, but Puel and Southampton do have at least have an advantage in terms of potential energy levels. It will be 15 days since the Saints last kicked a ball in anger when Andre Marriner blows his whistle for kick-off, while during the same time period United have played three cup matches, including a trip to France in midweek. Though they won on all three occasions, there is likely to be some difference when it comes to fatigue.
But if Southampton do come out on top under the arches, then it will be down to far more than just having enjoyed more rest than their opponents. They are a club for others to aspire to, and major silverware would be just reward for how they have built themselves back up into a force in English football once again.