LONDON – By the end of this weekend’s Premier League fixtures, Southampton and West Ham could both be in the top four. Such a prediction in August would have brought ridicule because both clubs were “in crisis” with West Ham manager Sam Allardyce apparently hanging on to his job by his fingernails.
They are the success stories of the season, their achievements mainly due to astute dealings in the transfer market, though in Southampton’s case their elevation to second place is far more involved and meritorious.
When executive chairman Nicola Cortese quit Southampton last January, many Saints players took to social media expressing their disappointment. Cortese was close to the players and was the power behind the rise of Southampton, a man not afraid to make unpopular, but ultimately justified decisions for the good of the club.
The new Southampton owner, Katharina Liebherr, has quietly, but effectively gone about the business of continuing her late father’s commitment to Saints, keeping the lowest of profiles, leaving chairman Ralph Kruger to take charge of the day-to-day running of the club.
After Mauricio Pochettino jumped ship to Tottenham and Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovran joined Liverpool plus Calum Chambers moving to Arsenal it was, we were told, the end of Southampton. Relegation was an inevitability after a summer of chaos, said the doom and gloom merchants. They could not have been more wrong.
Southampton has a history of appointing good managers and while Ronald Koeman was untried in the Premier League, a coach who had won trophies with Ajax, Benfica, PSV and Valencia came with a solid CV. The Dutchman knew his way around the European market and boy, has it shown.
Saints had received £92 million for their outgoing players last summer and spent £57 million on Sadio Mané (£12 m, Salzburg), Shane Long (£12 m, Hull), Dušan Tadic (£11 m, FC Twente), Fraser Forster (£10 m, Celtic), Graziano Pelle (£8 m, Feyenoord) and Florin Gardos (£4 m, Steaua Bucharest).
A profit of £35 million and not only no sign of any weaknesses, Koeman’s Southampton has become stronger, while of those who departed only Lallana is showing anything like the form they displayed last season.
In contrast, Tadic, who finished top of the Eredivisie’s assists table last season with 14, while his 16 goals made him the fourth-highest scorer in the division, has been a revelation. He has scored two goals with six assists; Pelle has nine goals and two assists. Senegal winger Mané is one of the most exciting players to arrive in English football for a while. Goalkeeper Forster has made Saints’ defense a more solid and confident unit.
Southampton plays Leicester at St. Mary’s on Saturday and if it wins, as it should, and Chelsea falters at Liverpool, Saints would be just one point behind Jose Mourinho’s team after what amounts to a third of the season. Some crisis.
West Ham can justifiably be confident of inflicting a seventh successive defeat on Aston Vanilla (so called because everyone licks them) which could move to it to third place.
Sam Allardyce was among the favorites to be the first Premier League manager to lose his job. Allardyce has shown a tactical astuteness many thought he did not possess and his dealings in the transfer market have transformed a team that was labeled boring by Hammers fans.
Senegalese international Diafra Sakho, a £3.5 million transfer from Metz, became the first West Ham player to score in six straight Premier League games. Another Senegal star, Cheikhou Kouyaté, a £7 million purchase from Anderlecht, is a powerhouse in midfield, as is Alex Song, the former Arsenal player on loan from Barcelona.
Ecuador’s Enner Valencia, who cost £12 million from Pachuca, is quickly adapting to the pace of English football — at the back Aaron Cresswell, £3.75 million from Ipswich, is an uncompromising, effective presence in defense.
Allardyce has switched winger Stewart Downing to the base of the midfield diamond and West Ham is unrecognizable in every sense from the team the fans were so critical of last season.
In the land of jellied eels, a lot of humble pie is being eaten.
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THE ABU DHABI-based owners of Manchester City are unlikely to hit the panic button just yet, but they will be wondering how a team packed with expensive, highly paid players could have performed so abysmally in the 2-1 home defeat by humble CSKA Moscow.
Finishing bottom of its Champions League group is not why Manuel Pellegrini was brought in. But Wednesday it was the players, not the manager, who were an embarrassment.
With the exception of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and Sergio Agüero, the team lacked courage, conviction, discipline, professionalism, ideas and quality. It started badly and got worse even though 13 of the players used had helped City win the Premier League last May.
Yaya Toure and Fernandinho were rightly sent off for mindless challenges and the side let itself, the manager, the fans and the club down.
Pellegrini said the players were nervous — nervous of playing a side which had never won a game in England?
Good job City is only playing doormat club Queens Park Rangers on Saturday or else Pellegrini would have been handing out the valium.
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AN EXCERPT from “Born To Rise — My Story” by Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero.
“I don’t believe in diving or conning the referee. That’s just not how I want to play. It’s a pride thing — if a defender catches me, I don’t want to roll on the ground, I just carry on and try and keep the run towards goal going.
“I wouldn’t know how to dive and think I would be rubbish at it and get booked if I even tried. It’s not in my nature and I can’t and won’t do it. I would rather take my chances, carry on with my run and see if I can score or make a goal for a teammate.”
Yes, the same Sergio Agüero who was shown the yellow card for diving against CSKA Moscow.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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