Southampton limited Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United to just 10 shots last week at Old Trafford. Eight of which were off target, and the other two were blocked. This week, they rolled into St. James’s Park and allowed the hosts just three shots on target. When Fraser Forster joined the club, he probably expected to be the player holding his finger in the dike as the Saints’ summer exodus stripped the squad of some of its jewels. As it turns out, he’s seen about as much work as an open top bus salesman on Tyneside.
The dream of Champions League football is becoming more and more realistic for Saints fans the longer the season goes on. They made it through the sticky spell at the start of Christmas and in the last four games have drawn with Chelsea, and beaten Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle.
While Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane pick up plenty of plaudits – and rightly so because combined, they’ve scored or assisted 26 of Southampton’s 48 goals – but the case for the defence is that Saints’ backline is contributing more for their top four claims.
Ronald Koeman’s men have 10 clean sheets this season, and have conceded a total of just 16 goals this campaign. It is far and away the best defensive record in the top flight – and seven teams in the Premier League have conceded more than double that amount already this season. It’s a positive omen for Southampton fans, as sides who finish the season with the best defensive record have almost always finished in the top four.
The only exception to the top four rule was Arsenal in the 1995/96 season. Despite keeping 16 clean sheets and conceding just 32 goals in total, the Gunners missed out on a top four spot. They were level with Aston Villa on 63 points and level on goal difference (+17) but the Villians had scored three goals more during the season. However that is the exception that proves the rule that if you have the best defence in the top flight, you’re going to bag a top four spot.
Before the season 33 hopeful Saints fans backed Southampton to finish in the top four at 33/1 – they’re now just 13/10 with Paddy Power so they are certainly on the value. One of those punters staked £25 on Koeman’s men and is set to pocket £850 if Saints can finish in the Champions League spots. Another even more optimistic punter stuck £5 each-way on Southampton to win the league at 1000/1.
An FA Cup tie at home to Crystal Palace interrupts the Saints’ push for Europe, but when the league campaign resumes, they welcome Swansea to St. Mary’s – another team who defied the odds all the while playing some free-flowing football. While there have been instances of less heralded teams soaring high on the back of a freak run good results only to come crashing down at a later point, it would appear that the Saints’ rise is built on firm foundations. The bubble was apparently burst before Christmas, but it’s been re-inflated and whatever happens elsewhere, by the time February rolls around, Southampton are guaranteed to still be in the top four.
At the start of the season, the main worry may have been the Championship. With just shy of two-thirds of the season gone, it’s now getting Champions League football. It’s still odds against, but fans can still dream. After all, if you never have a dream, how are you ever going to have a dream come true?