Built on Saints

Built on Saints

20 Years


For years Southampton’s recruitment has been the envy of the Premier League.

Unlike many of their top-flight rivals, Saints have not had the benefit of multimillion pound investment.

Money spent on transfers must come from club revenue streams and player sales. Only Brentford, Norwich and Burnley from this season’s Premier League have lower record signings than Saints, and two of those clubs are newly promoted.

“We are looking for players around £10m, or even lower than that,” manager Ralph Hasenhüttl revealed ahead of the summer transfer window.

“There are some good value players around that,” he added. Maybe so, but when teams in your league are splashing out ten times that amount, how do you compete?

“It is in general not easy to bring a player into the Premier League. On the one side, everybody thinks we have this huge money because we are a Premier League club, and so you pay more for players than other teams around the world.

"We have to be really finding the transfer packages that are perfect for us and we can handle with our limits we have as a club. We need to look for a good mentality, good character, workload and for good quality on the pitch.”

Around St Mary’s and Staplewood, where Hasenhüttl and his staff work tirelessly to help bridge the financial gap, “we don’t buy success, we breed it” and “potential into excellence” are major buzzwords

The process starts by having a celebrated Academy, from which the production line includes international stars in Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw and current Saints skipper James Ward-Prowse.

But the art of improving players is not restricted to those who come up through the ranks. It is Saints’ ability to identify talent and nurture it over the past two decades that has earned them a reputation, worldwide, as a club that consistently produces.

This trend took off in the 2010s – a decade that Saints began in League One, rising to back-to-back promotions to the Premier League, then the Europa League, an EFL Cup final and FA Cup semi-final. All of which was unthinkable at the start of the journey.

The key driver? Recruitment. Recruitment in players and in managers, of which there were eight, from Alan Pardew to Ralph Hasenhüttl. That’s a lot of upheaval, yet consistency remains.

Adam Lallana and Morgan Schneiderlin were both 18 years of age when they were given their first-team debuts by Saints, in 2006 and 2008 respectively.

After racking up more than 500 appearances between them, as two figures who grew to become key players in the club’s resurrection, the pair were sold for a combined £50m.

But if every player you sign is a teenager, you’re going to struggle. Rickie Lambert cemented his status as a club legend even after joining Saints as a 27-year-old with a CV that read Blackpool, Macclesfield, Stockport, Rochdale, Bristol Rovers.

Surely this wasn’t the man to bring back the glory days? Wrong. Lambert, a prime example of a player who improved with Saints, went on to play for England at the World Cup and sign for boyhood club Liverpool within five years.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14:  Rickie Lambert of England (C) celebrates with team-mates Gary Cahill of England (L) and Danny Welbeck of England (R) after scoring a goal during the International Friendly match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium on August 14, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Rickie Lambert scores on his England debut against Scotland having been signed by Saints in League One four years earlier.

“One thing I’d say about Rickie is that when he came to Southampton, he worked so hard on his fitness,” recalls Dean Hammond, Lambert’s former skipper.

“He used to be training in the morning in the gym before the rest of us arrived – he’d already done a session before we even started training.

“He started looking into his diet more to understand his eating habits. He got himself in better shape, which helped his game, helped his training and helped his fitness. One of the reasons he scored so many goals was because he never had many injuries.”

“The three best managers I had in my career were the ones at Southampton,” credits Lambert, who developed his game immeasurably under Pardew, Nigel Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino. Already an exceptional goalscorer, the club took his game to new heights.

Saints were progressing at such a rate they needed to get their managerial appointments right, or risk losing that momentum.

Adkins masterminded both promotions and had Saints on course to stay in the Premier League in 2012/13, the first season back.

But the club wanted more, and opted for a leftfield choice. They took a chance on little-known Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino, whose only previous experience in management was with Spanish club Espanyol, where he had won less than one in three games over a near four-year period.

Pochettino, eight years later, is considered one of the world’s elite coaches. He turned Lallana, Schneiderlin and Lambert – players who were with Saints in League One – into internationals who represented Liverpool and Manchester United.

Such was his impact in guiding the team to an eighth-place finish, having occupied a Champions League spot at the start of December, Saints’ players attracted unprecedented interest.

By the time Pochettino’s replacement, Ronald Koeman, could get his feet under the table, Lallana, Lambert and Dejan Lovren had left for Liverpool, along with teenage Academy graduates Calum Chambers (Arsenal) and Shaw (Manchester United) for a total income in the region of £90m.

Koeman infamously tweeted “Ready for #Training!” on day one of pre-season with a photo of an empty pitch, such was the exodus.

Saints had to recruit smartly and quickly, paving the way for the club’s most successful transfer window.

Among the new arrivals were Dušan Tadić and Graziano Pellè, who proved popular replacements for Lallana and Lambert, and Sadio Mané, who has gone on to become one of the most sought-after players in Europe.

Ryan Bertrand, Fraser Forster and Shane Long all served the club with distinction over a number of years, while Toby Alderweireld was a shrewd addition at the heart of the defence on a season-long loan.

The team, against the odds, was better than before. Koeman’s Saints finished seventh in his first season, then sixth in his second.

But how? How did the club thrive from a position of potential peril? The answer lay inside the black box.

For years Saints had invested heavily in human and technical resources, helping them identify gaps in their playing staff – first team and Academy – and the type of player they needed to recruit to maintain standards.

A greater emphasis was placed on statistical analysis, and the club’s scouting network was completely revolutionised. The black box is simply the room in which all of the data and video lives, where the manager casts his eye over potential targets.

"When we built our club back up, everybody knew it wasn't about hoping something comes out at the end," former Vice-Chairman Les Reed was quoted, in 2016.

"Clubs start with a plan but when things go wrong at the top end, it deflects their thinking. We have a clear plan and a clear objective.

“When you are trying to unearth potential that can be turned into excellence, you need lots of information.

"Performance data allows us to say technically if he is what we are looking for. Physical information is not just high-intensity sprints. It is whether they are in high-level competition, how they hold the ball up, what the first touch is like.

"Succession planning is a major factor in big business. You have to be ready for the surprise. It shouldn't be any different in football yet that is how it appears."

20 Years
Dušan Tadić and Sadio Mané joined the club in 2014,  helping the club to qualify for Europe two seasons in succession.

This planning ahead is what allowed Saints to act with such clear direction when key players were sold.

That remains the case today. Within a week of Danny Ings departing, seemingly out of the blue, for Aston Villa, Adam Armstrong arrives – five years Ings’ junior, but with a similar skillset, plenty to prove and a desire to get better.

Director of Football Operations, Matt Crocker, outlines the process in more detail.

“Our job is to identify players – young players, ideally under the age of 23 is where we tend to focus – that we can sign, polish off a rough diamond, hopefully keep them here long term, but also make sure they’ve got future sell-on value if we decide to go down that route,” he explains.

“We’ve got a whole tonne of examples of players that have done that, and also players in our system now, like Walker-Peters, like Salisu, like Diallo and like Perraud who’s come in this season.

“They’re all around that same profile and were doing really well at their own clubs, but underneath the radar we bring them in, develop them and put them in our first team, with a view to making them brilliant players for Southampton, but also potential future assets for our club.”

There are, of course, exceptions – remember the Lambert story 12 years ago – to the rule.

“Part of The Southampton Way is the profile, the age, the leagues that they come from, the minutes they’ve had previously… that’s all part of our due diligence, but on occasions we will flip that,” Crocker continues.

“We signed Theo (Walcott, who initially returned to the club on loan, aged 31) because he knows The Southampton Way, grew up with it and can make an impact on our first team, but also help our young players from the type of professional standards he’s got.

“Those young players looking up to Theo, living those Southampton Way values every day from someone who’s been an England international and played at the top level. The more of those you’ve got, it raises the standards again. There’s always a method in the madness, even if we do something that doesn’t quite fit our philosophy.

“We call it character. Not only will we send out scouts to watch the players we want to recruit, but we’ll be asking them to watch the warm-up, to watch them make mistakes in games and how they react, to watch their interactions with other players on the pitch and with their coaches.

“We’ll be tracking with our video analyst all their interviews, what their body language is like and what they’re saying on social media to try to build up this personality profile that tells us what type of character they are.

“You can have all the potential in the world, but if you don’t have the right character, the right work ethic, the right approach and resilience, I don’t think you’ll ever get to where we want to be and I don’t think you’ll be the type of player we want to work with.”

Thanks to the bank of success stories from the last 20 years, Saints now find themselves in a position whereby they need to be convinced the player is right for them, as, more often than not, Southampton tends to be right for the player.

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