A few months ago I wrote an article that looked at Liverpool’s remarkable improvement this season, which I paralleled with Southampton’s progress this term that, though less dramatic, was nonetheless impressive. It was titled “The Great Leap Forward”. In it, I also postulated whether Southampton, building on the solid, mid-table foundation they established this season, could make the jump to the next echelon in the league, and compete for, at the very least, Europa League qualification. In the months since the article was published, Liverpool narrowly lost a thrilling title race to Manchester City (a race that very few expected them to even compete in) and Southampton finished comfortably, as expected, in a mid-table position.
Both teams are contributing a number of players to Roy Hodgson’s England squad, with 3 Saints players (Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana) and 5 Reds (Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, and Daniel Sturridge) involved. Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez may have had a chance of making the squad as well, if not for an unfortunate late-season injury. The Liverpool players will form the nucleus of Hodgson’s team, with Johnson as the most-capped defender, Gerrard (the captain) and Henderson key figures in midfield, and Sterling and Sturridge hoping to make a telling impact up front. Not to be outdone, Lallana is seen by many as being England’s most important attacking player, and Shaw was preferred to the vastly more experienced Ashley Cole. Rickie Lambert will be there to provide what may be a vital Plan B striking option, to be a late game bully who will overpower defenders wilting under the oppressive heat of Manaus.
There is a reason why players from these two teams make up such a sizable portion of the squad; both teams, and their English players, have had stellar seasons. But events that have either already occurred since the latest Premier League season ended, or look set to happen imminently, seem to indicate that only one of these teams will be able to build on their success. And, spoiler alert, it ain’t Southampton. It looks as if the Saints are going to be stripped of most of their key players and personnel; Mauricio Pochettino has already left to replace Tim Sherwood at Spurs, Rickie Lambert is now a Liverpool player and Adam Lallana is very likely to join him. Luke Shaw has been this close from signing a deal with Manchester United for weeks now, and Schneiderlin, Lovren, Fonte and Clyne have all been linked with other clubs. After a great season, embellished by breakout performances from key players, Southampton fans must have anticipated a slavering pack of wolves to arrive at the gates of St Mary’s Stadium. But such a devastating dredging, beginning with the manager, will wound them all the same. This exodus, if carried out in full, will set Southampton back at least two years, and with the poaching of Lallana and Lambert, it’s Liverpool that stand to land the killer blow.
Funnily enough, the philosophy that drove Kenny Dalglish’s ill-fated Liverpool project into the ground, that of building the team around a core of Englishmen, has been carried on much more quietly and effectively by Brendan Rogers. Andy Carroll’s fanfare record signing, as well as the acquisitions of Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing and Henderson were statements of patriotism almost as much as they were tactical decisions. In a time where the current English champions, Manchester City, regularly send out a team with only one Englishmen on the pitch (usually Joe Hart in goal), Dalglish’s crusade was to be admired for its intention, but condemned for its shoddy execution. Only Henderson was salvageable. In the reverberating aftermath, it was proclaimed that such an ambition was unfeasible in today’s Premier League. Rodger’s Liverpool and, to a lesser extent, this season’s Southampton has since proved these proclamations wrong, showing it is possible to have great success through the utilisation of English footballers in England.
The gloomy conclusion to be drawn from the events of the last month, however, is that sustained success of this sort is only possible for teams like Liverpool, and not for relative minnows like Southampton. So the hopeful question I asked only a month or two ago, the suggestion that a “great leap forward” might occur for Southampton next season, one that mirrors Liverpool’s own progressive leap, has been quashed. The tragi-comedic aspect is that the Liverpudlians are largely responsible for the quashing.