Two mid table clubs. Both of them had landmark seasons last term. Both are helmed by exciting, young managers, playing vivacious attacking football. With the hopes of improving further on last season’s achievements, the objective was to strengthen the squad during this transfer period or, at the very least, to keep the successful unit from last year intact. Everton have permanently signed Romelu Lukaku, the striker they loaned last season and who scored 15 goals. They have permanently signed Gareth Barry, the former England international, who went through a renaissance of sorts for the Toffees last season, again on loan, and who provided an essential solid base in midfield. They have signed midfielder Muhammed Besic and defender Brendan Galloway from Ferencvaros and MK Dons, respectively. Roberto Martinez has signed fresh terms with the club, and, all in all, the Everton fans have good reason to be confident of bettering last season’s final standing. How different an off-season it has turned out to be for Southampton.
The stunning Southampton exodus refuses to slow. Having begun with manager Mauricio Pochettino, the latest Saints player to exit the club was key centre back Dejan Lovren. He has followed Ricky Lambert, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Callum Chambers out of the club. Dani Osvaldo, Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin are expected to leave before the transfer period ends. In terms of replacements, they have brought in Ryan Bertrand on loan from Chelsea, striker Graziano Pelle from Feyenoord, and attacking midfielder Dusan Tadic from FC Twente. With more players wanting away, this hardly represents adequate reinforcement. It has been a startling abandonment. Such a massive interchange of players can be difficult to mould into a team that will perform, even with quality replacements (just look at Tottenham post-Bale). Not only have Southampton lost the veritable spine of their team, and the manager, but with less than a month remaining in the transfer period, they will do well to simply get the manpower in to fill the holes, let alone improve as a squad. Whenever a smaller club excels in a given season, there is always a sense that the inevitable scavenging will occur, knocking the young upstarts down a few pegs, and maintaining the natural order in the Premier League. But, particularly when you look at how Everton have managed to survive the circling vultures, the way Southampton’s team has been dismantled looks worse than even the most pessimistic of supporters could have anticipated.
When the news broke that Romelu Lukaku was heading to Everton, a general feeling of fuzzy warmth spread around the footballing world. This was such a welcome turn in the story of the Belgian striker, so promising and seemingly proven in England yet unvalued by his parent club, Chelsea. He and Everton under Martinez seemed a perfect fit, the manager showed last season that he knows how best to capitalise on the pace, power and skill of the Belgian. If not for a substantial injury lay-off, Lukaku’s goal tally would surely have been even more impressive. Remember the moment after Lukaku’s goal against Arsenal where he smothered Martinez in the most joyous of bear hugs. It even brought a smile to the faces of the Arsenal substitutes. Everton went on to have their best season for a long time. So, after the post-season drinks were drunk, and the hangovers wore off, the creeping feeling that this was a one-off began to set in. Surely Chelsea wouldn’t loan him out again, surely they saw he was ready. Even if they didn’t want him, he knows he’s good enough for a Champions League team somewhere, and one will be prepared to pay whatever Chelsea want. Yes, we had fun together and we’ll always have that second goal against the Gunners, but we have to face reality; Rommy won’t be coming back. But no, joy of joys, he would indeed come back and Martinez jumped at the chance to smash Everton’s record transfer fee to snap him up. It can only be good for the general health of the league when teams in the upper-mid table spots can secure talent like Lukaku.
— Wild Words of Sport (@WWofSport) August 4, 2014
So, maybe it’s that Everton are the exception to the rule, and that their off-season is the more remarkable, where Southampton’s is closer to the norm. It would take a real Debbie Downer to look at it like that, though. The asset stripping at Southampton must be harrowing for the supporters to witness. It also denies the rest of us another season of watching a team we enjoyed so much last year. Last season’s Southampton can now be found scattered all over the place and, possibly, sitting on various benches around England and broader Europe. Most will shrug and think “such is life in the Premier League”, though, looking at Everton and Roberto Martinez, others might beg to differ.