It’s fair to say that 2020 is going to be remembered as a year in which a great number of accepted norms were turned on their head. And Friday night could see another bizarre plot twist delivered by this topsy-turvy 12 months.
That’s right, Southampton could go top of the Premier League for the first time in the competition’s history.
The last time the Saints led the English top-flight was so long ago that the equivalent of looking at your phone to find out the results involved crowding round the TV section of Rumbelows to catch a glimpse of Ceefax.
Only two of the current squad – Shane Long and Fraser Forster – were even born back in September 1988, but if they beat Newcastle tonight, Southampton will be top of the tree once again. For a few hours at least.
Yes, that Southampton. The same Southampton that lost 9 (nine)-0. At home. Just a year ago.
And it is essentially the same Southampton. So much has changed since then in a remarkable turnaround in fortunes on the south coast, and yet also so very little.
The manager, Ralph Hasenhuttl, is still in charge and the playing personnel is remarkably similar.
Eleven of the matchday squad for that most humiliating of defeats at the hands of Leicester also played in Saints’ 4-3 win over Aston Villa last weekend. There have only been two players – Kyle Walker-Peters and Theo Walcott – recruited since who have made a Premier League start.
So Hasenhuttl has performed a transformation not by reaching back for the deck, but by playing mostly the same cards differently.
But things actually got worse before they started to get better. Many Saints fans would point to the darkest moment of the 2019/20 campaign coming two weeks after the Leicester game.
Following the nine-goal thrashing, their next league outing saw an encouraging defeat at The Etihad – Pep Guardiola’s side trailed until the 70th minute and required a Kyle Walker winner with just five minutes to go. But then came a deflating 2-1 home defeat against a moribund Everton side yet to wake from its Marco Silva-induced coma.
The struggling Saints were left second-bottom, having taken just one point from a possible 21. Hasenhuttl was on the brink after winning just two of his first 12 games in 2019/20.
And yet, if a new season had started on the following matchday, Southampton would be outside the Champions League spots on goal difference alone.
Premier League Table Since Everton Defeat (Nov. 9th 2019):
But the club stood by him, and he’s got 17 wins from 34 Premier League games in the last year – only Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola can boast more. That makes Hasenhuttl the only Southampton manager ever to enjoy a Premier League win ratio of 50% over the course of 12 months.
So what has he changed to achieve that incredible improvement?
Angus Gunn was probably the biggest casualty of the Leicester debacle, with the goalkeeper losing his starting place, and last month – having not made a league start since – being shipped out on loan to Championship side Stoke.
And the numbers show how much of an upgrade Alex McCarthy has been.
Even before that extraordinary result, Gunn was bottom of the Premier League for Goals Prevented. Using our expected goals on target (xGOT) model, we can predict how many goals a goalkeeper would be expected to concede, given the quality of the chance (measured by expected goals) and the end goalmouth location of the shot. As a result, we can directly evaluate the contribution of the goalkeeper and see how many goals they prevented for their teams. For Gunn, it’s not a pretty sight:
Over the first nine games of the 2019/20 season, he let in 4.4 goals more than would be anticipated from the shots at his goal – more than 1.25 goals worse than even Chelsea and their most expensive keeper in the world.
Since McCarthy replaced Gunn, only five teams still in the Premier League have a better Goals Prevented measure than Southampton.
But it’s taken more to turn things around than just a new man between the posts.
Part of the change certainly comes from the fact that, as terrible as Southampton were in those Leicester and Everton defeats, those first 12 matches of 2019/20 weren’t an accurate reflection of their quality.
As well as conceding more than the numbers suggest they should have been, they weren’t scoring as many as they should have from the chances they were creating. Only two teams scored fewer than their 11 goals in that period, but that was more than five goals below their expected goals (xG) total, which was a healthy 10th-highest in the league.
But they were unquestionably in a slump, and in desperate need of improvement.
So what have they done differently?
First off, they’re seeing more of the ball.
Up to and including that Everton game, they started last season with an average of 44.7% of possession. Over the opening seven games of this campaign, that has leapt to 53.2%. If you’re looking for a more substantial sample size, their possession is at 51.1% in those 33 matches since that Everton loss.
That’s partly down to being better at keeping the ball. During that early 2019/20 period, only Burnley had a worse successful pass completion rate at 72.9%, whereas this season’s 77.6% puts them in mid-table territory. And that increase has come despite attempting an average of 110 more passes per game.
But possession is all well and good, but it is what you do with it that matters.
And that’s where Danny Ings has made a massive difference.
The golden boot runner-up to Jamie Vardy, he scored a huge 43% of Saints’ goals last season – the highest proportion for any player and club in the Premier League.
Southampton fans don’t need any convincing that their homegrown hero is a special player, but Ings has been in world-beating form.
Over the last 12 months, he’s overperformed his non-penalty xG by 8.5, which means that an average striker would’ve scored just over 12 goals from the chances he’s had. Ings has scored 21 times.
That overperformance is the best of any player in Europe’s big five leagues.
Expected Goals Over Performances in the Last 12 Months – Top Five European Leagues:
Player Non Pen Goals Non Pen xG Overperformance of xG Danny Ings 21 12.5 8.5 Son Heung-Min 17 9.5 7.5 Mason Greenwood 10 2.8 7.2 Francesco Caputo 20 13.2 6.8 Jhon Córdoba 16 10.0 6..0 Jeremie Boga 9 3.4 5.6 Erling Haaland 17 11.6 5.4 Timo Werner 19 13.9 5.1 Anthony Martial 14 8.9 5.1 Ansu Fati 9 4.3 4.7
So the news that Ings has this week undergone surgery for a knee injury picked up in last weekend’s Aston Villa victory is particularly worrying for Southampton.
With the Saints facing the prospect over being without their talismanic striker for an extended period of time, the onus falls on their other attacking players to pick up some of the goalscoring burden.
Five other players have scored already this term, and Ings’ five goals only account for 36% of the team total. Southampton will hope Che Adams can help his side cope with the loss of his strike partner.
That brings us to the obvious question, with or without an enforced absence for their marksman– is Southampton’s form sustainable?
The answer depends on what you’re expecting to sustain. If it’s their current five-match unbeaten run, then it’s likely to be no.
Saints have scored 2.4 goals per match but are averaging just over 1 expected goal a game. This discrepancy is boosted by their four-goal effort against Aston Villa on just 0.73 xG. Even a team with world-class talent across the attack can’t sustain a run like that over the course of a 38-game season.
That run has seen Southampton play with a particularly slow tempo in terms of getting the ball forward.
The only team in Europe’s top leagues with a slower direct speed, which compares the time taken in a sequence of play against the distance up the pitch the ball travels, is Arsenal.
Southampton are nestled between the Gunners and Borussia Dortmund on that list – two teams that try to build by playing it out from the back at virtually all times.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to emulate those sorts of teams, but what might concern Hasenhuttl is that Saints’ average time and number of passes per sequence are both significantly lower than either Arsenal or BVB. That’s because as much as they have improved their ball retention, Southampton still only have the Premier League’s 13th-best pass completion rate this season.
But that said, Saints’ top-six form that’s been established over the past year is much more realistic.
In that period their goals for and against are both very much in line with their xG performance, suggesting they’re getting just reward for their play.
This time last year, Saints fans were worrying whether they were in for a long, cold winter battling to beat the drop.
Fast forward a year and there’s justifiable optimism that perhaps a return to European competition for the first time since 2016 might be on the horizon.
Should they beat Newcastle tonight, then there will be symbolic redemption for Hasenhuttl and his squad and a screenshot of the league table that fans will no doubt make the most of.
But one note of historical caution. Back in 1988/89, the blistering three-from-three start that saw Saints go top – the last time they were top of the first division – came crashing down. They were still third after 12 matches, but that was followed by a painful run of 17 league games without a win, which began that November.
The last victory before that streak? Yep – a win over Aston Villa.
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