Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Saints need more than flashes to survive
Southampton may be struggling to complete the leap from near extinction back to the Premier League after three consecutive seasons of relentless success, yet the gloom descending over the south coast comeback kings need not become all consuming.
If any football club are capable of sustaining a meteoric rise back to the big-time, Southampton appeared to fit the bill as they have returned with a sparkling St Mary's Stadium venue to call home and the kind of financial stability most of their rivals in the top flight could only envy.
So while many a team who make such rapid strides forward struggle to continue their momentum when they start to mix it with the game's elite, there was an expectation that the winning mentality and vibrancy manager Nigel Adkins had generated around his team would serve them well in the Premier League.
This was one promoted side that dared to believe they had a team that would thrive whatever division they played in. Boasting what seemed to be an organised and settled defence, a midfield laced with fine young talents like captain Adam Lallana and a classy goalscorer in Rickie Lambert, they seemed to have developed a formula that would test the best in the land.
Unfortunately, the concession of 26 goals in their opening nine games of the season confirms that one department of Adkins' team has been particularly ill-equipped to deal with some of the most potent attacking line-ups in European football and, as a result, the Saints manager finds himself under increasing pressure.
In games against both of the Manchester giants, their solitary victory against Aston Villa and in the second half against Tottenham last weekend, Southampton have shown flashes of the inspiration that took them from the third tier of English football to the cusp of a golden new era. But putting a performance together for a full 90 minutes has proved to be beyond them so far.
Having gone through three goalkeepers without finding a reliable stopper, changed his defensive options time and again and lost the momentum that was so pivotal in Southampton's revival, Adkins has looked like a manager hitting the panic button ahead of his side's Carling Cup game against Leeds on Tuesday night.
"I don't know how long I have got in this job," stated the Saints boss earlier this month. "Stability is important at a football club, but I'm not naive enough to neglect the reality that football is a results driven business.
"To stay in this division, we simply cannot continue to concede goals at the rate we have done in the first right games and while we have a process in place at this club that we are doing our best to adhere to, you need to win football matches at some stage. On too many occasions in this Premier League, we have given away too many goals. I am being honest about the situation and while I'll continue to work as hard as I can, we'll wait and see what happens."
Even though Adkins offered a more upbeat assessment of his future after the Tottenham defeat on Sunday, it is what many perceive to be the menacing presence of Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese lurking in the background that puts the club's affable manager in a perilous position.
Italian banker Cortese proved he is no respecter of reputations in his desire to drive Southampton forward in his own style when he sacked his first manager Alan Pardew after a 4-0 away win at Bristol Rovers a few weeks into the 2010-11 season, but his portrayal in the media as the pantomime villain of Southampton's recent successes is not entirely justified.
Appointed by the now late Markus Liebherr after the Swiss multi-billionaire rescued Southampton out of administration back in 2009, Cortese has succeeded in building an intimidating reputation for himself, with the media delighting in painting him as a leader who rules by fear as much as by logic.
However, those within the Southampton family point to the positive contributions made by the fiercely ambitious Cortese. Many comment on the extraordinarily long hours he commits to his job, his desire to bring Premier League-style professionalism to all areas of the club long before they were anywhere near the top flight and the standards he demands from all under his command.
Okay, his decision to insist upon a picture of himself on the front page of the matchday programme for first home game of last season did little to dampen talk that he is guilty of promoting an inflated ego, but this club would not be in the position they are in now without his driving influence and that reality shouldn't be forgotten.
While a strong-willed manager like Pardew was never likely to thrive under Cortese's eager command for the long haul, the more placid Adkins has been a suitable bedfellow for the influential Saints chairman and it seems as if the duo are still singing from the same hymn sheet for now.
"We've come a long way in a very short space of time and this is a first experience for a lot of people," adds Adkins. "Maybe we need a bit more belief, not look at the names on the back of the opposition shirt or the team sheet and just go out and do what we do.
"Everyone at the club knows that after back-to-back promotions, this season was always going to be a bit choppy. You have to stick together and come through the storm. It's a great challenge and one we are enjoying. No one said it was going to be easy."
It would be unfortunate if a chirpy coach, who was famously promoted from the position of Scunthorpe's physiotherapist to become a successful manager, is ultimately ushered out of the door without the ceremony he is due. But the unforgiving world of the Premier League has claimed many a more experienced coach down the years.
Harry Redknapp and Rafael Benitez are among the star names being linked with a possible vacancy at Southampton, but such opinionated characters would struggle to fit into a club whose success has been built on the collective unity of players, managers and an influential chairman working in unison.
However, it is increasingly evident that Cortese will soon have a decision to make. Adkins may have plenty of credit in his bank for taking Southampton this far, but a judgement over whether he has it within him to propel the Saints to yet another level is imminent.