When discussing the progress that Southampton have made over the past few years, we can use league position as a simple way to measure it. Finishing higher up the table than in the previous season is an easy way to see improvement but it doesn’t tell the entire story.
Since Southampton’s return to the Premier League in 2012 the club have finished 14th, 8th, 7th and most recently 6th.
If league position is the only benchmark in which we are judging improvement then Southampton will have only been successful if they finish 5th or higher this season. Whilst that would be a fantastic achievement – just as finishing 6th last season was too – it seems unlikely when we consider the following factors:
Many teams underperformed
Chelsea completely fell apart under Mourinho, United continued to stutter under Van Gaal, City’s players lost interest after Guardiola’s announcement in January, Liverpool continued their ‘transition’ phase and Arsenal were just… Arsenal.
All of those teams will be stronger this season than they were in the last (except maybe Arsenal). Three of them have new managers and all have strengthened their squads – and that’s without even mentioning reigning champions Leicester! It would be foolish to think that the Foxes will just fall away back down the table without a fight.
Spurs, West Ham, Stoke and Everton (if we’re being honest) should all get stronger too, with TV money creating possibly the strongest top half of a Premier League that we have ever seen.
Three first team players were sold over the summer but the remainder of the team is largely settled, with most key players tied down to new long term contracts. That consistency will be vital in helping new manager Claude Puel hit the ground running as he begins a new chapter of his career in English football.
Southampton could have finished higher than 6th last season had it not been for an extremely poor run of form going into Christmas. That disappointing period happened without the distraction of a Europa League campaign, after failing to progress past the qualifying stages.
This time around the group stages have already been secured and Southampton won’t be thrown into an extra competition so early on in the season, but they will have an extra front on which to fight their battles.
The biggest teams have the quality in depth that allows them to seriously challenge in multiple competitions at the same time, but Southampton’s size will mean they have to prioritise some competitions above others.
Would supporters of the club be keen to see a strong league campaign that again secures European football for next season? Or would they favour a strong cup run at the expense of a higher league position? Both would be the ideal but most would probably want to experience the latter.
With the Premier League shaping up to be the strongest it’s ever been and with Southampton potentially shifting their attentions elsewhere, progress this season shouldn’t be judged solely on a final league position.