Stuart Armstrong celebrates after scoring for Southampton against Rotherham – game three of their 24-match unbeaten run.Photo: Matt Watson/Southampton FC/Getty Images
Russell Martin, playing with his feet on a ball, discusses Southampton’s record-breaking run in his office overlooking the main pitch at Staplewood’s sleek training campus on the edge of the New Forest, a 24-match unbeaten streak that marks their remarkable evolution into formidable opposition . They have not lost in 21 Championship matches and boast a higher average possession than any club in Europe’s five biggest leagues, where Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona lead the way.
Southampton, which has won ten home games and conceded only three goals, is marching under Martin. When 31 players reported for training at the start of the season, the door to this room was rarely left alone. “Probably three-quarters of that [players] had come in at one point and told me they either wanted to leave or expected to leave,” said Martin, a key figure in the club’s rebuild last summer, which included the appointments of a new director of football, Jason Wilcox, and CEO included. , Phil Parsons.
Highest possession percentages in Europe’s big five leagues – plus Southampton
Manchester city 64.9
Paris Saint-Germain 64.7
Bayer Leverkusen 62.5
Bayern Munich 61.5
Many players left, but Martin replenished a talented core and convinced others to push for an immediate return to the Premier League. “The energy at the start was just a little broken, a little hurt. So much has changed – three managers last season – and so many people have left the building, both staff and players, because it has an impact on employment when you get relegated. There was a bit of self-preservation involved, because you don’t immediately want to open yourself up to another group of employees. It takes time to build trust and relationships.”
Southampton’s second goal in Tuesday’s win against Watford, which secured a trip to Liverpool in the fifth round of the FA Cup, epitomized the sharp edges of Martin’s mantra. In 17 seconds they turned from back to front, a six-step move that started with goalkeeper Joe Lumley playing under pressure on his goal line and culminated in Sékou Mara beating him into the net. Tyler Dibling, a 17-year-old who joined the academy at the age of eight, carried the ball from the center in his own half and drove forward about 40 yards. “You can’t have courage when you’re asked to do something you don’t believe in,” says Martin, “that’s impossible.”
He is speaking about the day before Southampton sealed that trip to Anfield, after which his second-placed side have five league games to boost their chances of automatic promotion, starting at home against Huddersfield on Saturday. Four consecutive defeats in September, lost by a total of 12-2, feel like a lifetime ago. “I think that period was important because we didn’t change the way we behaved,” says the 38-year-old. “There was no tension or fear here. We don’t criticize them when they make mistakes, as long as the intention is good and clear. The only time they are criticized is when they are not brave enough, when they do not run fast enough. “Have you had the courage to take on people in the final third, to build up in our six-yard box when someone is pressing you like crazy? Did you have the aggression with and without the ball?’”
At lunchtime the players head into the room for an analysis meeting: a brief debriefing of their 2-0 win over Rotherham before Martin announces his team to face Watford, including another youngster, Jayden Meghoma, the 17-year-old left-back. from Tottenham last year. Martin runs through a few clips put together by tactics and insights analyst Ben Parker, starting with a kick-off routine that almost resulted in a Che Adams goal. He shares his joy at his players’ work without the ball and praises their desire to attack in numbers. “We play forward, we run forward,” says Martin matter-of-factly. Rotherham had two shots on target, one in the 94th minute, which he marks. ‘It shouldn’t have happened… I was furious. My job is to always want more.”
Southampton’s drive to win the ball back has been crucial to their form and their average possession of 65.9%. “Every action has a purpose. Sometimes the action takes place 80 meters away from the opponent’s goal, and sometimes 10 meters away. I don’t feel like we ever pass the ball for the sake of passing, so I’m proud of that because it takes a lot of work. That’s the whole plan for us: to have the ball as much as possible and also to dominate the territory, to play in the opponent’s half as much as possible.”
Twenty minutes later the players take to the field, with Martin and his assistant Matt Gill starting at the rondos. On Friday, the two will line up as the coaching staff takes on the media team in an eight-on-eight match. Colin Calderwood, who was appointed first-team coach in October, also played a key role. “He keeps me calm… I’ve had fewer bookings since he came in.” The team practices set pieces before a small-sided match and penalties afterwards. At the end of the session, Martin leads youngsters Nico Lawrence and Cameron Bragg through a passing drill with the help of first-team sports scientist Rhys Owen, among those following Martin from Swansea. “Every detail counts,” says Martin, encouraging Lawrence to open his shoulders to improve his positioning.
Last week Sport Republic, the ownership group that took over the club two years ago, was in town. The lead investor, Dragan Solak, and Henrik Kraft congratulated the team on their undefeated run. “At the beginning of the season,” says Martin, “I had stopped so many times [clips] and said, ‘This will not be us. The distances in the team are too long, too many of you jog back to the goal and if it continues like this you just won’t play.’ That’s the biggest difference from where we are now: the amount they want to run for each other, fight for each other, recovery runs. I feel like when you have the ball you have to show a certain amount of confidence and almost like swagger… what we ask them to do with the ball, you can’t do without that mentality. But you have to balance that with the humility to run.”
After victories, Martin pumps his fist at supporters a la Jürgen Klopp, with whom he will soon share a sideline. “I watch him and I like the authenticity he and Guardiola show; they are completely themselves. We go to Anfield and try to be the team we want to be. If we get beat it will be my fault because of the way we play, I know that and I am already aware of that. ‘You can’t go to Anfield and try to play that way’…but why not? That’s the challenge for us and the challenge for me is to always be the leader I want to be, the person I want to be. The fact that these guys are doing it at the highest level is incredible.”
Club employees speak of a refreshing, inclusive culture. Before Christmas, the backroom staff enjoyed a trip to Bournemouth, each adorned with costumes from Ali G. Of course it helps when you win, but Martin’s hands-on approach has helped revive a club that was stagnating. From day one, he set his stall on punctuality. “If one person is late, the whole team will be running at the end of practice,” he says. “It’s the same on Saturday. “If one of you doesn’t want to press, you’ll all run more. You are responsible for each other.’ The first day someone was late, they ran away. On the second day someone was late, they ran twice… that’s no longer a problem.”
Southampton, one point ahead of Leeds and two ahead of Ipswich, may be top of the table in terms of unbeaten points and possession, but it is the top division they are keen to play in. “I am extremely proud of the players and grateful for what they have done. They have done it – they have made history, which is brilliant for the club,” says Martin. “But my overriding feeling is that it will be forgotten and not will mean so much if we don’t achieve what we want to achieve. Our job now is to make sure that we don’t coach them too much, we don’t make it more complicated. I think we’re in a great place and we can get them there should last as long as possible.”