The team in Europe with the most ball possession this season? Manchester City, Barcelona or Bayern Munich – three clubs so heavily influenced by Pep Guardiola – may immediately come to mind, but the answer to that question is actually Southampton.
Yes, a club that was managed this time last year by Nathan Jones and had just signed a 6ft 7in goalkeeper called Paul Onuachu has gone from last in the Premier League to breaking a 103-year-old record for consecutive undefeated games. .
A run of 22 games without defeat since September is fueling their promotion, but what is most intriguing is the style in which this turnaround is achieved.
Southampton’s possession so far this season stands at 66.4 percent (two percent more than Guardiola’s City) and higher than any other club in the entire top four divisions of the English pyramid. It also beats everyone in Europe’s big five leagues and is light years away from what Southampton fans endured last season under the various tenures of Jones, Ralph Hasenhüttl and Rubén Sellés.
The main catalyst was the appointment as manager last summer of Russell Martin, but such is the colossal change through to 2023 that the managing director, director of football, managing director, academy director, head of recruitment, commercial director and £160m of players, including the club captain, all also left.
Talk to senior figures now and it’s striking how often you hear two mantras: take risks and be brave.
This is evident in the way Martin expects his team to play, starting with a ball-playing goalkeeper in Gavin Bazunu, who has been directly involved in seven Southampton goals this season, through to the repeated message to the off-field staff .
Phil Parsons, the new CEO, arrived last June after more than fifteen years in various leadership roles at the technology company Dyson, in a company that had just seen its annual turnover immediately plummet after a 70 percent demotion. Once a full-time Conference player himself at Woking under former Southampton captain Glenn Cockerill, Parsons brings a direct approach aimed at challenging personnel at every level of the club.
“My role is not to make people feel better every day of the week – it’s to help people grow,” he says. “It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. If you’re comfortable, where are you growing? We introduced a new set of values – we got all employees to instill new values. We try to live by that. And also just bring more honesty into conversations. If there is a problem, talk about it and try to solve it. We have really good people. I think we see a lot of growth.”
One of the key focuses is how to maximize stadium revenues and more conferences and events will be organized throughout the summer. Away fans will also be moved so that the noisiest spot on the pitch – Northam End – can become the exclusive domain of Southampton supporters.
Parsons, who works at the stadium but spends time every week with Martin and new football director Jason Wilcox (who works at the training ground in Marchwood), reports to Sport Republic owners Dragan Solak, Rasmus Ankersen and club chairman Henrik Kraft.
It is an ownership group that has invested heavily in players following their arrival in January 2022, after Southampton survived the last five years in the Premier League without external funding. That relegation should follow underlined the importance of intangibles that go beyond just money, especially close internal coordination and a very clear playing style, which has been so decisively implemented by Martin.
Parsons says Solak, Andersen and Kraft all have very different skill sets and there was a big moment in September when the team lost four games in a row. Fans’ frustration at a lack of final product was then very noticeable after a home draw against Rotherham, even after the players had dominated 80 percent of possession. “I think the owners, the board, myself, Jason and Russell learned a lot about each other during that time,” says Parsons. “Russell was very calm – he has great skills and Jason was extra supportive. It was, ‘Let’s communicate more during this difficult time,’ and it put everyone quite at ease. We can all talk to each other without worrying about how the other person will take it.”
Martin even stopped on the pitch to speak to a Southampton fan who had angrily let the players know how he felt after the draw at Rotherham. During a decade of studying for his coach’s qualifications, Martin had repeatedly heard former managers say they regretted compromising their fundamental football beliefs when under pressure. Martin also believes there are many players among the Premier League players who can thrive in a possession-based team.
“I think that four-game stretch has built a huge amount of confidence that we’re going to be consistent,” Martin said. “I understood that it’s not that easy to ask them to do something – which is completely the opposite of what they used to do as a group.
“The way we want to play is really scary as football… you have to have a lot of courage. For us, the biggest mistake you can ever make is not wanting the ball. I never criticize a mistake made with the right intention.”
Speaking to The Monday Night Club on the BBC earlier this month, Martin added: “I remember having a conversation with my brother after the Middlesbrough game. [which was the fourth straight defeat] where he wondered if I was too stubborn because he had been reading social media.
“I said, ‘It’s my stubbornness that got us this far. Now if I back off a little bit, or shy away a little bit, or show a little bit of fear to the players, then I think it’s really game over.”
Southampton have scored four goals this season after completing more than 20 passes (more than any other Championship team) and Martin says he currently looks “with gratitude” to players who meet his two fundamental requirements. The first is simply running relentlessly for each other in and out of possession and the second is being courageous on the ball, even within your own penalty area.
It’s a philosophy Wilcox now tries to instill in every age group. “Coordinating profiles is a big part of my job,” says Wilcox, previously academy director at Manchester City. “This [style] is a fantastic way to watch football matches. You don’t know how much courage those guys have to play like this. Seeing the first second of a goal is just as important as the last second.”
A growing reconnection with the fans is also evident, including even a certain Rishi Sunak, who was born in the city and has been to several home games with his family over the past year. Martin, a member of the Green Party, made a light-hearted comment about having “no interest” in speaking to the Prime Minister on a matchday after the 2-1 win against Plymouth. Clearly no offense was taken – Sunak later praised the ‘incredible work’ and ‘beautiful football’ that Martin inspires – and is clearly a very genuine Saints fan.
“It’s great to have him come when he wants to come,” says Parsons. “I said, ‘Please enjoy the day and be a fan.’ I was quietly impressed by him [Sunak’s] football knowledge.
“Did we see this undefeated streak from September? Absolutely not. We will have other difficult periods, but I think the atmosphere is very good. We might as well enjoy it.”