01/06/2015: 2014/15 Season Review
When reflecting on the 2014/15 season it's difficult to measure how successful it really was. Finishing 7th and qualifying for the Europa League seemed impossible 12 months ago when fear engulfed the club. Many predicted a struggle, and even most optimists thought at the very least we'd have a slight drop-off. On the other hand, you could argue that Saints underachieved in the end. The squad we were left with at the start of September wasn't nearly as bad as many feared it would be weeks earlier. Up until around February we had a genuine chance of qualifying for the top four, but we ended up running out of steam. At one point it looked as if we might even drop down as low as 8th. There were missed opportunities, but when people look back in years to come most of the memories will surely be positive. In their entire history Saints have only finished higher three times. The record victory margin was broken and only Chelsea conceded fewer Premier League goals. The football was good and some big scalps were taken.
It's easy to forget how chaotic things were this time last year. There was a point when you couldn't be sure if any player would definitely still be at the club come September. Speculation started almost as soon as the referee blew for full time on the final day of the 2013/14 season. Mauricio Pochettino was first out the door, apparently believing the good times were over following the January departure of Nicola Cortese. Pochettino's exit was considered a massive disappointment at the time, but came as little surprise to those who had observed his press conferences the previous few months, where he was always non-committal about his future plans.
Rickie Lambert's departure to Liverpool came as a huge shock. Most believed Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw would definitely attract attention, but Lambert staying was seen as a pretty safe bet given his age. The deal happened very quickly, and the way Saints gave in to Liverpool's demands raised major questions about the new board. Lallana and Shaw represented England as Saints players during the World Cup, but few fans really considered them as such by that point. Their departures were confirmed shortly after England were eliminated from the tournament. Things briefly settled down, but when Calum Chambers was sold to Arsenal the mood darkened once again. Dejan Lovren also joined Lambert and Lallana on Merseyside, although most acknowledged that was good business. Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez were reportedly close to joining Tottenham, until the board decided to finally put their foot down.
There were several key moments that turned the tide in pre-season, none more obvious than the appointment of Ronald Koeman. Saints needed someone with a proven track-record, who would be able to reassure both players and fans. Koeman came across as a straight shooter right-away, impressing in interviews before a ball had even been kicked. When Ralph Krueger said Schneiderlin wouldn't be sold, few took it seriously, but when Koeman said it, most believed he probably wouldn't be. He brought an air of calm at a time when it was badly needed. Footballing wise he was exactly what was required too. His penchant for good attacking football and working with young players fit into the club's philosophy.
Early pre-season form was encouraging. The team was packed with youngsters for wins against EHC Hoensbroek, Sporting Hasselt and Swindon. Koeman and co gradually filled out the squad over the course of the transfer window. Dusan Tadic arrived first and clicked straight away, combining to good effect with Gaston Ramirez in an impressive win over eventual Championship winners Bournemouth. Graziano Pelle was next in, but he didn't hit the ground running until the season got under way.
Ryan Bertrand's arrival came completely out of the blue. He made his first appearance in a comfortable 3-1 win at Brighton. Saints' final friendly was against Leverkusen. The 1-0 defeat was a bit flat and hardly ideal preparation going into the opener at Liverpool. Saints reinforced in the week leading up to the Anfield trip by signing Shane Long, Fraser Forster and Florin Gardos. By this time new captain Jose Fonte had already signed a contract extension too. Saphir Taider was childishly criticised by the club and sent back to Italy just weeks after signing on loan from Inter as part of the deal that took Dani Osvaldo the other way.
Nobody knew quite what to expect going into the Liverpool game, not least the squad itself. Many have since gone on record to say their performance that day gave them the impetus to push on. The atmosphere was highly charged after Liverpool had picked off Saints for three players. Lallana missed out through injury, but Lovren and Lambert played, and were treated to contrasting reactions. Saints lost the game, but pushed Liverpool right to the very end. Nathaniel Clyne cancelled out Raheem Sterling's opener, before Daniel Sturridge settled the game for the home side.
As impressive as the performance was, many feared it would be a false dawn after Saints struggled to break down West Brom a week later. Koeman's men looked dreadful in the first-half of the League Cup tie at Millwall, but eventually came through, with Jack Cork and Graziano Pelle scoring their first competitive goals for the club. The former was said to be close to a move to Crystal Palace, but would remain at the club going into the winter. Pelle missed half a dozen good chances before finally netting at The Den. It proved to be a real turning point for the Italian.
Saints' season really came to life on 30th August. When West Ham went 1-0 up many feared Saints could be in for another heavy defeat at Upton Park. Schneiderlin had been at fault for the goal conceded, but the Frenchman more than made amends later in the same game. Any doubts about his commitment were erased after he notched two goals to put Saints ahead. Schneiderlin was open in his desire to leave, but his professionalism on his return to the team could not be questioned. Keeping him at the club may have been the most decisive move of the summer. Saints continued to cut through West Ham, with Pelle grabbing a third. Confidence was clearly brimming throughout the team. Saints barely let up during the next two months.
Saints did more astute business on deadline day, with Toby Alderweireld and Sadio Mane arriving in the building. Ramirez's departure to Hull was a slightly rash move, but wouldn't be felt for a while. Saints lost none of the momentum from the West Ham game coming out of the international break. Newcastle were brushed aside with ease on 13th September. Pelle and Tadic were among the stars of the show that day. They were already becoming fan favourites.
Saints were slightly fortuitous against Swansea a week later, but the Arsenal win in the League Cup really made people sit up and take notice. 5,000 fans packed the away end at Ashburton Grove to see Nathaniel Clyne's thunderbolt give Saints a much deserved victory. It really was a special night and gave plenty the belief that the team could go all the way in the competition.
Saints finally gained some revenge on Harry Redknapp on 27th September, with Pelle's incredible overhead kick winning a tight contest. Fans hoped Pochettino would suffer a similar fate when Saints travelled to Tottenham on October 5th, but would be left disappointed, with Spurs winning a flat game 1-0. If you were going by that performance alone, you might have thought Saints' season would soon start petering out, but it turned out the best was just around the corner.
The early stages of Saints vs. Sunderland on 18th October seemed no different to any other game. The Black Cats were competitive despite going 2-0 down inside the first 20 minutes. Santiago Vergini set the tone with a spectacular own-goal. Sunderland had a good shout for a penalty, but once they went 4-0 down on 63 they pretty much folded. Saints were relentless, with Tadic in particularly inspired form. When Mane scored on 86 (yes it was his goal) nobody could believe what they were seeing. Saints had won a Premier League game 8-0.
The 1-0 win against Stoke a week later was inevitably not quite as spectacular, but was still entertaining enough nonetheless. The two sides clashed again a few days later at The Britannia in the League Cup, with Saints edging out a thriller 3-2, thanks to a late Pelle goal. Cup fever was in the air and confidence was high when fans heard Sheffield United would be the opponents in the next round.
Victor Wanyama hit a screamer to give Saints the points at Hull on November 1st. It wasn't pretty, but with Saints now sat 2nd in the table nobody really cared. Koeman's side ground out another win against Leicester, by which time all the pre-season doubters had long since been silenced.
Saints' lack of attacking alternatives were exposed at Aston Villa on 24th November. The team struggled to break their opponents down, but did eventually manage to scrape a point, with Clyne coming up with the goods yet again. Six days later Saints matched Manchester City early on, but were outclassed in the second-half after Schneiderlin picked up an injury. Saints were slightly unlucky to lose to Arsenal and Manchester United in December, but were poor against Burnley and Sheffield United. The Bramall Lane defeat was the worst moment of the season. Saints missed another good opportunity to take a step closer to a Wembley final, having been outfought by League 1 opposition.
One of the strengths Ronald Koeman displayed throughout 2014/15 was his ability to mix things up in terms of formation and tactics depending on the opposition. Sometimes - like at West Brom in February - it didn't work, but against Everton at St Mary's it absolutely did. Saints' five match losing run came to an end with an emphatic 3-0 win over The Toffees. Koeman brought Harrison Reed in for his first league start and switched to a 3-5-2.
By Boxing Day Saints were very much back on track. Crystal Palace were seen off 3-1 as Saints fans swung their Santa hats. Mane recaptured the form he had shown in his first few outings, scoring from a difficult angle. He did the same against Chelsea and Arsenal on New Year's Day before hobbling off injured. Saints had to really hang on against Chelsea. Jose Mourinho was furious that Cesc Fabregas was denied a penalty after Matt Targett had hauled him down. Regardless, Saints were still just about worthy of a point. There was nothing fortuitous about the Arsenal win. Wanyama was excellent in that match, as he was for much of the season.
Despite what was said publicly, the performances on the pitch suggested the squad was treating the FA Cup as an afterthought. St Mary's was sold out for the 3rd round draw against Ipswich and the 4th round defeat against Crystal Palace, but the intensity that had been present for most league games up until that point was missing.
Koeman bolstered his attack with the loan capture of Eljero Elia. The Dutch winger featured in the 1-0 win at Old Trafford on 11th January. Years ago, beating Man United on their own patch would have seemed unimaginable. The fact that it didn't even seem that big of a deal was telling. Most believed Saints had a good chance going into the game. Even an early injury to Alderweireld couldn't stop the team. Schneiderlin was majestic in midfield, but it was Tadic who notched the winner shortly after coming off the bench. The Serbian struggled to maintain his early season form on a consistent basis during the second-half of the season, but did still occasionally come up with the goods.
An Elia brace was enough to see off Newcastle on 17th January. Saints were third and appeared to be very much in the race for a Champions League spot, with others faltering. Unfortunately that was about as good as it would get. Swansea's smash and grab on 1st February was a blow. Mane stole the points late on at Loftus Road. Saints' away record up until that point was among the best in the league, but the team would go on to pick up just one more point on the road. Filip Djuricic signed on deadline day, but never really made the best of his obvious talent. Betrand's permanent move was confirmed and Jack Cork ended his association with the club, departing for Swansea.
Saints couldn't find a way past West Ham on February 11th, despite the Hammers having their keeper sent off. Liverpool were the next visitors to St Mary's and it was another anti-climax for the home fans. Saints were denied two penalties early on, but looked uninspired in the final third for much of the contest. Champions League hopes were all but extinguished at the end of February when Saints lost at The Hawthorns.
The game against Palace on 3rd March was tense, but Saints just about edged it in the end. The display at Chelsea was fantastic. Koeman dropped the misfiring Pelle for the first time and it worked a treat. Chelsea's ageing backline struggled to cope with the pace of Long and Mane. Schneiderlin and Wanyama bossed it in midfield once again, while Forster kept the home side out with a series of spectacular saves.
The 21st March win over Burnley was marred by an injury to Forster. The England keeper made a few mistakes during 2014/15, but his absence was certainly felt, although not on the aforementioned occasion. Kelvin Davis made his first appearance of the season and pulled off some fine stops. He did the same against Hull a few weeks later, when Saints were less than impressive. In between those two home games was a forgettable 1-0 loss to Everton, where literally nothing happened after The Toffees went ahead.
Martin Hunter's U21 side tasted glory on April 20th, lifting the Premier League Cup at St Mary's following victory over Blackburn. The majority of the players featured in that game had already represented the club at senior level by that point. Further down, the talent pool doesn't appear to be quite as deep. Anthony Limbrick replaced Jason Dodd as U18s boss before pre-season. Saints finished 10th in a league of 12, with the quality of players coming through nowhere near the level of previous classes.
The last few weeks of the season were fairly uninspiring for the most part. Four insipid away showings at Stoke, Sunderland, Leicester and Man City didn't provide much joy. Fortunately Koeman's side did turn it on at St Mary's a couple more times. Tottenham were the visitors on April 25th. It was the best atmosphere generated for a home game all season. Saints had to settle for a share of the spoils in the end, but the energy and effort exhibited was appreciated by all. The Villa win on 16th May was the perfect way to close out the season at St Mary's. In many ways it was more impressive than the Sunderland victory. Seeing Mane score the fastest ever top-flight hatrick was another surreal moment.
Jose Fonte scooped all the player of the season awards. The Portuguese defender missed just one game and earned full international recognition for the first time. Fonte was the first senior player to commit his future to the club last summer. His leadership off the pitch may have been just as important as his efforts on it. Steven Davis, Maya Yoshida and James Ward-Prowse also penned contract extensions during 2014/15.
By the end of the campaign relations between supporters and club were as strong as ever, a remarkable turn of events given the mood last summer. The player exodus ended up galvanising the fans in the end. St Mary's was as united as it's ever been, and any grumbles that could be heard were only relatively minor. Home games were usually sold out, if not very close to. Saints only once failed to take less than 1,000 people to a competitive away game. Record numbers were notched up at other grounds. The feel-good factor is still there. You'd be hard pressed to find a fan who didn't take a lot of joy away from the season. On the other hand, itís difficult not to feel slightly frustrated about not finishing above at least one of the teams above us. Saints dropped so many stupid points in the second half of the season and yet were still in touching distance of Tottenham and Liverpool right until the very end. As good as 2014/15 was, finishing above one or both of those teams would have made it even sweeter.
All six seasons under the Liebherr regime have been successful, yet different in their own way. The next one should be no exception, with European football to look forward to. Saints will probably lose a couple of players over the summer, but there won't be the mass panic that there was last year. Schneiderlin and Clyne look likely to depart. They'll be tough to replace, but Saints have recruited very well in recent times. At the very least the club will be given the benefit of the doubt when conducting their pre-season business, given what happened last year. The extra games could take a toll too, but a slight drop off in the league might be worth it for the potential glory of the cup. Saints are unlikely to be dragged into the relegation mix, but equally our chances of pushing on into the top six seem slim too. As always it's difficult to say how well we'll do so far out, but another top 10 finish playing good football would surely be deemed satisfactory for most.