Southampton keep losing because the good guys don’t get to win
Sports are evil and cruel. We’re sorry.
Everyone adores Southampton. Plucky little Southampton, the last bastion of hope for those who believe the Premier League should be about something other than who has the most money. Tim Sherwood says they’re great because they have an identity. Henry Winter called their academy a ‘dream factory’. They’re a lovely team that neutrals can get behind, they had a great start to the season, and over the last four weeks they’ve come crashing back down to earth.
Southampton surged to second place early in the season, had a couple of long undefeated runs and looked very convincing while doing this. Our own Michael Caley’s numbers really liked their chances of hanging onto fourth. But it was a mirage created by favorable scheduling, and they’ve run into an absolute buzzsaw.
Five games without a win, four losses on the trot, from second with a big gap on the teams below them to fifth in a matter of a month. The most recent loss, to lowly Burnley on Saturday, was by far the most disheartening. Southampton’s league position is now more reflective of their talent level, and they’re likely to drop a couple more spots before the end of the campaign. The Saints will finish top half, certainly, but they won’t challenge for top four. Their dreams of the Champions League have been dashed.
Few will remember this side. In 10 years, when people look at old league tables, they will see a pair of mid-table finishes for Southampton in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, then conclude that they must have been a half-decent side with some half-decent players and give no more thought to the matter. They probably deserve more than that, but it doesn’t matter.
As a mid-sized club best known for their excellent youth academy, these Saints are English football’s most recent ‘good guys’. They’re the best developers of British professional footballers not called Manchester United and they used their home-grown talent to pull themselves out of a financial crisis and up from League One. They give local lads and teenagers a chance — not just to play first team football, but to play exciting, attacking football.
This ticks all of the sentimental boxes: Homegrown talent, British players, giving kids an opportunity, comeback story, attacking football despite resources relative to top peers. Any club that has two of these things is usually proclaimed by fans and media to be Good For Football™, and last season, no one was better for football than Southampton.
They became too successful for their own good, and so wound up selling almost their entire team, smart purchases and local lads alike. The two big stars they held onto — Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin — stuck around because of a serious injury and despite a Twitter rant, respectively. Then they bought really fun, undervalued players from the Netherlands and Austria while loaning in some more well-established names and voila!, Southampton are even bigger media darlings this season! Not only do they tick all of the Good For Football boxes, but they’re doing it despite being bullied into selling off all their good players.
And then, poof. It’s all gone. They’ve lost four games in a row, they’re out of the top four, and having yet to reach the midway point, their dream season is over.
Southampton are good, but they aren’t good enough to challenge for the Champions League spots. Graziano Pellè, Dušan Tadić and Sadio Mané were excellent signings, but they’re not they type of players who can be expected to perform at a consistently dominant level throughout the season. The midfielders that started against Burnley — Victor Wanyama and Steven Davis — are solid players, but not nearly as dynamic as injured pair Schneiderlin and Jack Cork. Jake Hesketh, James Ward-Prowse, Harrison Reed and Sam Gallagher might be the next generation of England stars, but they’re not yet ready to guide a team to the top four. Despite what we wanted to believe about manager Ronald Koeman and their young talent, this team was always doomed if top four was what they aspired to.
Sports are cruel, and the teams we attach the good guys label to almost always lose. This is why people choose to root for teams like Real Madrid or Bayern Munich despite having never set foot in Madrid or Munich. If you don’t root for the biggest, baddest, richest team, you get your heart broken more often than not.
Sports that are not football in countries outside of Europe have figured this out and created restrictive systems with ridiculously convoluted rules for the expressed purpose of making fans (or perhaps more accurately, consumers) feel like the team they back actually has a chance. In those situations, it’s not totally nonsensical to entertain delusions that a team like Southampton can win trophies. In European football, entertaining those delusions is a near-guarantee of unhappiness.
Humans, while very intelligent, have some very, very stupid soft spots. One of them is our love for underdog stories and willingness to talk ourselves into the good guys having a chance against their much more successful opponents, who occupy their positions of power because of an abundance of resources that they didn’t necessarily do anything to earn. Most people hate those teams, but enough people support them that they keep winning anyway.
A lot of people talked themselves into Southampton breaking up the Sky Six monopoly, but it looks like this was a silly, misguided romantic fantasy. The Saints may continue to captivate and create feel-good storylines, but the tale will end with them sitting outside those coveted top four spots.