Sir Alex Ferguson claimed Southampton were the best team to visit Old Trafford last season. As the Saints prepare for this season's fixture, Sam Drury looks at the Mauricio Pochettino success story...
By Sam Drury - Follow on Twitter
Last Updated: 19/10/13 7:27am
When Southampton made the decision to sack manager Nigel Adkins in January this year, the reaction was one of disbelief, swiftly followed by anger. And lots of it.
The Saints had just come away from a trip to Stamford Bridge with a point having come from two goals down and were sitting three points above the relegation zone. Their performances had been good and they seemed to be improving. For a newly promoted side, the general consensus was that they were doing well - staying up shouldn't be a problem.
So to get rid of the manager who had achieved not only this but also brought them two successive promotions to reach the top flight was seen as madness. Former Espanyol boss Mauricio Pochettino was named as Adkins' successor the same day, only adding to the feeling that the former Scunthorpe manager had been terribly treated by the south coast club.
Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese stood by his decision, however, and insisted the decision was in the club's best interests. "This decision has been made with the long-term ambitions of Southampton Football Club in mind," his statement read. "Whilst we acknowledge the contribution Nigel has made during the past two years, for the club to progress and achieve our long-term targets a change was needed."
Almost nine months on and few would argue that Cortese was wrong to act.
Pochettino was a well thought of young manager and he was available. The Saints chairman had identified him as the man to take the club to the next level and to secure his services, he had to move quickly. If he waited until the summer, it may have been too late. Cortese got his man; Southampton stayed up and after some shrewd summer signings, now lie fourth in the top flight, just two points off top spot.
Of course, it is very early days and even the most optimistic Saints fan would have to admit that the chances of the St Mary's outfit finishing in the Champions League spots are slim in the extreme. However, the way Pochettino has got his team playing means a top eight, possibly even a top six, finish should not be ruled out.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of Southampton's play is when they don't have the ball. Their Argentine manager has got them fantastically drilled to press high up the pitch, as a team, and with an incredible intensity. Opposition defenders and deep lying midfielders especially are afforded so little time or space that even if the Saints are unable to make a tackle or intercept the ball, they are forced to play backwards or go long - often handing the ball back to the opponents anyway.
If Southampton are able to win the ball high up the pitch, either with a tackle, an interception or forcing an error out of an opponent, the advantages are clear. They are closer to the goal, the defence isn't set and due to pressing as one, there are a number of passing options in close proximity. Both offensively and defensively, it is a ploy Pochettino has used to help improve his team immeasurably.
Southampton are by no means the only team to try and use this tactic but there are few, if any, better at it than them in the Premier League. Indeed, in the 16 games after Pochettino took charge of the Saints in the league last season, they afforded their opponents less time on the ball than any other side, based on time in possession.
Southampton allowed the opposition 1.9 seconds less time on the ball, on average, than Liverpool in second. The fact that the gap between Liverpool and Norwich, the lowest ranked side over this 16 game period, was only slightly more, at 2.3 seconds, shows just impressive Pochettino's side were in this aspect of play.
They have continued in the same manner so far this season and the results have been increasingly exciting for fans of the South Coast club. Starting with the likes of Rickie Lambert and Dani Osvaldo up front to Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez out wide through to Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin in central midfield, Southampton's players are relentless in putting their opponents under immediate pressure.
They have a system and seem to have mastered it. It is initially the front four who spring into action once the ball is lost with Jonathan Wilson summing up it up neatly in a recent piece for WhoScored. He explains: "Southampton's front four press quickly, in clear formation: one going to the ball, two backing him up and a fourth looking fill space and pounce if the ball gets through the initial wave."
Even if a player or the ball does get through that quartet, one or other of the aforementioned midfield duo of Schneiderlin or Wanyama are lying in wait to ensure the pressure persists whilst simultaneously giving the other players a chance to regroup before going again.
Outside of England, the best exponents of a high intensity pressing game in recent times have been Barcelona under Pep Guardiola - his Bayern Munich side executed the tactic equally impressively against Manchester City last week, too.
Many people believe such a tactic requires an extremely high level of fitness from the players as, surely, to press with such intensity when you don't have the ball requires players to do more running? Wrong. At least, that is, according to the legendary Johan Cruyff, whose Barcelona team of the late eighties and early nineties used the technique to great success. "We said 'OK, where are the best players?' What's the difference between a good player and bad player?" Cruyff recently told the Irish Examiner.
"It's the speed of (control), so if you've got to speed them up, it's to provoke mistakes. And the main thing is that the quicker you can change your mentality, offensive (to) defensive, the first defender is the centre-forward. He's the nearest by, so the quickest he can put the pressure on, start defending. And you run less. You don't run more. You run less...of course, you've got to do possession. It's a way of thinking and it's the way you can re-organise the whole thing."
Now Southampton are nowhere near the level of Cruyff's Barcelona or Guardiola's teams at Barcelona or Bayern, but, the way they defend as soon as they lose possession does, to a large extent, mirror that of those sides. It is clearly working for Southampton. As well as the two wins over Liverpool, Manchester City were also beaten at St Mary's last season and after a narrow defeat at Old Trafford soon after Pochettino's appointment in January, Sir Alex Ferguson described the Saints as "the best team to play here this season."
Having taken an early lead in that game, Southampton found themselves 2-1 down at half-time. Many sides would have crumbled, but Pochettino's team rallied and, in large part thanks to their high press, stopped the home side threatening and rather looked to lay siege to the United goal. The visitors had 21 shots to United's 11, with more on target than the hosts too. They also won twice as many corners as Ferguson's side, with eight to the home side's four.
Southampton return to Old Trafford in their next game after the international break and the Manchester United team they will come up against on Saturday is well short of the form that saw them romp to the title last term. The Saints have also undoubtedly improved since then and if they perform as they have so far this campaign, you wouldn't bet against them pressing home another shock win.