Southampton's extraordinary rise through the divisions to the Premier League top three can be illustrated in many ways. But as the Saints trio of Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana prepare to link up for the first time with England this week, few things can highlight their dramatic ascent more than their whereabouts just last year as Southampton hosted Burnley in the Championship.
The home side won the game 2-0 that February with Lallana heading in the opening goal. But despite the presence of Lambert and Rodriguez on the pitch, with the latter representing Burnley, it was the second goalscorer that day who took the plaudits. "Billy Sharp is going to be a massive threat in this league," said then boss Nigel Adkins after the game. Clarets boss Eddie Howe added of his own side: "I don't think any player has come out of it with much credit."
That didn't stop Rodriguez completing a £6million move to St Mary's that summer as the momentum of the team's back-to-back promotions was continued with a strong showing on their return to the Premier League. Mauricio Pochettino's relentless pressing machine has since seen Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville label Southampton as the best organised side in the league. They are among the big boys on merit. Just like the trio now called up to the England squad.
Lambert has already demonstrated his qualities, enjoying an encouraging start to his international career by scoring in his first two England internationals. With Andy Carroll enduring ongoing injury problems, the 31-year-old striker appears to have established himself as Roy Hodgson's No.1 target man. And now he has two club team-mates for company in the squad. "It's strange showing other people around and telling them where to go," Lambert admitted this week.
Lallana's call-up had been much anticipated. "He's played a major part in Southampton's rise to the top this season," said Hodgson. "So it was quite obvious we would pick him." The 25-year-old ranks among the top 10 midfielders in the Premier League for recoveries, an indication of the ball-winning qualities honed under Pochettino. Crucially, this defensive contribution is combined with offensive abilities that have seen him complete more dribbles than the other nine men on that list. A versatile hard worker with an attacking threat, Lallana could be seen as a James Milner upgrade.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, is an obvious challenger to Danny Welbeck in an advanced forward role on the flanks. "I see in Rodriguez somebody who could fill that Welbeck role," said Hodgson. "He's a wide forward rather than a midfielder or a winger. He likes to go forward and attack people with and without the ball." Like Welbeck, the Saints man is a willing worker with impressive energy levels and movement. As with Lallana, he is among the top 10 in his position for ball recoveries and provides a goal threat - having netted three times so far this season.
Perhaps Hodgson's growing admiration for the developments at Southampton reflects his own ambitions for the England team. The veteran boss is in his element when building organised teams able to take on more fancied sides. Exactly what will be required in Brazil. The template is there and there could be more to come. "Adam and Jay were superb last season and especially this season," added Lambert. "But I think all the English lads in the Southampton team have done well."
While many Southampton supporters were overjoyed to see three of their players rewarded with England call-ups for the friendlies against Chile and Germany, others were still grumbling about the omission of their right-back. Although Glen Johnson has returned following injury, Kyle Walker's form has been mixed and the Manchester United duo of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are not specialists in the position. Clyne, on the other hand, has been a reliable performer for the Saints and ranks among the top 10 tackling defenders in the Premier League this season. If both he and Southampton can maintain their strong form, don't rule out the 22-year-old getting his chance.
England have a plethora of left-back options at the moment with talent such as Leighton Baines and Ashley Cole having to battle for one place in the team, while Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs and Tottenham's Danny Rose look set to be relying on an injury to the aforementioned duo to have any hope of making it to Brazil. But in established himself as one of Southampton's key performers, Shaw is arguably the most exciting prospect of them all. Having only turned 18 in the summer, the youth-team graduate has the potential to notch up almost 100 Premier League appearances while still a teenager and full England honours are surely inevitable.
Handed his league debut on the opening weekend of last season against Manchester City, the midfielder has emerged as a regular this term under Pochettino. Ward-Prowse has featured in all 11 of Southampton's matches and his expert delivery from wide positions is indicative of his exemplary technique. The 19-year-old has made 33 successful crosses so far this season - eight more than nearest rival Steven Gerrard, despite the fact that the England captain has started five more matches. Called-up for the England Under-21 side for the first time in August, a senior cap seems to be just a matter of time.
When Lambert received his first England call-up, there were some who saw the ageing forward as the latest in a long line that included Kevin Davies and Jay Bothroyd - a token gesture reward before quietly going back to club football. But Lambert is rather better than that. He seized his chance and is now a trendsetter with long-term prospects like Lallana and Rodriguez set to follow in his footsteps. The race is on among Clyne, Shaw and Ward-Prowse to be the next Southampton star to make the step up. It's all a long way from facing Burnley on a cold February afternoon in the Championship.
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