Friday, August 1, 2014

Southampton Going South?

 There has been a media circus surrounding Southampton basically since the season ended. As the surprise team of last season, it's inevitable that they would be the team whose players are targeted by the bigger clubs. The club is in an unenviable position, as they were not likely to progress above their finish last season, and they have players who would like to test themselves at a higher level. This makes it easy for United and Liverpool to come in, offer larger amounts of money than Southampton could afford, and pick up the players they want. Money rules in football, and Southampton are just getting the short end of the stick, or so the media would have you believe. Except that they're not. At all. In fact, Southampton have done tremendously well with their outgoing transfers so far, considering their limited negotiating position. If they manage their acquisitions that well, I expect them to remain a top half team, which would be a considerable accomplishment.

Obviously, the first part of a sound transfer strategy is knowing your own team's strengths and weaknesses. As we covered recently here, not all teams get this part right. But in Southampton's case it was the media, not the manager, who really overrated the team and in so doing blew this "crisis" out of proportions. The fact that Southampton performed well early in the season made it seem as though they were closer to the top sides than they actually were. Their goal difference was closer to Swansea's than it was to the top 6 (they did have a better goal difference than Tottenham though, which is probably a subject for another article). Also, the fact that they had so many English players made the jingoistic English press fawn all over them, with articles being written about how Southampton should be the model for England. Southampton did accomplish a lot last year, but the way the press was talking about them you'd think they invented football.

So why was Southampton successful last season? If we look at the statistics, it's clear that Southampton excelled in three areas: possession of the football, limiting opponent's chances to score, and converting their own opportunities. Southampton averaged more possession than any other team in the league, which is pretty insane in a league with Manchester City and Arsenal. They took care of the ball well, and just as importantly, recovered it very quickly after they lost it thanks to a high press. Their second strength was their defense, as their defensive efficiency (SOG Allowed/Possession) ranked 6th in the league. As you can tell, that figure takes into account the fact that their offense had the ball so much leaving their defense with less to do; if we are looking simply at SOG Allowed, they would rank third. Finally, they possessed a good Finish Rate, converting 29% of their SOG, good for 6th in the league. This was due primarily to Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, and a number of defensive goals from Lovren and Fonte.

Southampton was really held back in two areas: save percentage and chance creation. The first one is not surprising. Southampton's save percentage was partly due to poor games from backup keepers when Artur Boric's hand injury kept him out, but also due to Boruc's mediocre play himself (see Arsenal vs Southampton 11/23/13 for a start). The second though, will come as a shock to most of the media. Southampton actually were ranked 14th in offensive efficiency and are Exhibit B in why you have to control for possession when looking at a team's attacking potency (Swansea 2011-12 are always Exhibit A). Yes, Southampton controlled the ball for long periods of time. They just rarely did anything productive with it. Their success in creating Shots on Goal (they ranked 9th) is almost entirely due to the fact they had the ball more than any other team.

So if Southampton were being rational, their transfer strategy would be trying to improve the areas they were weak (save percentage, chance creation) and maintain what they did well. At the same time, they would probably want to follow some of the below advice (much of it ripped from Soccernomics):
  • Sell older players. Stands to reason that cashing in on stars before they start to decline would make sense.
  • Sell English players. Clubs have to pay a premium for English players, which makes sense to a degree. Fans and the media can more easily connect with them, so they do bring some added value to the club. Even with that, they tend to be overpriced in the market.
  •  Sell to desperate teams. As anyone who sold to Tottenham last year knows, there's nothing better than doing business with a team who has lost a star and needs to replace him.
 So given these criteria, how have Southampton done so far? Let's break it down for each player who left:

Rickie Lambert: Lambert was a big part of the team's success last year with his strong Finish Rate, but he is 32 years old. Last season was most likely as good as it was going to get for Lambert and Southampton were probably right to sell him now. As an English player, they got a pretty good price for him.

Adam Lallana: Lallana is the perfect example of the type of player the media overrates. He's the rarest of breeds, an English attacking midfielder, and that leads to everyone making him the Great White Hope. However, he is billed as a creative midfielder, but he is really not that creative. He scores goals which is valuable, but as Martin Laurence pointed out, he lost the ball more times than any other midfielder in the Premier League. He's also an English player sold to a desperate Liverpool,and I would have ripped Ian Ayre's hand off for 25 million pounds.

Luke Shaw: The brightest star of the bunch. He contributed a lot to Southampton's defending and attacking play, and will certainly be missed. However, 30 million is lot of money for a player and it was unlikely Southampton would be able to hold on to him for too much longer without Champions League football. I think they were probably right to sell.

Dejan Lovren: You can tell Lovren was the player Saints wanted to sell the least, for good reason. The transfer was drawn out forever, and Lovren finally forced a move to Liverpool. Lovren was a stalwart of their defense and contributed some set piece goals at the other end. This was the sale more than any other that I think the team will regret.

Calum Chambers: Chambers didn't start in more than half of the Premier League games, and Southampton already have a better right back in Nathaniel Clyne. He has potential, but 18 million is a lot for potential, particularly when he's not guaranteed a starting spot.

Overall, I think Southampton played this offseason about as well as they could. They sold for a big profit some of their overrated players (Lallana), some players who probably wouldn't hit the heights of last campaign again (Lambert), and some players who had potential with little to show for it yet (Chambers). They did get rid of some key contributors for big money, so they will be hurt there. However, their rumored acquisitions of Ron Vlaar and Ryan Bertrand would replace Lovren and Shaw nicely, and Dusan Tadic (most chances created in the Eredivisie last term along with 13 goals) and Fraser Forster are likely to improve their chance creation and save percentage respectively, two areas Southampton struggled last year. Assuming they get their targets hold firm on Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez, Southampton look to be a top half side, just like last year. They may not be the model for England, but at this point who would really want to be?