Southampton F.C. provided one of the best stories in the English Premier League last season, starting hot behind a dynamic group of youngsters and a high-pressing style, and going on to finish in eighth place. For a club that skirted bankruptcy in 2009—while they were in English football’s third division—this was more than respectable. It was success.
But this Cinderella story was followed by a messy divorce.
Like prodigies Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott before them, Southampton’s stars left for richer, more renowned clubs at the end of the season. Both young fullbacks departed: Luke Shaw to Manchester United, Calum Chambers to Arsenal. Liverpool bought the alliterative trio of Lovren, Lambert, and Lallana, and the Saints’ manager, Mauricio Pochettino, headed to London to try his hand at glory with Tottenham Hotspur. Even when player sales bring in over $150 million, replacing a coach and half a lineup is a massive challenge.
Southampton seems to have met it. The little club from the south coast of England is riding so high that The New York Times is celebrating its remarkable ability to rebuild. They are the team that lost its best players, and then started playing better.
This backstory is what made Manchester City’s visit to St. Mary’s Stadium on Sunday so alluring. City, the champions of England, Abu Dhabi’s favorite club, were actually chasing the second-placed Saints. Southampton hadn’t lost at home all season, so their new coach was optimistic. “I feel happy and not afraid for this week,” said Dutchman Ronald Koeman. “I am positive, and I know that we have a strong team and we can beat everyone in the Premier League. And we have to show it.”