Nigel Adkins will prepare his Reading side to host QPR tomorrow in the knowledge that anything other than a defeat will see them relegated to the Championship. Even if they avoid a loss, it will only delay the inevitable as a ten point gap separates them from safety with just four games remaining. The drop will be far from disastrous for the manager who will get the chance, after inheriting the squad off Brian McDermott a month ago, to imprint his own mark in the attempt to launch a quick return to the Premier League with the support of wealthy chairman Anton Zingarevich.
Given the last time Adkins was managing outside of the top division he was guiding Southampton to the runners-up spot and back-to-back promotions, it is an attractive proposition for a manager who has forged his experience and reputation in the bustle of the Football League. Despite ousting that Southampton side to the title by a point, Reading weren’t quite ready for the demands of the Premier League and with the league’s worst defence partnered with the league’s worst away record, they are going out with a relative whimper. Adkins however, will be allowed to rebuild, regroup and restart the work started by McDermott away from the league that can be ruthlessly unforgiving.
Adkins’s intelligence and astute management skill suggests he will be back soon enough, and he will be fired on by the opportunity to prove a point to his old employers who sacked him back in January whilst on a run of just two defeats from twelve which left the Saints fifteenth. His remit, after emerging from the Championship, was to avoid relegation and he was on course to achieve just that, four points off the drop zone when chairman Nicola Cortese chose to act regardless, appointing Mauricio Pochettino, the Argentine coach who had made his name in La Liga with Espanyol.
Having never managed in England, coming over with just 3 years of club management under the belt at the age of 41 and suffering from a well-documented struggle with the English language, the move sparked mass outrage. Adkins was rewarded for successive promotions from League One to the Premier League, where he looked to be on the way to consolidation, with a ruthless removal from his position in favour of an untested, inexperienced foreign coach who couldn’t speak English. Cortese took heavy vilification and Southampton were heavily derided by the on-watching public for embracing the modern football culture of reckless, insular actions at board level against the wishes of the supporters.
Twelve matches since Pochettino made his unspectacular introduction to the English game with a goalless draw with Everton, the dissenting voices have began to fade away. The Saints have lost just three times since then, moving up to the safety of 12th place. Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City have all been been brushed aside during this run whilst Manchester United were lucky to ride out 2-1 winners at Old Trafford, where the new philosophy of energy and dynamism saw the visitors largely in control.
That performance was only the second game of the Pochettino revolution so it was still in the relative youth of his project, but it has become apparent that relentless pressing high-up the pitch is central to his philosophy.
The central midfield two of Jack Cork and Morgan Schneiderlin have been vital to the new system, the Frenchman proving to be one of the stories of the season with his place as the most successful tackler in Europe. The 23 year old has won 105 of an attempted 141 tackles and boasts an impressive passing accuracy of 85%, alongside Cork, also 23, who has completed 83% of his passes. It is a duo that provides the heartbeat of the side, battling to win the ball back in midfield and moving it forward quickly. It is testament to the work of Schneiderlin and Cork that the club’s most successful passer with 85%, ex-Rangers midfielder Steven Davis who stepped in so admirably when Cork suffered a knee-injury earlier in the season, is being kept out of the side.
Pochettino has also turned to striker Jay Rodriguez, used sparingly by Adkins after being on the bench 11 out of his 22 matches in charge, the Argentine has used him in all twelve of his matches so far. His high-work rate and constant movement is an asset to the system of dynamic pressing and he has also offered goals, three in his last five games.
That high level of energy and endeavour has complimented the quality of Rickie Lambert, the 31 year old proving himself to be a success in the Premier League after previously struggling to settle in the lower reaches of League Two. Lambert has scored 14 goals to spark clamour for an England call-up, yet the ex-Rochdale and Bristol Rovers forward is not just a poacher, using clever movement and close-control to lead the attack, creating 73 chances for his team-mates in this campaign.
The attacking duo have been supported by a creative, athletic trio behind them in Jason Puncheon, Adam Lallana and Gaston Ramirez, the latter having finally settled into the side after arriving from Bologna with the hefty price-tag of £12 million. His 5 goals and 3 assists has been a respectable return from a debut year in a new league and he seems to be thriving in an role off the central-striker in a narrow 4-2-3-1 system that allows the full-back pairing of Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne to storm forward.
Shaw, at the tender age of 17, has been a revelation, starting 19 games after coming through the club’s youth set-up and his assured displays have been impressive enough to attract the interests of Chelsea and Tottenham. The England under-17 year old is unlikely to be going anywhere however, having pledged his future to the south coast club by signing a long-term deal back in January.
The highly-rated Shaw will be around to see the next stage of the Pochettino revolution, likely to be backed financially in the summer by the Italian banker Cortese. With a wide-scouting network and a strong knowledge of European talent, expect to see the continental influence spread further at St Mary’s as he tries to develop the ball-retaining, high-pressing style that came to life so colourfully in Spain. He will also be excited by the emergence of another youth product, 18 year old midfielder James Ward-Prowse, who has made 13 appearances and shown a calmness on the ball that suggests his future will be bright.
Under the stewardship of the innovative Pochettino, Southampton’s future as a whole looks bright and they will head into this weekend’s game with West Bromwich Albion free from any pressure of relegation. The same cannot be said of their former manager however as he will be forced to start again with Reading. Adkins’s regime is yet to start properly but Pochettino’s is beginning to motor ahead into the distance. Cortese’s decision doesn’t seem quite as ill-thought now, does it?