Similarities between Saints and Barcelona
26 October ~ There won't be many impartial television viewers tuning in to Southampton v Fulham today. Barcelona v Real Madrid will be kicking off 30 minutes before and it is unlikely a lot of people will be reaching for the remote control come 5.30pm. But for those who do make the effort, they may well see some similarities. Southampton's early season promise has, in part, been based on a high-intensity pressing game that has left both Liverpool and Manchester United struggling to keep pace.
It's debatable whether the same style will be displayed in this Saturday's home game but the similarities with Barcelona do not end there. The Catalan club won La Liga at the end of the 2010 season after amassing 99 points with a core of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi which remains today. Southampton have kept their own core since the same period with José Fonte, Adam Lallana and Ricky Lambert, and 2010 also saw Saints crowned as winners – of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.
Since then two promotions have followed, the same number of manager sackings and over £50 million spent on recruitment. In addition to the core group of players, the other constant has been the club's chairman Nicola Cortese. He has consistently raised the supporters' expectations and managed to deliver.
More exciting than the signings of Gastón Ramírez, Victor Wanyama, Dani Osvaldo and Dejan Lovren (with the latter already a firm fans' favourite) has been the continued reliance on the academy. Regularly fielding three 18-year-old graduates, plus Lallana, this season has surely shown FA chairman Greg Dyke the way forward more than any number of commission members can.
Fulham have had a steady start to the season supplemented by recent back-to-back wins and their fans too will be hoping they win the unofficial "race to eighth place". Only time will tell if their new chairman, Shahid Khan, is able to make a similar impact to his counterpart on the south coast but the early signs are that he at least knows how to capture the public vote, with the welcomed removal of the Michael Jackson statue. Khan should take note that it is Cortese's unpopular decisions which have fundamentally propelled the club forward, namely the removal of Alan Pardew and then Nigel Adkins during contentious periods.
Lessons can be learnt both ways and Fulham are an example of how difficult it can be to consistently break in to the top half while balancing fan expectations with a practical business model. Saints' early season form has been based on a sound defence (three goals conceded compared to 24 at the same stage last season) rather than attacking prowess.
Ramírez rarely has the chance to prove his potential can be translated to the Premier League stage and universally appreciated players such as Jack Cork are being pushed aside for expensive acquisitions such as Wanyama. The truth is that most fans will continue to buy in to an approach with youth at its heart rather than money. If the club achieves its aim of 50 per cent of the squad being homegrown there may be more than just Gareth Bale representing the academy graduates in future El Clásicos. Tom Morley