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Southampton soar as faith in Russell Martin starts to pay off

Rewind to the 23rd September and the vultures were beginning to circle for Russell Martin at Southampton.

A dismal 5-0 hammering against Sunderland preceded defeats to Leicester City, Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough, heaping significant pressure on a manager who had only been appointed three months prior.

Discontent among some of the St Mary’s faithful intensified, their ire aimed at Sport Republic – the investment firm who purchased the club in January 2022 - and Martin for an underwhelming start that threatened to banish any scent of promotion this term.

It would have been easy for the ownership regime to buckle under the growing pressure. It would have been easy for Martin to sacrifice his principles in pursuit of a safer, more conventional approach.

Advance four months, Southampton have escaped troubled waters and are plotting their route back to the Premier League, basking in a glorious run of form that’s launched them into automatic promotion contention.

Saturday’s 3-1 victory at Martin’s former employers Swansea City saw the Saints set a new club record of an incredible 21 games without defeat.

It was the fourth time in the last six matches that Martin’s free-flowing side had scored at least three goals in a match. Their odds to win the Championship title have understandably shortened to 10/1 and the Saints are now also 5/4 to secure a top two finish and automatic promotion.

The club's faith in their innovative, ambitious manager is being vindicated.

Rebuild job

Reassembling the pieces of a fragmented Southampton side was never going to be an easy task.

Scars from the tumultuous events of the previous campaign were evident; long-standing manager Ralph Hassenhuttl had departed, his successor Nathan Jones failed and Ruben Selles’ best efforts were in vain as the Saints were relegated with a whimper.

Martin came in but immediately his preparations were disrupted by the uncertainty around several first-team players. James Ward-Prowse, Romeo Lavia and Nathan Tella were all included in Martin’s 18-man squad for their opening day win over Sheffield Wednesday and all three departed before the transfer deadline in September.

The likes of Che Adams and Kyle Walker-Peters were the subject of ongoing transfer speculation, which served another distraction for Martin to contend with.

By the end of the window, Southampton had brought in eight players and sold 18, generating £140million profit in transfer fees. A number of key players departed but the Saints had recruited adequately, adding vital experience to supplement a youthful group.

But the squad overhaul and the persistent transfer noise only exacerbated the teething issues Martin experienced in communicating and implementing his ideas. 

They were dominating the ball but the defining details were missing. It soon manifested into possession without penetration and after a run of four consecutive defeats in September, the former Norwich City defender needed to lean on his man-management acumen to start turning results in Southampton’s favour.

Getting his players firing

Engaging in one-on-one conversations with his personnel, Martin wanted to take the pressure off his players, repair the dressing room dynamic and restore the enjoyment factor.

Gavin Bazunu is a prime example. The subject of intense criticism after a series of errors, Martin showed faith in the young goalkeeper. By taking the 21-year-old under his wing, Martin instilled confidence in Bazunu and Southampton are now seeing a return on the £12m sum they paid for his services.

Happier players correlate with improved results and a 3-1 win over Leeds United felt like a turning point. It wasn’t a trademark performance – their 47% possession is the lowest they’ve recorded all season – but it was one that indicated the team were rallying behind their manager.

There was further evidence of the cohesion within the squad three days later when Stuart Armstrong wheeled towards the Saints boss after netting a sublime free-kick.

They failed to win their next match, held to a 1-1 draw at home to struggling Rotherham despite enjoying 80% of the ball and accumulating 3.1 xG. In what many would deem a frustrating result, Martin took great encouragement from his sides chance creation and the authority they displayed in the contest.

It felt as though it was only a matter of time before the intricacy of his tactical blueprint would shine through.

Proving doubters wrong

For someone who focuses on all the attractive components of the beautiful game, the former Scotland international is quite a divisive figure and there was an argument that his possession-based style had masked his managerial flaws, having never finished higher than 10th across stints with MK Dons and Swansea.

Earning wide acclaim for the aesthetics of his football, Martin is now proving to his doubters that there is substance to his controlled style.

Southampton have been swatting away numerous opponents with great pizzazz but they have also demonstrated how their possession-focused approach can grind down opposition and give them an edge in tight affairs.

Their passing sequences slow but intricate, Martin’s meticulous sessions have enabled his players to become comfortable in heavy possession. Make the opposition do the work is the message; the greater degree of control, the more likely it is that your opponents will eventually wilt.

It’s one of the key reasons why both Southampton and Leicester are the two highest scorers in the final 15 minutes of matches.

I love the fact that I've got a manager who tells me to play out no matter what. That gives the whole team confidence.

Kyle Walker-Peters, Southampton defender

But they have been guilty of concentration lapses in the closing stages. Late goals from Huddersfield and Watford have cost them valuable victories and it’s a weakness that Martin will be looking to eradicate.

The Saints rank first in the possession stakes, averaging 65.7% across the course of the season and they also have the lowest PPDA (passes per defensive action) in the division; indicative of their eagerness to retrieve the ball as quickly as possible.

Dominant on the ball, relentless off it; Martin has transformed Southampton into a slick and efficient machine.

Progressing as a collective, a number of individuals have improved under Martin’s tutelage.

A £15m signing from Blackburn in 2022, Adam Armstrong was moved from pillar to post under previous management and consequently struggled in the Premier League.

This season he’s been the Championship’s most productive player, returning 14 goals and 11 assists from an inverted role on the right flank. 

Armstrong’s ability to make central runs is aided by the role Martin has given to Walker-Peters. The enterprising full-back has been provided with a licence to operate further forward and in return, Southampton fans have the enjoyment of watching a player of Premier League calibre wreaking havoc out wide.

Carlos Alcaraz is another to benefit from greater attacking freedoms – the Argentine has even been deployed as a false nine - while the likes of Stuart Armstrong and Jan Bednarek are flaunting their best form. Ryan Manning continues to be one of Martin’s most trusted allies and the development of Southampton’s younger prospects has been encouraging.

They do not have an abundance of riches to spend during the January transfer window and while Martin is keen to bolster his ranks, Southampton have a squad that is evolving with each passing fixture.

Martin is proving himself to be one of the Football League’s smartest tacticians. As both he and his team strive for consistent improvement, there’s every chance Southampton will be celebrating an immediate return to the Premier League come May.

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