Football Features

How far would the Southampton team that could have been go in the Champions League?

By Ben Green

Published: 11:31, 28 May 2019

Among the star-studded line-ups and world-class coaching teams, there is one major factor that unites both Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool ahead of Saturday’s all-English Champions League final: Southampton.

As the Wanda Metropolitano grips itself for a blockbuster bout between the Lilywhites and last year’s finalists, the south-coast influence in Madrid couldn’t be more palpable, with the Reds boasting five former Saints in their squad and Spurs a more modest three.

Liverpool’s assortment of ex-players from St. Mary’s has culminated in a running joke that Jurgen Klopp should move his scouting department to Hampshire, but over the years Spurs have arguably prised away the biggest gem from Southampton: Mauricio Pochettino.

And one player who has been there to witness it all is Jose Fonte, a stalwart of the game who once sat sturdily in Southampton’s defence when they were trying to find their feet in League One. Over his seven-year stint in the South East, he saw some of the best come and go – and he certainly knows it.

“Firstly it’s just amazing to see so many ex-teammates of mine in the final. I’m so glad to see them all doing well and succeeding,” Fonte told Squawka.

“It just makes me think – if we had kept most of them what could have been at Southampton? How far could we have gone?”

Well, how far could they have gone? It will be impossible to truly know how good this side could have been under Pochettino; so we have taken to Football Manager 2019 to find the answers. Simming 10 different seasons, we found out whether Southampton could have clinched a Champions League trophy if Fonte’s former colleagues were still on the books.

The squad

First things first, instead of having a squad comprised completely of Fonte’s ex-teammates, we decided to incorporate them into Southampton’s current incarnation under Ralph Hasenhuttl.

The obvious names were among those listed in the squad, but some more unusual candidates also made the grade including West Ham’s Michail Antonio, who had a short loan spell in 2009 and Torino forward Iago Falque, though ultimately not all could make the cut.

Goalkeepers: Paulo Gazzaniga, Alex McCarthy, Angus Gunn

Defenders: Nathaniel Clyne, Luke Shaw, Ryan Bertrand, Jose Fonte, Calum Chambers, Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk, Toby Alderweireld, Maya Yoshida, Jannik Vestergaard

Midfielders: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Victor Wanyama, Nathan Redmond, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Morgan Schneiderlin, Oriol Romeu, Mario Lemina, Michail Antonio, Jack Cork

Forwards: Sadio Mane, Danny Ings, Iago Falque, Dusan Tadic, Shane Long

Overview

Among the 10 seasons we simmed, the Saints progressed through the group stages on six occasions, failing to make it out just four times.

Unfortunately, the quarter-final stage would be as good as it got for Southampton; there would be no fairytale story of Pochettino collapsing on the St. Mary’s turf, collar scuffed and tears flowing, or even an Anfield-esque rendition of When the Saints Go Marching in as Southampton players linked arm-in-arm in front of the Chapel Stand.

But make no mistake, Southampton clearly weren’t there to just make up the numbers, as they pulled off a number of giant-killings and major upsets along the way…

The best season

Southampton’s best season was without question a quarter-final campaign in which they came agonisingly close to making it to the last-four.

The group stages were relatively favourable for the Saints, with the Premier League club drawn against Shakhtar Donetsk, Schalke and Legia Warsaw.

Four wins and two defeats saw Southampton top Group H with 12 points, and set up a Round of 16 clash against Valencia.

Pochettino’s side were made to work for a 4-3 win over Los Che, but second leg goals from Mane and Tadic ultimately sealed progression to the quarter-finals, where an ominous task against Atletico Madrid awaited them.

However, this would be where the European dream came to an end. A 4-4 aggregate draw in which Atleti went through on away goals sealed Southampton’s fate.

The Saints won the first leg 4-2, a commendable feat against Diego Simeone, a coach who has forged his managerial career on organisation and discipline, rather than the aesthetics of the game, but the second leg proved a stretch too far.

But what did we learn from this emphatic quarter-final season? Well, Southampton racked up a staggering 22 goals, with Mane helping himself to seven, and Dusan Tadic registering a club-best four assists.

As for the formation, Pochettino largely stuck to his tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1, interestingly converting Toby Alderweireld from centre-back to defensive midfield in a double pivot with Victor Wanyama.

Pochettino has often played Alderweireld in a back-three at Spurs, but a flat back-four was his preferred method here, with Van Dijk partnering Dejan Lovren in the centre of defence, while Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw operated as attack-minded full-backs.

Further up the pitch, Tadic was deployed out wide in his natural position, while Adam Lallana was entrusted with the No 10 role and Mane stationed on the right flank – with Danny Ings through the middle.

Had Pochettino taken inspiration from Amsterdam and refashioned Tadic as a false 9, bringing Oxlade-Chamberlain into the equation, their European journey may not have ended so prematurely in Madrid…

The worst season

As mentioned, Southampton failed to make it through the group stages on four of the 10 seasons we simmed, but this was arguably their worst campaign, with Pochettino overseeing just the single win.

Granted Group A wasn’t the kindest of draws for the Saints, with Paris Saint-Germain, Valencia and Benfica making up a menacing trident of opponents, but the task proved too hot to handle for Pochettino.

With just the solitary win – a 1-0 victory over Benfica – Southampton finished third in the group, conceding 11 goals and scoring just five, with their heaviest defeat a 3-0 humbling by the Parisians.

Tadic finished the campaign as top scorer with two, while Oriol Romeu proved playmaker of the competition with three assists.

In terms of formation, again, Pochettino opted for a 4-2-3-1, but this time the Argentine tactician tinkered with his personnel.

In the 3-0 defeat to Thomas Tuchel’s PSG, Pochettino stuck with compatriot Gazzaniga between the sticks, while he moved Alderweireld to his more natural position alongside Van Dijk at the back – dropping Lovren as a result – with Clyne and Ryan Bertrand making up a pacy full-back combination.

In the middle of the park Romeu accompanied Wanyama, while there was no movement up top, with Pochettino selecting an identical frontline to that of his best season.

Season by season breakdown

There are certainly some very interesting talking points when we look at the 10 seasons as a collective, including Tadic finishing seven of the 10 European campaigns with the most assists, while he also finished top goalscorer four times.

So where was this Tadic during his time in English football? Well, consistency was the Serb’s main problem, but had a manager of Pochettino’s tactical acumen been at the helm, maybe he would have flourished, a la Erik ten Hag at Ajax.

Mane was also a busy customer in the final third, finishing top scorer on four occasions, while Lallana scored the highest numbers of goals twice and set up the most twice.

With that considered, how did Southampton fare in each of the 10 seasons?

Season one

UCL finish: Round-of-16 (defeat to Juventus)

Best result: 1-0 Borussia Dortmund

Biggest loss: 0-4 Juventus

Top scorer: Falque (4)

Most assists: Tadic/Mane (2)

Season two

UCL finish: Group stage

Best result: 1-0 Benfica

Biggest loss: 0-3 PSG

Top scorer: Tadic (2)

Most assists: Romeu (3)

Season three

UCL finish: Group stage

Best result: 3-0 Lokomotiv Moscow

Biggest loss: 0-2 Schalke

Top scorer: Tadic (2)

Most assists: Lallana (1)

Season four

UCL finish: Quarter-final (defeat to Atletico Madrid)

Best result: 4-2 Atletico Madrid

Biggest loss: 0-2 Atletico Madrid

Top scorer: Mane (7)

Most assists: Tadic (4)

Season five

UCL finish: Group stage

Best result: 3-1 Red Star

Biggest loss: 0-3 Lyon

Top scorer: Mane/Tadic (2)

Most assists: Tadic (1)

Season six

UCL finish: Group stage

Best result: 2-0 Borussia Dortmund

Biggest loss: 0-3 Valencia

Top scorer: Mane (3)

Most assists: Tadic (4)

Season seven

UCL finish: Round-of-16 (defeat to Atletico Madrid)

Best result: 1-0 Ajax

Biggest loss: 0-2 Atletico Madrid

Top scorer: Oxlade-Chamberlain/Lallana (2)

Most assists: Tadic (3)

Season eight

UCL finish: Round-of-16 (defeat to Atletico Madrid)

Best result: 1-0 Benfica

Biggest loss: 1-4 Juventus

Top scorer: Oxlade-Chamberlain (2)

Most assists: Tadic (1)

Season nine

UCL finish: Quarter-final (defeat to Man City)

Best result: 2-1 Monaco

Biggest loss: 0-2 Man City

Top scorer: Mane/Tadic (3)

Most assists: Lallana (3)

Season 10

UCL finish: Round-of-16 (defeat to PSG)

Best result: 3-0 Lyon

Biggest loss: 0-3 Inter Milan

Top scorer: Lallana (2)

Most assists: Tadic (1)

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