After a seventh place finish in the Premier League last season, Southampton exceeded all expectations of everybody outside the club. Couple this record league performance with an Arsenal win in the FA Cup final and the South Coast club find themselves in European competition for the first time since the 2003-04 season. With fans of clubs such as Everton and Swansea labeling the Europa League a hindrance on league form, Ronald Koeman and Southampton fans will be wondering how they can avoid this growing curse.
The Europa League can be seen as something of a poisoned chalice for clubs due to playing matches on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons, but is this really a massive disadvantage to teams playing in the competition?
Everton certainly found the congested fixtures hard to manage, finishing eleventh in the league last season after a previous fifth place finish. Yet Borussia Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg and current Europa champions Sevilla had terrific league campaigns; all three clubs now find themselves in the Champions League this coming season.
The Saints will encounter a lot of different styles in Europe and will have to adjust the way they play to combat their opponents. English teams have really under performed in Europe of late, partially by not adapting to the continental style. Examples of this are Arsenal against Monaco in last year’s Champions League and Tottenham against Benfica in the 13-14 Europa League. The English teams played the “Premier League way” in these games and were exposed over two legs.
To succeed in Europe you need to be a lot more patient and less gung-ho. This is where creative players such as Dusan Tadic can come in handy for the Saints. His technical ability is superb; he can hold the ball well and has an eye for a killer pass, making him well suited to the style of European football. Perhaps even Gaston Ramirez could come into his element through the Europa League.
The players will be up against opposition which they won’t have played against before, they will need to learn quickly what to expect from a big and burly Russian forward for example. The squad will no doubt be given more time to look at the traits of these less familiar opposition players and whilst other sides may hold less quality, they could posses a player who must be contained in a certain way.
Therefore, the preparation will differ from recent years at Staplewood, as they more or less know what to expect from a Premier League rival after three years of experience.
Saints will also encounter some monumentally different atmospheres. Playing in countries like Turkey and Greece are a polar opposite to weekend games at Old Trafford and Anfield. The fans of these clubs can be nothing short of animalistic in their enthusiasm for their teams and pyrotechnics are nothing out of the ordinary.
Koeman and his team have been around the block, boasting previous European experience as both a player and a manager. So, fans should be confident in Koemans decisions throughout the competition, as well as being sure to stand by some of the players who will be getting their first taste of European action. At the end of the day, this Europa League campaign is a reward for last year’s efforts and should therefore be enjoyed every step of the way.