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Nigel Adkins says Southampton deserve place in the Premier League
NIGEL ADKINS will remind his Saints players of one, vital message as they prepare to walk out to face champions Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday – you have earned the right to be here.
With the majority of the first team having not experienced the Premier League before, you could forgive them for feeling a bit intimidated as the glare of the cameras, the faces of Tevez, Kompany and co on the opposite side of the tunnel and the roar of virtually 50,000 expectant fans hits them square in the face.
It will be a moment to take a deep breath, to compose, to get ready for battle.
Adkins will be reminding his players that they have fought to get to this point and they deserve to be there.
“I can’t wait to go there, I’m really looking forward to it – the whole football club is, especially the players,” said Adkins.
“At the end of the day a few years ago we were at the bottom of League One and could dream of being there but now we’re there on merit.
“We’ve earned the right to be there and we’re going to go there and give it everything we’ve got.
“It’s a great game for us.
“Two years ago we were playing teams in League One and now we’re playing teams in the Premier League and what a great way to start the campaign.”
It’s a turnaround that Adkins has masterminded.
Yes, Alan Pardew certainly deserves his share of the credit as well for recruiting so much of the squad, but Adkins is the man with the back-toback promotions on his record.
And, make no mistake, he is not there just for the ride.
There is much talk in Saints circles of a target of a top-half finish being handed to Adkins and the squad.
That seems an ambitious ask given the lack of recruitment in the summer and a preseason campaign that has received mixed reviews.
But, inspired by the achievements of Swansea and Norwich, two of last year’s newly promoted sides who finished 11th and 12th respectively, Saints are aiming high.
“When you look at it, the teams that went up give the belief that it is possible to stay up,” reflected Adkins.
“Our ambition is higher than that, not just to stay up.
“We have been promoted and can’t just think ‘oh, we’re there now,’ and take our foot off the gas.
“We’ve got to keep working very hard which the players are and everybody at the football club is to keep raising the bar and the standards of everything we do.”
Saints go into the Premier League season with lofty goals, and not just in terms of an eventual finishing position.
Their very publicly stated aim is to get 50 per cent of their first team made up of academy products within a reasonable timeframe.
The likes of Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse have been drafted into the squad this season as that steps up a pace, but it is a tough ask to blood youngsters in an inexperienced Premier league side.
But, once again, Adkins is in an upbeat mood about the club’s chances of hitting their targets – and this time maintaining them rather than selling prize assets to other teams.
“Our youngsters are coming through the system and our vision is to get 50 per cent of the youngsters into the first team,” he said.
“They are getting that opportunity and look at James Ward-Prowse, he was outstanding against Bristol City.
“Luke Shaw has had a groin injury but we have got high hopes for several of the players.
“The big thing is when for example Chambo (Alex Chamberlain ) left and went to Arsenal we were a League One club and we are now a Premier League club.
“It’s a situation where we want to produce our own for the Premier League and that’s what we’re actively doing.
“Southampton are not a stepping stone. Players want to be at this football club because it’s a great football club to be at.
“You’ll find it’s more like players want to come to Southampton.”
Adkins regularly gave credit to last summer’s pre-season schedule when discussing their promotion from the Championship – and he believes Saints are just as well prepared this time out for their time with the big boys.
“You can see the fitness levels that we’ve got there, which are very good, and it’s about getting the players through.
“Unfortunately we’ve lost Jack (Cork) for a short period of time, which is a shame because he’s a smashing lad.
“Pre-season has been good because we’ve worked on a new formation, which is a 4-3-3, and we want to be assertive with it.
“The players have adapted to it and with every game we have improved and been assertive and that’s really pleasing.”
Perhaps that change of system has been the most striking, the most daring thing about pre-season. Having achieved such great success with a very settled team and formation, Adkins is rolling the dice this summer.
Whether you could describe it as a true 4-3-3 or a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-5-1 is open to debate.
But either way, changing a highly successful formula just as you make a huge leap up in class of opposition is tough.
Adkins may have not opted for this had Saints been more active in the transfer market, but as it is he has had to weigh up the best use of the squad he has, and how best to handle coming up against some of the best players and best teams in the world.
“I think the big thing is that if you don’t keep possession of the football then the other teams will and they will make it very challenging for you,” explained Adkins.
“In the Championship we kept the ball better than anyone, I would like to think, and we did that very well.
“We are in the Premier League now and we need to be armed and equipped enough now that we can, if we want, from a defensive point of view make sure that we’re very solid so that we can win the ball back.
“It shows how competitive the Premier League is for everybody and how strong the Championship has become. When you look at it we were in the top two for the whole season last year and we’ve now demonstrated that we can play three different ways.
“It’s about winning games of football but the philosophy is to pass the ball quickly and play exciting football.
“We have large amounts of possession of the football and that’s what we’ve got to go and do.
“If you look at the ethos at Southampton, all the way through from the under-21s down they have all played 4-3-3 for the last three years.
“That means the youngsters coming through are used to playing that formation so it’s an ethos that’s been at the football club anyway.
“For the first team it’s about winning games of football and playing the way you want to go and do and we’ve gone and won games with the group of players that we’ve got.
“When you look at it we’ve not just been a rigid 4-4- 2 but a very fluent, flowing team, and it’s about having that philosophy to keep possession of the football and over the last couple of years we’ve done that very well.
“It’s being armed and tooled so that you can give yourself an opportunity to keep possession of the ball because, let’s face it, we are going to come up against opposition who are better teams.
“We played Wolves and beat them 2-0 and they had all played in the Premier League, the whole team.
“We played Ajax the week before that and they played all bar one of their strongest team and they notoriously keep the ball off everybody and when you look at the game we were very unfortunate not to win because we had more possession of the football in good areas than what they did."