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Southampton FC: What happened to the class of 2014?

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Pochettino was the first to go, of course. His extremely impressive work at Southampton had won him the chance to be the one tough social worker that would finally get the wayward and stroppy Tottenham onto the straight and narrow.

The loyalty and admiration with which the Southampton players talked of their former boss created the sense that a mass player exodus was to follow, and it did. Pochettino left in May, 2014, and by late June Luke Shaw had joined Manchester United for close to 30m.

Over the next month, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren all joined Liverpool for a combined 49m and Calum Chambers was sent to Arsenal to be moulded over the course of time into a like-for-like replacement for a certain massive German.

Southampton had lost five players that had been absolutely key to their remarkable season, but beyond getting a bit panicky about holding on to Morgan Schneiderlin, they didn’t seem too concerned. In came Mane, Pelle, Tadic, Long, Gardos, and Bertrand, and the porky, affable Ronald Koeman stepped calmly into the shoes that Pochettino had left behind.

As we now know, The Dutchman improved the Saints and the Argentine dramatically improved Tottenham. But what became of those five, much heralded players sold in 2014? Did their fortunes improve? Emphatically, no.

Rickie Lambert’s case might be the saddest. Before Jamie Vardy banged his imprint into the public footballing psyche, Lambert was England’s darling factory-worker turned Premier League success story. The man who had once bottled beetroots for a living scored 28 goals over two seasons in the top flight prompting Brendan Rodgers to decide that he’d be a decent squad player for Liverpool.

Lambert was over the moon. It was his dream move. After years of scrabbling around in the lower leagues and finally rising to prominence, he would return to his home city and the club he supported as a child (but like actually, rather than in the Robbie Keane sense).

Unfortunately, that’s where the dream died. In 25 appearances for Liverpool he scored three times, and at no point did he appear to have the manager’s confidence. A year later he was moved on to West Brom where he has barely played, but may at some point feature as a centre-full-back in a Pulis 8-1-1 innovation.

The other two players to join Liverpool haven’t fared much better. Dejan Lovren was the man Brendan Rodgers thought would lead and secure his defence. Instead the Croat was a disaster, spending his first season playing like some kind of Titus Bramble, Martin Demichelis mash-up. It was a sudden and rapid decline for someone who had looked so strong and competent at both Lyon and Southampton. Lovren has improved since, but still fails to convince.

Adam Lallana, meanwhile, has had an odd couple of years. He has neither failed nor thrived at Liverpool perhaps in part because his role in the team has never seemed clearly defined. That may change next season and over the summer it will become clear whether Lallana is in Jurgen Klopp’s plans for the long term. The England midfielder is undoubtedly a useful and hard-working attacking midfielder, but for 25m it would be fair for Liverpool fans to have expected more end product and consistency.

The two for whom the jury is still very much out are Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers. The youngest of the departing class of 2014, their potential was and still is huge. Luke Shaw has spent the better part of two seasons at Manchester United injured, but has certainly shown flashes of brilliance in the games he has managed to play. He was in brilliant form at the start of this season and injuries permitting Shaw should develop into one of the game’s best left-backs (or marauding forwards on the off-chance he takes the Bale route).

Calum Chambers is a little more difficult to call. When he signed for Arsenal it was as cover at right back and as a future centre back. In Chambers and Gabriel Wenger had clearly tried to bring in young defenders with similar attributes to Mertesacker and Koscielny, who had built a strong partnership based on an easy combination of styles.

However, chances have been relatively few for Chambers. He has deputized at right back a few times but the emergence of Hector Bellerin last season limited those opportunities and made Chambers appear desperately slow in that position in contrast, like a turtle deputizing for a motorbike. Meanwhile as fourth-choice centre back, appearances have largely been restricted to the cup competitions.

Chambers has played well for Arsenal and should with the right exposure develop into a very good central defender, but it is hard to envisage him pushing any of Mertesacker, Koscielny or Gabriel out of the first eleven next season barring injuries. The questions then become, how long can he wait for first team opportunities and can he nail down a defined role in the team? Other former Southampton players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have seen their Arsenal careers stall after promising starts, and Chambers will need to avoid the same fate.

Overall, it has not been a glorious couple of years of progression for the players that left Southampton in the summer of 2014. Instead, Chambers and Shaw have stalled through little fault of their own, Lovren and Lambert have regressed and Lallana…well, it remains unclear.

This is yet another reminder that players cannot be simply picked up and dropped into new teams and environments and expected to pick up where they left off. In football, context is key.

 

 

 

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