Southampton hone in on USP to challenge Premier League history as most exciting team

Date published: Friday 26th August 2022 4:53 - Matthew Stead

Southampton's Romeo Lavia confronts James Maddison

Ralph Hasenhuttl, Southampton and their new owners are on the same page: Saints must march in as the freshest, least predictable team around.

 

The 50 youngest starting line-ups in Premier League history provide a fascinating insight into changing trends and time-resistant truths.

Fifteen of them were named in the 1990s, when youthful exuberance was eschewed in favour of experience and elder statesmanship. A more experimental and continental shift in terms of both playing and coaching perceptions led to 28 of them coming in the 2000s. But while the expectation might be for that drift to continue as horizons are further broadened, things have actually leaned the other way: only seven of the 50 youngest starting line-ups in Premier League history have been named since August 2011.

That was the month in which Sir Alex Ferguson offered two of his only three contributions to the list, with his adolescents kicking numerous shades out of Tottenham and Arsenal in a 3-0 win and 8-2 thrashing respectively.

Established managers do dominate the selection. Arsene Wenger and David O’Leary account for 23 of the XIs between them. Their reputation for developing talent and granting opportunities to players regardless of age was based in reality.

And the same predictably goes for clubs. Of the 50 youngest starting line-ups in Premier League history, only 12 had been named by sides who subsequently finished that same season in the bottom half. Just two of those – Everton in December 1997 under Howard Kendall against Bolton and February 1999 under Walter Smith against Middlesbrough – actually won.

Southampton could finally extend that record into the 21st century, depending on how they fare come May. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s gamble against Leicester eventually paid off.

The third-oldest and third longest-serving top-flight manager had his faith justified and his decisions rewarded with a rousing comeback victory from the Premier League’s most volatile club.

Teenager Romeo Lavia patrolled the centre alongside the similarly vindicated James Ward-Prowse with supreme, press-resistant confidence, recording the highest passing accuracy (90.6%) of any starter for either team and providing a necessary defensive screen.

Armel Bella-Kotchap, the 20-year-old starting just the 28th game of his senior career, was dominant in the air and aggressive in the tackle, yet delicate with the clever assist for Che Adams’ equaliser.

Sekou Mara, the 20-year-old forward leading the line less than a year after making his professional league debut, completed the most dribbles (four) at the King Power.

And while it was the 20-year-old goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu whose disorganised wall and lack of foresight allowed James Maddison to give Southampton a mountain to climb, his immediate transition into trusted starter sums up the sheer weight of work Hasenhuttl undertook this summer.

Sport Republic completed their takeover by purchasing a controlling stake in Southampton from the unpopular Gao Jisheng in early January. It was too soon then to enact any grand transfer plan then – Saints made no signings in that window – but everything was geared to now.

“We have found partners with ambition for the future, but with a clear understanding of what Southampton stands for and the direction we must go in now,” said CEO Martin Semmens at the time.

“That is our unique selling point: to convince young players to sign for Southampton,” said academy director Matt Hale in June. “It gives the young players further down the pathway the confidence that if they are good enough and work hard enough, they can get in and around our first team.”

“In the end, we are now back known as a developing club that gives young players a chance to play,” Hasenhuttl said in May. “This is definitely helpful for our transfer activities in the summer, the rest we will look very carefully and see.”

It stands up to scrutiny: 25 of the club’s last 28 first-team signings were aged 26 or younger when they arrived. The exceptions – quadragenarian Willy Caballero and the returning Theo Walcott, who initially joined on loan – were brought in for free and have played a single combined minute of Premier League football in 2022.

The result is comfortably the freshest, most fun and least predictable team in the Premier League, under a manager who has topped and propped up the table and lost and found the dressing room.

A buoyant Manchester United be warned: the kids are alright.

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