Rickie Lambert looks set to join Liverpool from Southampton this summer in a deal reportedly worth around £4.5m. With speculation about Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren also making the move to Anfield, and manager Mauricio Pochettino having already been appointed at Tottenham, Pundit Arena takes a look at the problems facing over-achieving teams.
Ateltico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and now, Southampton; three examples of teams who are victims of their own success. Atletico have just won the Spanish league title and made it to the Champions League final where they were beaten in extra-time by Real Madrid. An incredible season by any standards but especially when taken into account the money they have spent in relation to the teams they are competing with.
The Real Madrid side that won the Champions League cost £422m, including two world records signings in Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale; Atletico’s team cost £64m to assemble. It’s almost impossible to put into words how big of an achievement winning the league was for Atletico competing with the financial might of Real and Barcelona. Yet the squad is likely to be carved up this summer; star striker Diego Costa and left-back Filipe Luis have already been strongly linked with a move to Stamford Bridge; Man United are apparently interested in midfielders Arda Turan and Koke; the list goes on.
It has happened before and will happen again. Atletico have had to replace the likes of Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, and Radamel Falcao before, but in order to sustain a respectable title-defending season, they will need to stand strong in the transfer market.
The temptation offered to players to sign for higher wages with glamorous European sides, coupled with inflated transfer fees funded by oligarch/oil money can be hard to resist even for club sides reluctant to sell. It’s difficult to mount a sustained challenge on the domination by the old guard when they, and others around Europe, have the lure and money.
Borussia Dortmund are suffering from a similar fate at the moment in the Bundesliga. After capitalising on a weak few years for perennial German powerhouse Bayern Munich, Jurgen Klopp assembled a side that won the league title two years in a row and reached the Champions League Final a year later only to be beaten by league rivals Munich (Bayern won the treble that year). Dortmund’s position was slightly different than Atletico’s this year however; their final against Bayern had already been tainted by the fact the Bavarian outfit had signed the young Dortmund talisman Mario Gotze for free. Gotze was injured for the final but the psychological blow must have still affected Klopp’s team; a constant reminder that no matter how much you achieve or overachieve, the established hierarchy always have the upper hand.
To compound that notion, Dortmund’s key striker Robert Lewandowski signed a contract to join Bayern Munich at the beginning of next season. As with Atletico, ceaseless rumours of their players being linked with clubs in England and elsewhere continue to unsettle a dissipating team. The coaches’ efforts have not gone unnoticed either and Jurgen Klopp is a highly sought after manager following his successes with Dortmund. The last piece to be plucked from the structure before it can no longer try to maintain parity with its rivals.
That piece has already been taken from Southampton as Mauricio Pochettino, who arrived at St. Mary’s in controversial circumstances, has left to take over the helm at Tottenham. The Argentine took control at Southampton in January 2013 after Nigel Adkins was sacked and led the Saints to a 14th place finish. It was the 2013/14 season that drew the attention of the public to Southampton’s style and substance. Pochettino’s teams worked relentlessly hard without the ball, pressing the space of the opposition and when they were in possession they displayed good technical ability that was nurtured by their manager. Young talents like Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Jay Rodriguez were allowed to flourish under Pochettino and, despite not being on full display in the showpiece European competitions, Southampton had over-achieved enough to put their players in the shop window; whether they wanted them to be or not. Now it looks as if the team – who were only promoted in 2012 yet look like an established Premier League side – will be taken apart by the bigger names in England.
This problem is not new or unique in Europe; teams like Porto and Benfica in Portugal have made a business out of buying players from South America and then selling them to bigger European clubs for a large profit after getting good use out of their young talents for a short number of years. Even a club like Juventus have historically had no problem selling star players for the right price; Zinedine Zidane made the Bianconeri an unprecedented £45m when Real Madrid came calling in 2001. For clubs looking to break into the Champions League positions or challenge for the title, the task is more difficult.
A player or two leaving for the right price each season is natural and with the right investment and scouting, those players can be replaced. When a team over-achieves to the extent that the likes of Atletico, Dortmund and Southampton have within their respective standards, the task can become insurmountable. Keeping managers like Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp is instrumental to the challenge. If players believe in the work and system that their manager is implementing then the out flow can be stemmed.
Success can be a double-edged sword and one season of glory and hope can have negative long term consequences. Conversely, there are the likes of Newcastle who seem to lack ambition and where the owners are content with mid-table mediocrity. Fans of the club might be willing to risk the mundane safety for excitement. Daring to dream can pay off but the results can be short-lived.
John O’Connor, Pundit Arena.