How Martin transformed Southampton to seal Premier League return

By Adrian Kajumba 27 May 2024
Russell Martin

Adrian Kajumba looks at the impact of manager Russell Martin and his possession-based philosophy

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Adrian Kajumba looks at how Southampton sealed their return to the Premier League for the 2024/25 season.

The Premier League line-up for 2024/25 is now complete after Southampton claimed the remaining place by overcoming Leeds United in the Championship playoff final.

Southampton’s 1-0 win at Wembley ensured their stay outside of the top division lasted only one season.

Southampton celebrate

Here we look at how they bounced back at the first attempt, inspired by manager Russell Martin.

Southampton's Premier League past   

Southampton will return to the Premier League for a third spell and will hope their next one is lengthy like the previous two.

The south coast club were one of the 22 members of the original Premier League campaign in 1992/93 and retained their status for 13 seasons.

Many of them were spent battling to avoid the drop. 

But some of their last-gasp relegation escapes, such as in 1995/96 and 1998/99, and their wins, particularly at the Dell, are etched in Premier League folklore. 

The 3-1 win against Manchester United in 1996 when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side changed their shirts at half-time; the 6-3 victory over the same opponents eight months later; and Matt Le Tissier scoring the final goal at the Dell in a 3-2 win over Arsenal in 2001 are iconic moments.

Eventually though, all their flirtations with relegation caught up with them. 

Just two years after finishing eighth and reaching the FA Cup final under Gordon Strachan, they were relegated to the Championship in 2005, ending a run of 27 years in England’s top division. 

As financial difficulties kicked in they fell further - into administration and League One - before securing back-to-back promotions to return to the Premier League in 2012.

They remained for 11 seasons and, for part of it, Southampton were hailed as one of the Premier League’s model clubs, due to their promotion, use of academy players and shrewd work in the transfer market.

The period between 2013 and 2017 was particularly memorable. 

Southampton recorded four successive top-eight finishes, reached the EFL Cup final and played in the UEFA Europa League two seasons running. 

But they could not keep repeating the tricks that kept them punching above their weight.

An 11th-place finish in Ralph Hasenhuttl's first full season 2019/20 proved to be the exception in their final six campaigns. 

The rest were spent flirting with relegation.

Eventually, they lost one of those battles to stay up and tumbled out of the Premier League again in 2023.

What changed last summer

Southampton turned to then Swansea City head coach Martin, who inherited a huge task to lift the mood of a dressing room and a club that was on the floor following relegation.

One of his first priorities was to identify which players were on board and prepared to be part of his bid for Championship promotion.

A number of players had already decided their time at St Mary’s was up. Captain James Ward-Prowse, Romeo Lavia, Tino Livramento, Nathan Tella and Mohammed Salisu were among the notable departures.

And while some of the money brought in went back out on permanent signings, much of Martin’s best work has been in the loan market.

Flynn Downes, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, David Brooks, Ryan Fraser and Joe Rothwell all came in temporarily and have been significant additions.

Goalkeeper Alex McCarthy said: “Since Russell came in at the start of the season he’s completely changed the place. It was so flat after last season. The changing room was all over the place, but he has built something special.”

Who is Russell Martin?
Russell Martin

For Martin, securing promotion is the ultimate vindication of his appointment and methods.

Because it is not just Southampton’s squad that he overhauled, but their playing style too.

Patience, possession and passing are key features of Martin’s approach, one inspired by Barcelona’s 2011 Champions League final masterclass against Manchester United at Wembley.

Martin has called it the best performance he has ever seen, and he has watched it repeatedly. 

The former defender, a veteran of almost 600 senior matches, including 125 Premier League appearances for Norwich City, wants his teams to be the type he would have wanted to play in.

His players need to be brave on the ball and take risks to make it work. It is notable how much he praises them when they are, regardless of the result. 

But it is a way of playing that he is fiercely loyal to, even when it has divided opinion and those risks have preceded costly mistakes. 

That has happened on numerous occasions this season.

Martin, 38, is fine with that though, a legacy of his earlier life. 

He has spoken about growing up witnessing domestic violence from his father towards his mum.

His desire to appease his dad was a factor in him trying to become a "people pleaser” at home and eventually in football, even at his own expense.

Martin even feels that played a part in him suffering from ulcerative colitis. 

He was convinced the “internalised stress” was a reaction to him going “against my gut instinct so much.” 

After suffering the consequences of putting others first, he eventually made a conscious decision to be his authentic self both in life and football.

Not compromising on his tactics as a manager is part of that. 

Some adjusting has been required by players and supporters to Martin’s insistence on retaining possession. 

But he will now hope it translates seamlessly to the Premier League.

They averaged 65.5 per cent possession in the Championship, even more than champions Manchester City’s division-high 65.2 per cent in Premier League.

Southampton also attempted and completed more passes than anyone else in the Championship, with 32,772 and 28,747 respectively, giving them a pass completion of 87.7 per cent.

That figure was beaten only by Man City in the Premier League, with 88.7 per cent. 

Southampton also had four players (Jan Bednarek, Flynn Downes, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Jack Stephens) in the top seven for pass completion percentage in the Championship. 

Martin said: "We had to do this [get promoted] to justify their decision [to appoint him], to validate it. So I'm so pleased for them because I was not an exciting appointment. I finished 10th at Swansea with a real clear way of doing things, [same] at MK Dons, so for them to take me on was really brave."

Key players

Adam Armstrong (striker, 27)

Adam Armstrong

Adam Armstrong has done as much as anyone to fire Southampton to promotion. His strike against Leeds was his 24th goal of the season. And his regular-season tally of 21 plus 13 assists gave him a Championship-leading goal contribution total of 34.

He will hope a prolific season back in the Championship will be a springboard to becoming a regular scorer in the Premier League, after two seasons with only two goals in each of his two previous top-flight campaigns for Southampton. 

Taylor Harwood-Bellis (centre-back, 22)

Taylor Harwood-Bellis

A potential future England international, according to Martin. A back-to-back promotion winner after a season on loan at Burnley in 2022/23, and now a Southampton player, with his loan move from Man City being made permanent following Saints’ victory over Leeds.

Essential to Martin’s approach with his ability on the ball, Harwood-Bellis has the sixth-best pass completion percentage in the Championship, with 92.1 per cent, and completed the fourth-most passes, with 3,439. But he can defend too, as he showed again when Southampton dug in to protect their one-goal advantage against Leeds.

Flynn Downes (central midfield, 25)

Flynn Downes

Another player down the spine of Southampton’s team who is central to the way they play. The importance of West Ham United loanee Downes is seen as much when he is on the pitch as when he is not.

Downes is a key contributor to their impressive passing and possession figures, but also their defensive efforts in midfield. He recorded the Championship’s third-best pass completion rate, with 93 per cent.

In addition, Downes was ranked second at Southampton for tackles and interceptions, with 107 combined.

It would be no surprise if Southampton try to sign him permanently, as their results dip when he is not on the pitch. In 10 Championship games without Downes starting, since the September win against Leeds that kickstarted their season, Southampton won only two.

How season unfolded 

Southampton showed what they will bring to the Championship when they opened the 2023/24 season with an opening night win at Sheffield Wednesday. 

The benchmark for playing the Martin way was set as they produced what turned out to be their season-best figures for possession (80 per cent), attempted passes (1,033), completed passes (958) and a pass completion rate of 92.7 per cent.

That was the first of four unbeaten matches as they began the campaign with a hugely encouraging 10 points from a possible 12. 

But then came four error-strewn defeats in a row against Sunderland, Leicester City, Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough. 

In each of them they made defensive errors that led to goals and some of his players looked ill-suited to what Martin was asking them to do.

The successive setbacks were a major test of Martin’s determination to play out from the back.

It would have been easy to bow to the pressure and abandon his plans as the criticism and early-season pressure grew.

That is not Martin’s way, though. 

And, after the first of three wins during the season over Leeds - a 3-1 home triumph in September - the club-record 25-match unbeaten run, including 22 league matches, proved the perfect response and lifted Southampton into promotion contention. 

They remained there for the rest of the season. At times, automatic promotion looked a genuine possibility.

But three defeats in one damaging April week against Cardiff City, Leicester and Stoke City all but ended their hopes and left them facing the playoffs.

Martin insisted his side had been privately resigned to their season being extended before it was officially confirmed anyway. 

And perhaps that showed as Southampton held their nerve in the semi-final against West Bromwich Albion and then the final against Leeds to ensure their latest stay outside the top flight was just a short one and claim the coveted place back in the Premier League. 

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