Southampton endured their worst-ever season on the way to relegation from the Premier League in 2022-23. Now, eight months later, they are on the verge of achieving a club record unbeaten league run. We look at the data behind Russell Martin’s success since arriving at Saints.
It was a tough watch for Southampton fans last season. After 11 years as a Premier League club, Saints fell back into the second tier for the first time since 2012, and along the way their supporters witnessed more defeats in 2022-23 than in any other competitive season in their history (28).
After sacking Ralph Hasenhüttl – who’d taken charge of more games at the club than any other coach since the early 1990s – in November of last season, they gambled in appointing Nathan Jones from Luton Town. The gamble failed, and he lasted just 14 games in all competitions. Realising that their Premier League survival chances were low, they gave the job on a temporary basis to Rubén Sellés, who arguably led the side through an even more disastrous spell.
At first glance, Russell Martin’s two seasons at Swansea City hardly set the world alight, just like his two seasons beforehand in Milton Keynes. After two mid-table finishes with MK Dons in League One, Martin led the Welsh club to 15th place in his first Championship season, and while they improved their league position in his second campaign (10th), they only won five more points.
However, with Martin taking over after Swansea’s Premier League parachute money dried up, three seasons after their drop from the top flight, his job was to stabilise and build a team to challenge the top of the league three or four years down the line. Just like at MK Dons, he was halfway through that project before Southampton came knocking this summer.
Southampton started the season under Martin well on paper, with three wins and a draw across their opening four fixtures. However, two of those wins came via goals in the final minutes of the match, while their 4-4 draw with Norwich City on 12 August also saw a point gained via Adam Armstrong’s injury-time penalty.
Then came the downfall. Four successive Championship defeats in a row, which began with thrashings by Sunderland (5-0) and Leicester City (4-1) and was followed by one-goal defeats to Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough. Some fans began to question the appointment of Martin after their relegation back to the Championship. Following criticism after the defeat to Middlesbrough, the former defender bit back.
“The club had a huge disappointment last season and has embarked on a different journey,” Martin said. “When you are trying to do something completely different, it is never easy. It is time for everyone to be really brave, stick together and get through it together. Or you don’t, and that’s football.”
Luckily for those fans, and Southampton, they did stick together. It’s not the first time that Martin’s passionately defended his playing style, either:
Love this from MK Dons boss Russell Martin.— Tom Carnduff (@TomCarnduff) March 9, 2021
At the time of writing, Southampton’s loss to Middlesbrough on 23 September was their last in all competitions. Since the end of that matchday onwards, Southampton have won more points than anyone else in the Championship. Their 45 points is one more than league leaders Leicester (44) and, more importantly in the battle for automatic promotion, eight more than Ipswich (37). They’ve also had the best defence in that 19-game period (12 goals conceded) and are the only unbeaten side in England’s top four tiers since then – both in the league (19 games) and across all competitions (20 games).
Last Saturday’s 4-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday equalled their club-record unbeaten league run of 19 games, set back in 1921, while it also equalled their unbeaten record of 20 competitive games set in January 1922. A trip to Martin’s former side Swansea on Saturday offers them the chance to create history.
Southampton’s mixed start to the season can be arguably attributed to the amount of squad upheaval in August that the recently relegated side had to deal with.
While outgoings were expected, Southampton’s opening game of the season at Sheffield Wednesday saw James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Tella start, while Lyanco, Moussa Djenepo and Roméo Lavia were all named on the bench. All five of those players were gone by the time the summer transfer window shut four weeks later.
Once those players were offloaded, Southampton were able to bring in players that Martin could use in his possession-heavy style – one that undoubtedly requires months of training-ground work to implement in a squad not used to keeping the ball from their opponents as long as Martin’s preferred methods necessitate.
Since the transfer window closed, two of his August incomings – central defender Taylor Harwood-Bellis and midfielder Flynn Downes, on loan from Manchester City and West Ham respectively – are among the top five Southampton players for Championship minutes played. Both are comfortable in possession and integral to Martin’s methodical football and rank among the top Championship players for successful passes per 90 minutes.
In fact, across the 2023-24 Championship campaign, five of the top 14 players to have averaged 70 successful passes per 90 minutes or higher (of those to play at least 1,000 mins) play for Southampton – the top seven contains both Harwood-Bellis (86.6) and Downes (76.3), as well as Jan Bednarek (94.4).
It’s no secret that Martin likes his team to have a lot of the ball. Constant ball circulation means that choreographed patterns of play in the attacking half are set up. His defenders see a lot of the ball to try and coax the opposition to press higher up the pitch and get dragged out of shape, before his midfielders and forwards exploit the space left by stranded opponents.
That style also makes the goalkeeper a vital part of building possession out from the back. Gavin Bazunu had a difficult first season at Southampton last year and there were doubts among Southampton fans that he was good enough to be their number one. Those doubts hardly lifted after their mixed start to the season, but still only 21 years old, the young Irishman definitely has a high ceiling.
Bazunu has been involved in the build-up for seven goals in the Championship this season – more than any other goalkeeper – while his build-up involvement in 42 shots is second to only Leicester’s Mads Hermansen (49). So far this season, he’s averaged 30.4 successful passes per 90 minutes – that’s up from 18 successful passes per 90 on average last season in the Premier League. Martin’s arrival at the club has seen Bazunu have to become much more comfortable with the ball at his feet, and across 2023-24 he’s gradually managed to do just that.
With an average of 5.2 passes per open-play sequence this season, Southampton’s passing sequences contain more passes on average than any other side. What’s more, it’s the highest average seen in a Championship season on record (since 2016-17), while their average number of open-play passing sequences consisting of at least 10 passes (22 per game) is also the highest since then, ahead of Leicester this season (21.2) and Swansea last season under Martin (18.2).
When they lose the ball, they work hard to win it back quickly, too. No Championship side this season have a lower PPDA than Saints’ 10.0, which essentially shows that no side is more efficient at allowing opposition sides fewer passes on average before winning possession back.
They also rank second for how high up the pitch they start their sequences (44.1 metres from their own goal), behind only Leeds (44.7m), and they rank third for high turnovers (227) behind Leeds (248) and Ipswich (234). In more basic terms, if Southampton lose the ball, they win it back quicker than any other team and do so high up the pitch, putting pressure back on their opponents.
Martin’s Swansea sides were always pretty on the eye, but often criticised for not converting that into attacking pressure. The same can’t really be said of Southampton this season, who have averaged the most touches in the opposition box (34.9), most shots (15.7) and second highest non-penalty expected goals per game (1.64 – although only 0.01 below Leeds) in the league. That xG per game average is 0.34 higher than Swansea last season and 0.60 higher than in Martin’s first season there.
Evidently, Southampton don’t just keep possession for the sake of playing pretty football.
Their field tilt numbers this season are one more metric that emphasise this. Field tilt is a metric to show the territorial dominance between teams. It measures the share of possession a team has in a game, considering only touches or passes in the attacking third. It can be useful when trying to understand which team is more dominant in games, rather than looking at overall possession, mainly as it looks at how teams are able to get the ball into areas that matter.
No team have a higher field tilt in the Championship this season than Saints (72.1%), which is over 10 percentage points higher than the next most in the competition – Leicester’s 61.8%. It’s not like Southampton have been chasing games, either – only Leicester (9% losing, 47% winning) have spent a longer proportion of match time in a winning position and a shorter proportion losing than Martin’s side in 2023-24 (15% losing, 41% winning).
It’s fair to say that Southampton’s start under Martin has gone under the radar because of how well Leicester and Ipswich have done in 2023-24 so far.
Their 55 points from 27 games is only four fewer than 2022-23 title-winners Burnley had won at this stage (59), while only 15 teams in the 29 second-tier seasons between 1993-94 and 2022-23 have performed better. In fact, since 1959-60, there have been 40 teams to have won at least 55 points from their opening 27 games of a second tier EFL season (based on three points for a win), and just one of those (QPR in 2013-14 – who eventually won the playoffs) have failed to finish inside the top two at the end of the season.
The real-life Championship table shows Southampton as the third-best team in the league ahead of matchday 28 next weekend, but do the underlying performances both in attack and defence paint a different picture?
The short answer is no. Looking at our expected points model, Southampton have still been the third best Championship team across the 2023-24 season, but they’re behind Leeds and Leicester instead of Leicester and Ipswich in reality.
The Opta expected points model simulates the number of goals scored by each side in each match based on the expected goals (xG) value of every shot taken. It then uses the simulated number of goals to determine the match outcome (win/draw/loss). Each match is simulated 10,000 times. The expected points for each team in each match can then be calculated based on the proportion of simulations they win/draw/lose. This is of course not an exact science, as xG data doesn’t include factors, such as game state and dangerous periods of possession that don’t lead to shots, but it’s still a handy barometer to measure underlying team performance.
Back in mid-December, we pondered whether the Championship table was lying to us, as Leeds were top of the expected points table and below both Leicester and Ipswich. Now, seven league games later, Leeds are still top but no longer performing above their expected points total. Back on 11 December when we ran the original article, Southampton were seventh in the expected points table – they are now third. Ipswich were overperforming by 12 points at the time, based on their underlying xG for and against data. Since then, they’ve won 10 points in seven games and the gap has reduced from seven points to just three between second and third place.
Rather than having numerous star players, this Southampton side are a sum of their parts. Of course, Adam Armstrong leads the league for total goal involvements (25) and assists (11), while only Blackburn’s Sammie Szmodics (16) has scored more goals than the Saints’ forward (14). But for a side that has taken the most non-penalty shots in the Championship this season (421) to have no player among the top 25 chance creators per 90 minutes (1,000+ minutes) almost makes them more dangerous – they have numerous creative options and there’s no one player that opposition sides can stifle to nullify the threat Southampton pose.
Ryan Manning has averaged the most chances created per 90 among the Southampton squad this season (1.9), just ahead of Stuart Armstrong (1.8), while Adam Armstrong has averaged their highest expected assists (xA) per 90 of 0.21.
However, the depth of their creative options is clear: seven different Southampton players to have played at least 1,000 league minutes this season have averaged an xA of at least 0.14. That’s more than any other side and more than double the pool of Ipswich and Leeds (both three players) and three more than league-leaders Leicester (four players).
This weekend will see Martin take his Southampton side to south Wales as he returns to Swansea City for the first time since leaving to join Saints in the summer. He’ll also come up against his former assistant at MK Dons and the Swans, Luke Williams.
Williams, another disciple of the possession-based game, only joined Swansea as manager earlier this month after winning promotion from the National League and starting this season well at Notts County, breaking possession and passing records along the way. Swansea’s appointment of Michael Duff from Barnsley in the summer failed to work out because his style of play was so far departed from that of Martin and the playing squad that was left to him. On paper, there should be no such issues with Williams as boss.
A win for Southampton will see them move into the automatic promotion places at the expense of Ipswich, who don’t play until Monday, and it would be the first time since 22 September that Kieran McKenna’s side have spent a night outside the top two. With their next game coming at Leicester, there is every chance that Southampton could end the month in the top two places, too, with the Championship schedule being hit hard next week by FA Cup action.
If Southampton manage to get themselves into the top two, there’s every chance they’ll stay there. Russell Martin’s sides don’t give much away, after all.