Southampton’s unyielding philosophy makes them a dangerous prospect in play-off final

Adam Armstrong celebrates scoring Southampton's third in the play-off semi-final
Adam Armstrong, with 23 goals and 13 assists, is the Championship's most productive striker this season - Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images

It was during his first meeting with the Southampton players last summer that Russell Martin delivered a message which, ahead of the club’s biggest match in more than two decades, is evidently still ringing in their ears.

“The first thing the gaffer said to us was that we have to trust him, trust the style, and we are not going to change,” says midfielder Joe Aribo. “He says to us: ‘If you make a mistake, I’m never going to shout at you.’ But, if we go away from our identity, that’s when it’s a problem.”

Russell, says Aribo, has been as good as his word, even if an ability to resist outside pressure and stick with a passing philosophy that can sometimes make Manchester City look a bit kick-and-rush now awaits its ultimate test.

Sunday’s Championship Play-Off final will be worth between £140 million and more than £300 million to the winning club – depending how long they then survive in the Premier League – and rarely will Wembley welcome a team that is simultaneously so vulnerable and dangerous. Southampton have conceded 20 more goals this season than their opponents Leeds United but they have also done the double over Daniel Farke’s team.

Joe Aribo
Joe Aribo treasures Russell Martin's 'no fear' philosophy - Stephen White/CameraSport via Getty Images

“It’s natural for a human to make mistakes – no one wants to – but it’s about what you do after, bouncing back from it, and staying strong and positive,” Aribo told Telegraph Sport. “It’s not letting the occasion get the better of you, blocking the outside noise, trusting each other, trusting the gaffer, and having strong mental toughness because we know we are going to make mistakes.

“Having the backing of the manager makes you feel free and confident going out there… [To] not shy away from it. We have to show our identity. It’s what we are best at. Why would we change for a one-off game?”

With 23 goals and 13 assists, Adam Armstrong has been not just Southampton’s player of the season but the Championship’s most dangerous attacker. “This is every kids’ dream – we may not get a chance to be there again, and we have to take it with both hands,” he says. “I’m buzzing. The way we play is brave – it’s scary at times – but that is the way we have played all season and it got us to where we are.”

The statistics are certainly eye-catching.

No team, including even Pep Guardiola’s City, have had a greater share of possession than Southampton’s 66.1 per cent and they also top the Championship charts for most passes either in their own half or that of the opposition’s. Their passing accuracy has also been the best in the division.

Martin believes that the skill of many lower league players is underestimated and, while recruitment has been critical, this was a squad that lost some £160 million of on-field talent last summer in a bid to balance an overnight 70 per cent drop in revenues.

Asking players to execute the beautiful game is one thing when you have the resources of Manchester City but rather different from the ashes of Premier League relegation and a complete top-to-bottom overhaul that also saw much of the senior executive team leave.

The team remains flawed then and, even at the relative level of the Championship, is still a long way from City. Southampton finished some nine points off automatic promotion following a 25-game mid-season unbeaten streak and an internal push still for greater excellence is easily sensed. “Russell has had a really good year,” says chief executive Phil Parsons. “He is a young manager and is learning a lot. He has brought a really good vibe to the place.

“We want someone who is part of a project, longer term. We also want people on their toes to achieve things and not stand still.”

Parsons, who arrived last summer from the technology company Dyson, describes himself as “direct and honest” and says that his job has been to really get “into the weeds” of the club. Take That will be performing at St Mary’s next weekend as part of a wider push to maximise revenues and plans to upgrade parts of the stadium into a fanzone with a pub named ‘The Dell’ are afoot.

Southampton manager Russell Marti
Risk taking is at the root of Martin's approach - Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images

Risk-taking, says Parsons, is encouraged not just among the players. “We are pushing people and we want people to go outside that comfort zone to do things differently,” he says. “My role is not to make people feel better every day of the week – it’s to help people grow. I say to the team: ‘It’s good to be uncomfortable.’ I think we are seeing a lot of growth in people. We are all growing together.”

One big success has been in re-establishing such a strong synergy between the supporters and the players. That was eased by the decision to host several fans’ forums earlier in the season during which Martin personally outlined the new playing style. It has meant that fans are more understanding of mistakes, particularly in situations when the team are trying to play out from the back. “For us, the biggest mistake you can ever make is not wanting the ball,” Martin told the fans.

Aribo says that this unity of purpose has tangibly underpinned the players’ confidence. “The fans are our 12th man – they give us an extra 10 per cent,” he says. “Everything we did on Friday (in the semi-final), they supported us. We want to make the fans go away happy, remembering what we have done. We know it is bigger than football.”

For Martin, there is also the added potential personal incentive to get one over on Farke after his playing career at Norwich City ended in 2018 shortly after the German’s arrival as manager. Martin has hinted at a plan for him to transition into a coaching role but that would ultimately instead happen at Walsall. The bigger picture on Sunday, however, could hardly be more substantial. “I love this group of players,” says Martin. “The dream is for them to show how brave they are and how good they can be on the biggest stage and to really have a go at attacking that. The responsibility of leading this club is big; at Wembley it is huge.”

And how would it feel to lead Southampton back into the Premier League?

“It will mean everything. I get emotional thinking about it. Outside of being a father… it will be the biggest achievement of my life.”