New Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino shows promise against Everton
Southampton 0 Everton 0: A goalless draw at home may seem a small step on the path to realising the “global ambitions” which led Southampton to sack Nigel Adkins after he had won successive promotions, but this was a better opening to the Mauricio Pochettino era than the scoreline suggests.
Not only did Southampton outplay Champions-League chasing Everton but the home support appeared to accept the new coach with minimal protest. When he quietly came onto the pitch (even Southampton were not so brazen as to parade the new man) Pochettino was even greeted with a smattering of applause and while this was swiftly drowned out by chants of "One Nigel Adkins" the protests were hardly the stuff of mutiny. The mooted handkerchief-waving never happened and though a few placards remembered Adkins it was nothing like the response at Chelsea to Roberto Di Matteo's replacement by Rafael Benitez.
"I'm happy how the fans have greeted me, and how the players have greeted me, and I just want to focus on my work," Pochettino said. "That's what I'm here to do. I have the maximum respect for the previous manager. It's never nice to take over from another manager who's been let go, but that's just how it's been."
Maybe, having been at Stamford Bridge last week and seen for themselves the effect on players of such protests, Saints fans looked at the bigger picture and decided to settle for backing their team. Not that the club were taking any chances. The BBC reported that club stewards had been ordered not to comment on the sacking if asked about it by fans, while reporters were told not to conduct vox pops of supporters on club land.
This Orwellian approach was reflected in the club programme. There was no mention of Adkins anywhere in its 76 pages and you needed to search very hard to find the one tiny image in a collection of photographs of Southampton's match at Chelsea.
Authoritarian chairman Nicola Cortese kept his own counsel as usual but Pochettino was in the programme. He wrote: "I understand there are high expectations of this club, but it does not scare me in the slightest, in fact, it thrills me because I believe that this is a team capable of competing with the best in Europe. I am looking forward to pushing Southampton onto the world stage and recognising its global ambitions." Comments like invite hubris of the sort that followed Peter Kenyon when he said Chelsea would be in a league of one but they will be very-much on-message with Cortese.
Adkins may be a non-person officially but his presence was very much apparent on the pitch in the team's make-up and approach. If he watched this match he will have felt pride in the way his players (they will still feel like "his" players) tore Everton apart for 45 minutes, but perhaps also some relief that his hastily-installed successor did not start with the victory their first-half control merited.
Pochettino made two changes, bringing in Ricky Lambert and Gaston Ramirez but both had been involved at Chelsea and frequently played under Adkins. The new signing, Norwegian defender Vegard Forren, was not in the squad.
The team's neat passing and ball rotation was as familiar as the team-sheet, this is the way Adkins had approached the Premier League, trusting his players to play their way our of a poor start. Two defeats in 12 under the-one-who-cannot -be-named had imbued the team with confidence as well as lifting them up the table and Saints dominated from the start.
Lambert, a boyhood Liverpool fan should have had a first-half hat-trick. Having nearly induced Phil Jagielka into putting into his own net after four minutes, he whipped a 30-yard free-kick against the post, then he skinned Jagielka on the right only for Tim Howard to beat his shot away. Next, after Howard had denied Ramirez with an athletic save, he headed a 37th-minute corner past the goalkeeper only for Nikica Jelavic and Leighton Baines to make a superb goal-line stop. Jos Hooiveld blasted the rebound into Howard's chest. Finally, Lambert put a free header wide and Everton, who had tested Artur Boruc only once, through Steven Naismith, headed for a dressing room dressing down from David Moyes.
The second period, inevitably, was very different. Boruc twice denied Marouane Fellaini before Jelavic somehow miskicked after Victor Anichebe delivered the perfect cross. Anichebe tested Boruc himself and the returning Kevin Mirallas went close. "We had a really good chance which I expected us to convert so I'm disappointed not to win," said Moyes, "but at half-time I was delighted to come in at 0-0."
Saints now go away to Barcelona for Pochettino to find out about his squad before returning to play both Manchester clubs. He is not daunted. "I relish the hard start," he said. "I enjoy them, and I'd prefer it to be that way. Bring it on."
Substitutions: Southampton Rodriguez (Guly, 62), Davis (Ramirez, 71), De Ridder (Puncheon, 87). Everton Anichebe (Coleman, 58), Mirallas (Jelavic, 67). Bookings: Southampton Hooiveld, Schneiderlin. Everton Osman. Man of the match Howard. Match rating 7/10. Possession: Southampton 53%. Everton 47%. Attempts on target: Southampton 4. Everton 5. Referee N Swarbrick (Lancashire). Attendance 28,359.