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Aug 8, 2014

Evolution and revolution

There is a lot to be said for mid-table mediocrity. Fall short of it and a club risks being relegated to the Championship, a demotion that involves a multimillion-pound blow. Yet if underachievement comes at a cost, so does overachievement: Excel too obviously and every victory becomes an advertisement, every team sheet a shop window.

Such are the perils of the footballing pyramid. Talent gravitates upward, but when teams reach a certain level, their progress is halted as their players depart. Social mobility is limited for clubs: two who made it from League One to the upper half of the Premier League in the space of a few years have been subject to raids from the elite.

Southampton and Swansea provide different examples. The Welsh club attracted covetous glances within a few months of their promotion in 2011. They have lost key personnel in two separate spells: manager Brendan Rodgers, midfielder Joe Allen (both to Liverpool) and winger Scott Sinclair (to Man City) in 2012; goalkeeper Michel Vorm, left-back Ben Davies (both to Tottenham) and goal scorer Michu (on loan at Napoli) this summer. Along the way, however, they have also resisted other advances, keeping the much admired Ashley Williams when he was wanted at Anfield, refusing to sell Michu last year and, so far, holding on to prolific striker Wilfried Bony.

Southampton's story is more dramatic. They kept a team together, only to see it broken up in the space of one astonishing summer. The 12.8 million-pound club-record buy Dani Osvaldo, swapped for Inter Milan midfielder Saphar Taider in a loan move, won't be missed. Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren (all Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Man Utd), Calum Chambers (Arsenal) and manager Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham) will be. While Saints chairman Ralph Krueger maintains there will be no more sales, Morgan Schneiderlin is keen to follow and Jay Rodriguez might too before the window closes.

It is wrong to brand it a fire sale: look at the fees Southampton have received. They have sold when players' values were at their highest: indeed, there is a case for arguing that, from a financial perspective, Swansea ought to have let Michu leave last year when there were suggestions he would have commanded a price of 20 million pounds; instead, 12 months on, he was loaned to Napoli. Nevertheless, Saints, unlike Swansea, have proved unable to stop a trickle of players departing from becoming a torrent. They have banked 93 million pounds, with more probably to come, but with every sale, it has raised the question if the cost will include the loss of their topflight status.

So these are examples of evolution and revolution. Swansea have prospered by promoting from within. Garry Monk is manager after spending a decade on the playing staff; Neil Taylor is a ready-made replacement for Davies -- indeed, he was also the first-choice left-back before the younger man's emergence; Gylfi Sigurdsson, outstanding on loan in the 2011-12 campaign, could double up as Michu's predecessor and successor as a clinical midfielder.

Because of Bony, the most potent striker in the lower half of the league last season, Swansea already had firepower. The additions of Bafetimbi Gomes and Jefferson Montero give them more. The principal on-field issue is if former Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski can match Vorm's standards. Off it, Swansea have an almost impeccable record of appointing managers: the inexperienced Monk benefits from the previous work of Roberto Martinez, Rodgers and Michael Laudrup, but faces a task to emulate them.

It remains to be seen if Wilfried Bony will be a Swansea player for the 2014-15 Premier League season.
Wilfried Bony will give Swansea the firepower they need this season.

Laudrup still has a relevance at St Mary's: Southampton's appointment of Ronald Koeman has echoes of Swansea's choice of his former Barcelona teammate two years ago. While Monk is now breaking up the Spanish clique at the Liberty Stadium, in 2012 the Dane used his knowledge of La Liga to spend some of the proceeds from the departures of Rodgers, Allen and Sinclair astutely; Michu, for example, was a famously brilliant buy. Now Koeman's first two recruits have come from Holland. Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic are charged with taking over from Lambert and Lallana respectively. Perhaps, Southampton will hope, they can rebuild by ignoring the inflated English market and plucking the best from the Eredivisie. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster, currently with Celtic and having learned from his experience as a backup for England at the World Cup this summer, is another example of looking at a lesser league for signings.

Yet while Laudrup inherited a side with a solid base, Koeman has lost three-quarters of the first-choice back four. Should Schneiderlin go, Southampton will be without their pivotal midfielder, too. There has always been a thread of continuity at Swansea; there isn't at Southampton anymore. It was not merely Pochettino's pressing game that demanded understanding and unity; they were key factors in Saints' revival from the depths of the third tier.

The club still have gifted young players -- Nathaniel Clyne, Jack Cork and James Ward-Prowse in particular -- and a wonderful academy, but it is hard to escape the feeling that an era of optimism and advancement has ended abruptly.

The danger is that they are plunged back to the Championship before anyone can remember how well they performed in 2013-14. Koeman still has funds to spend, but it feels as though he is starting from scratch. It makes Southampton a wild card this season: anything could happen. Swansea, in contrast, have the core of a team in place. It is a reason why they can weather departures and why they should survive comfortably. It is harder to predict how Southampton will fare, and not just because they have a new manager and new players. There has never been an exodus of expensive talents quite like this before. There are no precedents.

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