It is rather impossible to review Southampton’s outstanding start to the Premier League season without mentioning Nigel Adkins, their former manager who was harshly removed in favour of Mauricio Pochettino back in January. Adkins had led the Saints from the lower regions of League One to the top tier with back to back promotions and with the south coast club sitting 3 points clear of the relegation zone after a respectable 2-2 draw at Chelsea, chairman Nicola Cortese pulled the trigger and repaid Adkins for his work and loyalty with the most unexpected of sackings.
Adkins had to wait just 2 months to find work, the reputation he had built from a solid spell in charge of Scunthorpe before his successful time at Southampton remaining in the minds at Reading who installed him as the replacement to Brian McDermott. With the Royals sitting in 19th place when he was appointed, Adkins wasn’t able to prevent relegation with the club eventually dropping after 48 year old managed to win just one of the Royals’ remaining eight league games, the damage already done by the failure of Anton Zingrevich to sufficiently back McDermott in the transfer market.
Just like his successor Pochettino at Southampton however, Adkins has had to wait to utilise the off-season to truly implement his coaching methods at the club. In total, 18 players departed with the only fees coming off Crystal Palace, a total of around £4 million for Adrian Mariappa and Jimmy Kebe. Meanwhile, just five players were brought in, Chris Baird and Wayne Bridge added a wealth of top-flight experience to the full-back positions while centre-half Daniel Williams was signed from Hoffenheim with former Real Madrid winger Royston Drenthe coming from Alania Vladivazkaz of the Russian first-division. Adkins also returned to his old club to bring in Billy Sharp on loan, capping off a summer of drastic overhaul at the Madejski.
The vast reduction in squad size was in conscience of the drop in division and also the construction of a new training ground that the club sees as key to its future. The Academy for instance, need a larger number of pitches in order to maintain its Elite Player Performance Plan Category One position and with room for a total of 15 new pitches at the 120-acre Bearwood Estate, Adkins is excited about the potential move.
“If we want to be in the Premier League. These are the facilities we need to have. The club has come a hell of a long way and we’ve got to keep building on that”, he said.
The manager has even settled his nine-month long compensation dispute with Southampton, agreeing to a figure of £500k as well as the chance to concentrate on a bright future
It is definitely a return to the Premier League that is within Adkins’s immediate sights and Reading have made a start to the season to suggest it could well be achieved as early as this year. They sit 5th in the Championship, six points off the automatic promotion spots and nine off top-place which is currently occupied by Burnley. The Berkshire club are unbeaten at home and are currently in a position, according to former boss Steve Coppell, which allows them to spring a charge for promotion.
“It’s a nice rounded position to be in,” he said, “from there you can go forward”“I think it could be very similar to when Reading last got promotion under Brian Mcdermott”, referring to the 2011/2012 season in which they won 20 of their last 26 matches of the season to eventually win the league after sitting 10th in December.
The shift in mentality under Adkins has been best epitomised by the improved form of Danny Guthrie, the midfielder whose relationship with McDermott soured to the extent he refused to travel to last season’s trip to Sunderland. The former Newcastle midfielder has established himself in Adkins’s side this year and has started each one of his club’s 13 matches so far, scoring four goals.
“I’m enjoying my football and enjoying playing under Nigel Adkins. We play a different system. We play out from the back and it suits me more”, he said.
“I always want the ball. I guess you could say the system suits me a lot more now and I hope that comes across in my performances.”
Guthrie has been a mainstay in the centre of a midfield that has been constantly tweaked by Adkins as he aims to find a set winning formula, Jem Karacan, Hope Akpan, Daniel Williams and the 19 year old Jordan Obita have all been used as partners as Adkins has swapped between the 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and the straight 4-4-2. The other consistent starters have been Alex Pearce and Sean Morrison at the back, forming a solid partnership that has conceded just 12 goals to date, the fourth measliest tally in the league.
A main feature of Adkins’s side has been the use of defensive midfielder, usually either Karacan, who averages just under 3 tackles a game, or the converted Baird to provide a shield to the back two, as well as a deeper ball-playing influence to permit full-backs Wayne Bridge and Chris Gunter to move forward and join the attack. Adkins’s is a quick-paced, possession based game and his players are currently adapting to a system that will allow it to thrive.
It is on the wings that Adkins’s side has truly thrived, with Hal Robson-Kanu, Nick Blackman and the excellent Gareth McCleary, who has 5, providing a total of 8 assists so far. In attack, the 23 year old Blackman has chipped in with 2 goals while Adam Le Fondre, who scored 12 during Reading’s last season in the Premier League, has 5, playing in a partnership with Pavel Pogrebynyak, who has 3. Either the Russian or the former Rochdale front-man will have to provide a regular source of goals, like Burnley have with Danny Ings and Sam Vokes and QPR have with Charlie Austin, if Reading are to sustain a challenge for an immediate return to the top tier.
A recent question and answer session with Adkins at an open day at the Madejski stadium was scheduled for 15 minutes but the manager was seen to interact with over 2,000 coaches and fans in attendance for over an hour. That is indicative of the passion and love of the game that has earned the Reading manager respect throughout the game and there are few that, while Southampton currently bear the fruits of their controversial split with Adkins, will begrudge him a return to the Premier League for a deserved second chance.