Southampton’s story last season was one regularly recited; and rightly so. The club’s ability to sell and sign genuine quality was an inspiration to those teams a little short of the elite level. Granted, they did fall away late on, but Ronald Koeman’s side would have been delighted with a seventh place finish.
In 2015-16, more challenges await for this team. Yes, they lost a lot of talent in the summer of 2014, but the team’s two biggest secrets, Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne, have also moved on, meaning the Saints will have to begin the season with another influx of new faces.
They’ll also have to cope with the demands of Europa League football. Qualifying for the tournament was a measure of the standards the team scaled last season, but as Everton found out to their peril in 2014-15, teams who finish unexpectedly high to secure a spot in European competition can pay the price in the subsequent campaign.
Koeman looks to have made some more shrewd signings in the window, though, and with a conveyor belt of exceptional talent coming through the academy, it should be another enthralling year on the south coast.
Reasons to be Positive
Koeman showcased his merits as a coach in earnest last season. Not only did Southampton play some enterprising soccer going forward, but the Dutchman was able to whip Saints into what was an often impenetrable defensive shape. If he can do so once again, they’ll be hugely difficult to penetrate.
Recruitment has been superb once again, too. Jordy Clasie may not be a stylistic replacement for Schneiderlin, but the diminutive Dutchman possesses the technical traits, incisive passing ability and in-game intellect to dominate games at the highest level. Cedric Soares looks a fine prospect at right-back, while Steven Caulker’s loan will add depth to defensive positions.
Reasons to be Negative
While the likes of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren were all important players for Southampton before their sale, Schneiderlin and Clyne were both critical to the club’s efforts last season. The former, in particular, was a perfect player to have in the middle of midfield and Clasie, for all his qualities, will find it tough to fill the void he’ll leave.
The defensive diligence which was on show last season will be tough to replicate as well. Toby Alderweireld decided to join Tottenham Hotspur instead of Saints, Clyne has gone, while Fraser Forster, who also enjoyed a wonderful debut season with the club, will miss the first few months of the season. Maarten Stekelenburg is likely to replace him, but the jury is still out on the Fulham man.
Oh, and there’s the dreaded Europa League to negotiate too.
Key Player – Jose Fonte
With no Schneiderlin shielding him, no Alderweireld alongside him, no Clyne to the right and, initially, no Forster between the sticks at the back, Jose Fonte is going to have his work cut out keeping the Saints back-four quite as cohesive as they were during the 2014-15 season.
The Portuguese did a tremendous job expediting the amalgamation of new defenders and the goalkeeper last season, emerging as an exceptional leader at the base of the Southampton team. New faces are likely to make things difficult again for Fonte, but his authoritative style of play and excellent communicative skills should ease any transitions.
Prediction – 10th
There’s a core of quality in this squad and young players like Matt Targett, Harrison Reed and Jake Hesketh are expected to be pushing for first team spots. But without their talismanic midfield man and swashbuckling right-back, Koeman’s side are going to find it difficult to match last season’s achievements, never mind better them. Getting the balance right between league and Europa League commitments will also be a big obstacle to overcome.
Expect a stuttering starts from Saints, but with key men like Forster and Jay Rodriguez likely to recoup full fitness later on in the campaign, this group will finish strongly and grasp a 10th place finish.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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