Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, Calum Chambers, Luke Shaw, Morgan Schneiderlin, Rickie Lambert, Jack Cork, Dejan Lovren. The list of first team players sold by Southampton over the last two years is truly a staggering one. Add youth products Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to that list and the talent drain from St. Mary’s is astounding.
Not so long ago, club owner Katharina Liebherr was criticized heavily from many sections of the British media for clashing with Nicola Cortese, the former Southampton executive chairman, and for daring to be a female owner in the male-dominated English Premier League. Thankfully, her decisions since Cortese’s departure have proved her right time and time again, with the appointments of Ralph Kroeger as chairman and Ronald Koeman as head coach standing out.
Last season, the Saints were magnificent. New imports Graziano Pelle, Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic and Ryan Bertrand all hit the ground running early on, proving to be more than able replacements for the departed Lambert, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and the injured Jay Rodriguez. Fraser Forster brought a class in goal not seen at the south coast since the days of Tim Flowers and Peter Shilton. Jose Fonte has continued his rise from a League One player to one of the most reliable defenders in Europe, making him the ideal person to skipper Koeman’s side.
Nevertheless, can Southampton repeat the trick for the second season running? From the evidence of the first three games, the answer is no. The Saints looked bare of ideas in attack against Everton and Watford while the midfield was clearly missing the steel and protection preciously provided by Schneiderlin. Victor Wanyama is undoubtedly a good midfield enforcer, but is he of the same class of Schneiderlin? And more importantly, is his head ready for the grueling campaign ahead after making his wish to leave public? Koeman seems to think very highly of new recruit Jordy Clasie, but he is yet to start filling the departed Frenchman’s shoes due to injury.
Offensively, Southampton seem to be overly-reliant on the goals of Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane, who contributed 22 goals last season. That was 41% of their total goal tally. Schneiderlin’s other important quality was his contribution offensively, with his driving runs and occasional goal (he scored four last season). This drive and creativity from midfield seems to have been absent for the majority of the games, especially in the Europa League. After their Europa League exit, Dusan Tadic went public in his criticism of the team’s style, lamenting too many long balls.
Fraser Forster’s injury and Toby Alderweireld’s decision to sign with Tottenham rather than the Saints after his season on loan at St. Mary’s has also left Southampton vulnerable at the back. Bertrand is also being sorely missed at left back, with the young Matt Targett still having a lot to learn.
The old Southampton did, however, make an appearance once again during the last game against Norwich City. The Canaries simply were left with no chance of getting anything from the game as Tadic and Co. ran riot on their defense. New right back Cedric Soares was impeccable, while Mane and Tadic kept pulling the strings time and time again against a stunned Norwich backline. Ward-Prowse, who had been very poor up to that game, started to make things happen at the center of the park, while Pelle looked deadly up front. Just as important was the presence of a solid backline in front of Maarten Stekelenburg ,who’s deputizing in the absence of Forster.
Virgil van Dijk’s acquisition should more than make up for Alderweireld’s departure, while two successive clean sheets are a great improvement on the five goals conceded in the previous two EPL games. It must be emphasized that Southampton only conceded 33 goals in the last campaign. That is just one goal more than champions Chelsea.
Soares for Clyne, van Dijk for Alderweireld, Clasie for Schneiderlin; only time will tell how well these replacements will gel into Koeman’s team, but for Soares, at least, the early signs are positive indeed.
And one more thing to cap off: Sadio Mane is, in my opinion, a world class player, and on his day he’s up there with the likes of Juan Mata, Hazard and Sterling. His skills and trickery are unique in the teams outside of the top five.
Best Starting XI (when all fit): Forster; Bertrand, Fonte, van Dijk, Soares; Steve Davis, Wanyama, Ward-Prowse; Tadic, Mane; Pelle
Best Performer: Sadio Mane
Most Improved Player: Dusan Tadic
Injury News: Not great. Forster is out for the long term while Bertrand and Clasie are yet to make an appearance this season, with neither recovering for the West Brom game this weekend. Koeman however did recently state that Bertrand’s road to recovery is nearing its end.
Best business completed in transfer window: Keeping hold of Wanyama and Mane. I have high hopes for van Dijk, too.
Rating the manager: B. Koeman has a job on his hands to replicate last season’s achievements. The early exit from the Europa League and the inauspicious start to Premier League have somewhat blotted Koeman’s copybook. The once solid defense has looked fragile on numerous occasions, while the midfield has at times looked to pertain to a side in the lower half of the league. Notwithstanding all this, the Norwich game, despite Steven Whittaker’s early sending-off, has made me believe once more that Koeman will help keep the Saints at a safe distance from the relegation places.
Weaknesses: The big turnover is the main weakness. Last season Southampton managed to remarkably improve on their performances from the previous season despite Mauricio Pocchettino’s departure along with that of a host of first team players. I’m skeptical with regards to their ability to bounce back again so well this time round. Their midfield is also an area of concern, and much will depend on how quickly Clasie returns form injury and adjusts to the rigours of the EPL.
Forecast for remainder of season: Unfortunately, I don’t think the Saints will replicate their seventh place finish from last season with the likes of Swansea City and Crystal Palace having seemingly overtaken them in terms of quality offensively and in the middle of the park. I feel that, like last season, it’s the Saints’ defensive qualities that will define their season. A top-10 finish is still well within their reach.
Overall rating: 3 out of 5 due to the relatively poor start to the season against, at best, mid-table sides.
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