After Encouraging Run of Form, Southampton Must Continue to Build.

After Encouraging Run of Form, Southampton Must Continue to Build.

As Southampton fans left St. Mary’s stadium on October 25th 2019, they could have been excused for thinking that their team was destined for relegation. Even at that early point in the season, Southampton looked dead and buried. They have just been trounced 9-0, at home, by Leicester City, and had Manchester City, Everton and Arsenal in their next three games.

Mainstream media talking heads all began the discussion about who would replace Ralph Hasenhuttl, those well informed folk having made the decision that the Austrian’s tenure on the South Coast had come to an end.

Two more defeats followed and the calls for a new manager began to amplify in the mainstream media, though curiously not so much among the fanbase.

Thankfully the club paid the media talk no mind, and kept their faith in Hasenhuttl. They trusted the man they had gone to great lengths to appoint, to turn things around and get the club back on course.

Their faith was well placed, and fully repaid, as Hasenhuttl turned things around and launched Saints up the table as he remoulded the team into his preferred shape and style of play. After 8 defeats in their first 12 games, and an average of 0.6 points per game from those 12 games, Saints would go on to lose only 8 of their next 26 games and raise their points per game average to 1.69 points per game over those 26 games. 1.69 points per game averages out to 64 points over a 38 game season, which would have been enough to secure 5th place this past season.

Saints were fantastic in Project Restart with five wins, three draws and just the one defeat in nine games, and they will hope to carry that form into the new season.

They’ve already begun planning for the new season with Kyle Walker-Peters arriving permanently from Spurs after a good loan spell, and Mohammed Salisu arriving from Valladolid. Both look like good additions, but Southampton still had further needs and they should aim to continue to build this summer and use the momentum from last season to kick on this coming season.

Southampton do have a good squad to build with, but they also have some areas that need to be addressed. Saints must avoid the transfer errors of the past. There can be no more Wesley Hoedt’s, no more Mario Lemina’s, no more Guido Carrilo’s.

They have no problems with goalkeepers, Alex McCarthy had a sensational second half of last season, Fraser Forster returns after a solid season with Celtic, and Angus Gunn is a much better goalkeeper than we saw last season. Harry Lewis is a talented 4th option too, and one would expect that he, Gunn or Forster will find themselves on loan for the year. Southampton can go into the coming season safe in the knowledge that they have one of the best goalkeeping situations in the league.

Walker-Peters will remain the starter at right back and the hope will be that Yan Valery can get his development back on track. At 21, he has huge potential and is potentially the ideal sort of player for Hasenhuttl’s style of play.

Ryan Bertrand remains one of the most consistent left-backs in the league, and with a newly extended contract he will certainly remain as the first choice. Southampton’s academy has consistently produced Premier League calibre players over the past decade and Jake Vokins looks like another. He’ll give Saints a good back-up, who could potentially be the long term starter, at the left back position.

In the middle you’d imagine that Bednarek and Salisu will be the long term pairing, and Jack Stephens will be the third option who can play alongside either. Vestergaard has not worked out well for Southampton but he’s probably the best option as a fourth centreback for the coming season. Ideally it would be best to sell him and look to bring someone else in but it’s risky to try and bring in too many players, especially given the needs elsewhere.

Southampton lost their former captain Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to Spurs, and while they can point to their form post restart without Hojbjerg, it can’t be denied that he was hugely important in their turnaround and that he’s a quality player. Saints should be in the market for a holding midfielder to partner James Ward-Prowse. Oriel Romeu and Will Smallbone offer good depth.

Mario Lemina will likely leave on loan, and it appears like Harrison Reed is set to move to Fulham after his loan spell there.

There are some good options for Saints to bring in as partners for Ward-Prowse, Marc Roca of Espanyol and Baptiste Santamaria of Angers are the two standout candidates. Both fit the age profile that Saints will be looking at, both are well suited to Hasenhuttl’s style of play. They are excellent defensively, and offer real quality on the ball. They’re more natural fits as holding midfielders than Hojbjerg was and either would fit well next to Ward Prowse. If Southampton want a more dynamic sort, perhaps Ralph’s old club RB Leipzig could provide the answer with Amadou Haidara.

The two attacking midfielders in Hasenhuttl’s system, the advanced two in the box who become wide players out of position, have plenty of possibilities but could, in truth, do with one more addition.

Stuart Armstrong and Nathan Redmond are the nominal starters but are both probably better suited to squad roles. Moussa Djenepo will be expected to take a big step forward in his second season at the club and should be expected to take Redmond’s spot in the team.

They could do with adding another creative player to the team, but that player must be able to press really well and work extremely hard. Todd Cantwell of Norwich might be perfect, depending on the price. He’s comfortable on either flank, can play centrally and will bring goals, creativity and lots and lots of work-rate. Cantwell and Djenepo in those two attacking midfield/wide midfielder roles would give Southampton two excellent young players with plenty of room to develop, and in Armstrong and Redmond Saints would have good depth. It’s probably time to sell Sofiane Boufal who has never consistently shown his best level for Saints.

Danny Ings will be expected to carry the load upfront again next season, and probably needs a little bit of help. Che Adams showed signs of resurgence towards the end of the season, after a disappointing first year following his move from Birmingham. He could potentially be a really good 3rd striker if he can maintain his form. Shane Long is 33 and his best days are behind him. He’ll still do everything asked of him but he’s not much of a goal threat. Michael Obafemi desperately needs a loan this coming season to get regular games under his belt.

Saints should probably look for a striker who can start next to Ings, someone who will score regularly. To fit in Ralph’s system, that player must have a lot of similar traits to Ings. Raul de Tomas of Espanyol could be worth looking at, though he is 28 years old. Ollie Watkins would be absolutely perfect, but there will be a lot of interest in him this summer. Perhaps Karlan Grant of Huddersfield might be worth calling about.

There’s plenty of options, and Southampton scout well so they’ll have a long list.

They don’t need to do massive amounts, but they need to make moves. They can’t allow the momentum gained last season to go to waste.