After the intense media speculation surrounding Southampton last summer where meltdowns, boardroom chaos and even relegation were mentioned following what many perceived to be an asset strip, Ronald Koeman steadied the ship in his first season in English football. Now he faces a different challenge; trying to achieve the same results but with European football and increased speculation. Oh, and without arguably the finest Saints player for a generation.
Story of Last Season
Southampton’s story is rather complex in that the owner Katharina Liebherr had wrestled control back from chairman Nicola Cortese in the January leading up to the summer exodus. Whilst Cortese was seen as iron-willed and strong, the very secretive Liebherr, Les Reed and Ralph Krueger were seen as weak and fair game.
But yet, in amongst the narrative of how players were leaving in their droves, it is worth remembering this: all of the players who had left bar Artur Boruc had left to bigger clubs who could pay bigger wages, all for fees beyond what many perceived as their ‘market value’. Boruc’s case was that he was replaced, and his wages whilst on loan at Bournemouth were paid as part of Adam Lallana’s sell on clause.
Koeman and the transfer committee had to still build a team, but arguably they made the squad stronger and deeper. Attacking wise, it was not as clinical however – they may have scored the same as 2013/14, but then Saints also punished Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa to the extreme, netting 18 goals over those three home games, a third of their whole season tally.
Nevertheless, their imperious defence gave Saints a huge base to build on; victories against Arsenal and Man Utd at Old Trafford demonstrated their steel, and were alongside only Man City in not losing to Chelsea at all throughout the campaign. Seventh with sixty points is their best Premier League finish and points tally, and should be remembered.
Cédric Soares: A successful season obviously saw Southampton’s star players once again in high demand from bigger clubs. But the panic from Saints fans when Nathaniel Clyne departed to Liverpool for £12.5m was offset by the fact his replacement was already acquired.
At £3.5m, Saints benefitted from Soares having just one year left on his contract at Sporting Lisbon like Liverpool had with Clyne. But Cedric looks a perfect replacement, with his pace and attacking verve fitting the profile of a Southampton attacking full-back already. He is transfer market bargain material and in fact at a price even the bigger Championship clubs are not averse to spending.
Jordy Clasie: After Morgan Schneiderlin’s seven year stay on the South Coast, Koeman went for the man who was his lynchpin at Feyenoord. Clasie may be small in stature; only standing 5’7 tall, but he had outgrown the Eredivisie with his ability. He is at the perfect club to progress his potential further without instant pressure to succeed, and should add a creative influence from deep.
Maarten Stekelenburg: A goalkeeper who may have come off two bad spells at Fulham and Monaco may seem a risky purchase even if only on loan from the Championship side. However, Stekelenburg more than has the ability to succeed, having already played in a World Cup Final and adds an experienced replacement for the injured Fraser Forster.
Jose Fonte: A defender who not only improved once again for Saints performance wise, but was a key part of Koeman’s revolution. His display at Old Trafford typified his winning mentality forged during Saints double promotion and his days fighting for a scrapping Crystal Palace.
Victor Wanyama: A defensive record as strong as Southampton’s is not only as a result of the back five, but credit should also be received by two of the best defensive midfielders in the league. Whereas Schneiderlin added an all round presence, it was Wanyama who added muscle and steel to the Southampton midfield with enormous power and strength. The Kenyan was technically improved from his first year too.
Sadio Mané: A good start was followed a bad run of form that matched Saints own drop, so criticism of the £12m Senegalese international was exaggerated, but that was changed pretty soon. A run over Christmas showed his abilities in a better light, but a consistent season could demonstrate just why Mané is one of the best attacking prospects in the top flight.
Predicted line up
Koeman generally prefers a 4-2-3-1 system, although is willing to drop to a 5-3-2 if the defence looks vulnerable. Stekelenburg in goal with Cédric, Fonte and Bertrand are the first choice defensive options, but it is no secret that Saints would like another CB, with Celtic’s Virgil Van Dijk seen as the number one target in that position.
In front of that should sit Wanyama and Clasie, and will provide a shield to protect the aforementioned backline. The attacking quartet in front has plenty of options for Koeman to work with; however, with everybody fit, a three of Rodriguez, Tadic and Mané behind Graziano Pellè. New signing Juanmi and Shane Long provide valuable cover, whilst Ryan Seager and Jake Hesketh could be the next Southampton academy starlets to break through.
For the deserved acclaim he arrived with, Ronald Koeman’s previous two spells at Benfica and Valencia were reasonable enough factors to perhaps suggest the third attempt outside the Eredivisie could be unlucky. Yet Koeman fitted perfectly with Southampton and indeed English football in general. His love for attacking football is matched with his experience both as a player and coach, and his name alone galvanized a young squad unsure of the immediate future. The Dutchman brings clarity in a tactical approach and calmness in his words, yet is more than capable of giving players the ‘hair-dryer’ with all the hoarse gusto of Sir Alex Ferguson himself.
First Six Fixtures
After the second leg of their Europa League qualifier against Vitesse, Southampton head back for a tricky trip to Newcastle which has been an unhappy hunting ground in recent times, the 2-1 win last season aside.
Everton at home could be the right time to play the Merseysiders before any potential John Stones-funded investment begins, whilst another probable Europa League qualifier sandwiches the trip to newly promoted Watford.
Another newly promoted side in the shape of Norwich City round off the month, before the international break gives Saints two weeks ahead of a trip to West Bromwich Albion. A potential group stage fixture in the Europa League then precedes Manchester United at St Mary’s, and the return of Morgan Schneiderlin.
Southampton are easily capable of achieving something in the region of 12 points from these opening 6 fixtures whilst also negotiating the early rounds of Europa League football. It is important that they start well to initiate momentum in a comparable fashion to last year.
Final Standing Prediction – 6th
Southampton’s season is arguably the one with the widest scope for finishing position; even as arguably the strongest team outside the top six, the Europa League fixtures could take an inevitable toll on a team knowing for their high tempo, high pressing football. Saints would argue however that perhaps an unlikely Champions League qualification would be easier through winning the Europa League rather than compete with those who can buy their players comfortably for fourth.
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