To say that it has been an arduous first summer at Southampton for new manager Mauricio Pellegrino since taking over from the departing Claude Puel would be a bit of an understatement.
The whole Virgil van Dijk situation seems to take a new twist every day, with the Dutchman now openly handing in a transfer request, but Pellegrino remains insistent that they won’t be selling him.
Although it has no doubt been an unwanted distraction, the Saints have still gone about their own business smartly and recently secured the huge coup of Mario Lemina from Juventus for £18.1 million.
There’s a big task at hand though to reduce the 15-point gap between themselves and Everton in seventh place last season, and Saints fans will hope that Pellegrino has a strong enough squad to challenge.
The Boot Room takes a look at three players that will be critical to their aspirations this season…
As mentioned above, arguably Southampton’s best signing of the summer came just earlier this week in the shape of Mario Lemina, arriving from Juventus in a club record £18.1 million transfer.
He may be a bit of an unknown entity by many in England due to his lack of regular first-team football in Italy over the past few years but he certainly has the potential to be something huge.
His firm physique and tall stature means that he’s a strong player both on and off the ball, making him an extremely efficient box-to-box midfield option as it enables him to ease away from tackles.
And he’s not half bad defensively either, with his physicality able to retrieve possession superbly inside his own half and – with his smart vision and execution – he can start a counter-attack quickly.
In the fast-paced, hectic nature of the Premier League there’s also a calmness to his football that Lemina possesses that could hugely benefit Southampton, especially after their underwhelming Premier League campaign last year, and he could help them become outsiders for a European spot.
Regardless of whether Virgil van Dijk stays at the club, or not, for the upcoming season, young defender Jack Stephens has a huge campaign ahead of him after his big breakthrough in January.
The 23-year-old is genuinely one of the most promising homegrown talents in the top-flight at the moment, and it’s no surprise he was rewarded for impressive displays with a new five-year contract.
A product of Southampton’s academy, Stephens has made a name for himself with his composed defensive play and no-nonsense tackling, putting himself about like a proper old-school centre-back.
Last season – despite playing four matches less than defensive partner Maya Yoshida – he matched his number of tackles (17), made more blocks (19) and attempted more take-ons (7) driving forward.
It’s yet to be seen what the final outcome of the Van Dijk saga will be once the dust settles, but Stephens has shown over the past six months that there’s no need to go looking for a replacement should he go.
One area where Southampton severely lacked last season was in the goal-scoring department, finding the net less than the likes of bottom-half sides Swansea City, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Leicester City.
The arrival of Manolo Gabbiadini from Napoli in January certainly perked things up for a while at least, scoring four goals in his first three appearances in a Southampton shirt, but an injury left him side-lined for three weeks and he didn’t quite return the same, failing to score in his next seven matches.
After a summer of recuperation the 25-year-old will be looking to start the new season off in spectacular fashion and hit the ground running, aiming for the 20-goal mark in the new campaign.
He has brought a natural sense of anticipation of play to St Mary’s, looking to capitalise on any mistakes and gamble on his own team-mates crosses, whilst he’s widely known to be clinical when given a chance.
As he showed in the EFL Cup final defeat to Manchester United he has clever movement to run in front of defenders, turning the ball home, and now is the season where he needs to really impress.