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Player Analysis

Three players to look out for at Southampton this season

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Southampton

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…

Mario Lemina

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.

Jack Stephens

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.

Manolo Gabbiadini

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.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @willypearson.

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Arsenal

Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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English Premier League

Does forgotten man Henri Saivet have a future at Newcastle United?

Jake Jackman

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Saivet

It is common for a player to be forgotten about after a lengthy period outside of the match-day squad and that was true of Henri Saivet at Newcastle United. The midfielder signed for the club during January 2016 and he is approaching the two-year anniversary of his time at St James’ Park. It hasn’t been a very memorable one in the slightest and he would have been one of those surplus to requirements heading into the transfer window next month. However, a combination of injuries and suspensions led to the Senegalese international being drafted into the starting eleven for the first time this season in the Premier League.

There was a collective groan among Newcastle United supporters when they saw the team-sheet for the visit to West Ham. The club had taken one point from their previous nine matches and it was imperative that they returned to winning ways, but a central midfield partnership of Mo Diame and Saivet gave them little chance of doing that. Or so they thought.

The two midfielders worked tirelessly in the middle of the park and offered good support to the attack. They may not be the midfielders that Benitez wants to build a team around, but they showed encouraging signs on Saturday and they have provided their manager with food for thought. Both of them got on the score-sheet to help the Magpies win an end-to-end contest with one of their rivals at the bottom of the table. The three points moved the club back outside of the relegation zone and it will be interesting to see what role these two players have to play in the immediate future.

Saivet’s performance against West Ham in numbers

It was a rocky start for the 27-year-old as he gifted West Ham an early lead inside the opening few minutes. He horribly misjudged a pass, which went straight to Marko Arnautovic. The only Newcastle defender behind the ball was Ciaran Clark and some good feet from the Austrian international took him out of the game. It was a lapse of concentration from Saivet that was indicative of his lack of playing time this season. Although there remained a lot for the Hammers’ attacker to do, the goal was a direct result of a mistake from the Magpies’ midfielder.

At that moment, Newcastle supporters would have been bemoaning the selection of Saivet as he showed why he hadn’t been picked very often. It would have been easy for the midfielder to go on to have a nightmare match, but he showed great spirit to fight back and deliver a very good performance after the initial mistake. Within minutes, he was stepping up to take a free-kick and took the responsibility over more senior players in the team. The result was extraordinary as his shoot on goal was perfectly measured and found a way past Adrian. It was a great response and it will have pleased his manager.

Saivet came through as a winger in Ligue 1, before being switched to the central midfield role. There were signs when that was evident against West Ham, but it was his tenacity when winning the ball back that stood out. The Senegalese international completed five tackles, four interceptions and made eight clearances. He more than played his part in a battling Newcastle performance and helped the team come out on top against a physical opposition.

In possession, it was clear that there was some rust in his game, as he completed only 63% of his passes. Benitez will want his midfielders to have more control in the middle of the park, but there were encouraging signs in Saivet’s intentions. He often looked to make forward passes and had the energy to get up and down the pitch.

Does he have a part to play for Newcastle United?

It looked impossible for Saivet to come back and play for Newcastle this season. The midfielder left after relegation to join Saint-Ettiene on loan, but failed to impress their then-manager Christophe Galtier.

“A playmaker? I thought I’d found him with Henri Saivet. But if he did not play in England, now I know why: he is no longer hungry. At all.

“We had lost sight of who he was. We concentrated on what he had done against us with Bordeaux in the days of Willy Sagnol and René Lobello. But the Henri of Bordeaux and the Henri of England were no longer the same. It’s an example (for us).”

These were troubling quotes at the time and shed some light on why Newcastle were unable to sell Saivet during the summer. He has big wages and he has been unable to show his quality for the last two years. The comment about hunger is interesting, as the player that delivered an eye-catching performance against West Ham was committed and fighting for the cause. He looked a completely different player to the one that floundered during his early days as a Magpies player.

Realistically, Benitez will not look at Saivet as a player that has a part to play in the long-term future of Newcastle United. He has already passed his judgement of the player and it will take a lot more than one encouraging performance to change that. However, in the short-term, he has done enough to earn more minutes in the first-team, whether that be as a starter or substitute.

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Manchester City

Does Sergio Aguero have a long-term future at Manchester City?

Rob Meech

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Sergio Aguero

It is one of the most iconic images of the Premier League era. Sergio Aguero, shirtless and overcome by unbridled joy, wheeling away in celebration after scoring against Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the 2011/12 season.

His dramatic injury-time goal had stolen the title from the grasp of arch-rivals Manchester United. That historic moment ensured he would be forever revered as a folk hero at the Etihad Stadium.

Five years later, Aguero has become Manchester City’s all-time record scorer and he surpassed the 1oo-goal barrier on home turf with a double in the 4-0 thrashing of lowly Bournemouth.

It was another reminder of his predatory instinct. Regardless of the quality of the opposition, Aguero’s ability to find the back of the net on a consistent basis remains unquestionable.

But the appointment of Pep Guardiola as manager in the summer of 2016 changed the dynamic for the Argentinian. For the first time in his City career, he has had to fight for his place in the starting line-up.

The arrival of Gabriel Jesus in the subsequent January transfer window provided extra competition. Jesus was Guardiola’s man and, despite suffering a metatarsal injury, he became first choice. That theme has continued this season, with the Brazilian being preferred for the crunch games.

On occasion, Aguero has been unable to hide his feelings. He threw his gloves to the ground after being substituted against Tottenham Hotspur in a demonstrable show of frustration. Nonetheless, he remains a team player and, when called upon, has contributed to City’s remarkable success.

Despite his limited game-time, Aguero has 12 Premier League goals to his name this season, which makes him the joint leading scorer at City alongside the rejuvenated Raheem Sterling.

Those dozen strikes have come from only 14 appearances, at one every 92 minutes. That ratio sets him apart from any other striker in England’s top-flight and, incidentally, is considerably better than Jesus, his main rival for the striking berth at City.

Publicly, Guardiola has been effusive in his praise of Aguero and sympathetic to his current role. This was the case after the thrashing of Bournemouth, where he described him as a ‘legend’. But there remains a strong suspicion that, should the club’s valuation be met, the former Atletico Madrid hitman will be allowed to leave the Etihad.

Many would consider Guardiola mad to countenance such a decision. After all, this is a Golden Boot winner of the highest pedigree. However, the City manager is famously single-minded. His ruthless axing of fans’ favourite and England keeper Joe Hart proved no player is safe from being jettisoned.

And this is Aguero’s biggest problem. For all his prowess in front of goal, he is not a typical Guardiola striker. He is a predator in the box and performs that role with distinction.

But the Catalan demands more than just goals. He demands his main striker to pull defenders out of position with clever runs, creating space for the attacking midfielders to swamp.

At most clubs in Europe, Aguero would be the first name on the team-sheet. However, at City, he is having to play second fiddle to Jesus. Despite his deep affinity to Manchester City, it appears increasingly likely the 29-year-old will leave the club in the summer.

In Guardiola’s insatiable pursuit of perfection, there is no room for sentiment. Although Aguero remains a goalscoring machine, he may become the Catalan’s next victim.

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