What to Expect From Koeman's Kids at Southampton
It’s difficult to know quite how to summarise Southampton’s summer in just a few, accurate words. On the one hand, the Saints have lost half of the team that achieved a record high Premier League finish of 8th, and has made them such an attractive prospect to new arrivals, from the manager – now Ronald Koeman, after Mauricio Pochettino ditched the South Coast club for Tottenham – to new signings alike (even if, until recently, there weren’t many). Yet from another perspective, the new squad that Koeman is assembling is an interesting one, and, given a bit of time to gel, could easily hold its own in the upper mid-table of the Premier League, where they finished last year. A season which once looked a chance to consolidate the club in the upper reaches of the normal Premier League clubs quickly shifted to one where the main aim seems to stave off relegation, but given the ambitious purchases – with more left to come, surely – will Southampton do deceptively well this term?
It’s hard to tell; to do so, we’d probably get a better idea of how Southampton will line up. With Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Rickie Lambert, Dani Osvaldo (remember him?), Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren all leaving the Saints – all stalwarts (perhaps Osvaldo aside) of last year’s successful side – it’s quite hard to tell who’ll start where and where business needs to be conducted. So far, the most exciting purchase is probably of Dusan Tadic, a Serbian winger signed from Twente, who has been touted as a potential step-up from Adam Lallana, whose versatile attacking midfield role in the Saints side is perhaps not quite the same as what is reported of Tadic’s play, but is comparable nonetheless. Alongside Tadic, Saphir Taider (on loan from Inter with a view to move), Ryan Bertrand (likewise, but from Chelsea) and Graziano Pelle, who Koeman worked with to great success at Feyenoord over the past few years have also signed up. Links persist with further defensive reinforcements – Virgil van Dijk and Marcos Rojo utmost among them – while Fraser Forster has been touted with a move south of the border, too; though his club, Celtic, suffered a catastrophic Champions League qualifier (and went through thanks to a Legia Warsaw mishap), it’s still likely that Forster will leave, and van Dijk is a potential goer too; completing these three moves, or moves for three similar players at the very least, would leave the squad at a similar level to last season – indeed, the defence would probably be slightly better if van Dijk and Rojo came in, while Forster is quite rightly higher rated than Artur Boruc.
But what of Ronald Koeman himself? The former Barcelona and Netherlands defender, renowned in his time for his threat from set pieces, has been around the block – often successfully, it must be said – in his managerial career, starting at Vitesse Arnhem fourteen years ago. His CV speaks for itself – he has been at big clubs both in his native Netherlands and around Europe, becoming the first man to manage and play for all three of the traditional big Dutch clubs (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord). He’s followed this on with trophy success too, but, given that he’s not had much success abroad – only winning a Cup with Valencia and a Super Cup with Benfica – the jury may still be out a little. Koeman also tends not to stay in one place for too long, which could mean he won’t be aiming to build some sort of a dynasty at Southampton, but nevertheless, his attacking football will be interesting to watch and should bring the Saints some good results, and (less importantly, if we’re being cynical), plaudits from neutrals. Given that Southampton have been synonymous with good football over the past few years as well, it’s perhaps the perfect replacement for Mauricio Pochettino, which is potentially a good sign moving forward – if nothing else, the Saints board know their type.
Keeping Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez will also be vital to any hopes of a good season for the Saints, too. While Schneiderlin may not be flavour of the month at St Mary’s, he was the vital player in Southampton’s engine room last season, and even if he’s playing for a move, would surely be motivated to continue playing at a great level – after all, the rumours are that he wants to be playing for a top club to consolidate his place in the France squad. Rodriguez is also at a vital stage in his England career, as he looks to become an automatic choice, which, really, is something very achievable for the former Burnley forward – having only missed out on the World Cup squad to a knee injury. Chairman Ralph Krueger has assured fans that the pair will be staying – whether this promise is kept remains to be seen, but considering the size of a PR gaffe either player leaving would lead to, you’d hope Krueger is true to his word – which, for the next season at least, leaves circumstances significantly more rosy than they first seemed. What has perhaps also been overlooked is the fact that key performers – Nathaniel Clyne, Jose Fonte and Victor Wanyama among them – have stayed at the club without any (reported) problems.
Clyne, like Rodriguez, will be pressing for a place in the England squad – two impressive seasons at Premier League level can’t have passed Roy Hodgson by – while Jose Fonte isn’t quite a top level centre back but is a fan favourite at St Mary’s, thanks to his dedication to the cause, and rising to the top with the club, having joined when the club were mired in League One. In fairness, Fonte is still a solid defender at Premier League and has no qualms at filling in in different positions – he was, surprisingly, a reasonably good right back against Aston Villa in November, for example. His unfussy style in defence will definitely help his new defensive partner (or Maya Yoshida, either one) get to grips with the Southampton system quickly. Victor Wanyama, meanwhile, had a very impressive debut season in the Premier League, and realistically should be one of the players that the club should be building the team around, providing the Kenyan sees his immediate to mid-term future on the South Coast. Despite being riddled with injuries, Southampton looked a much better team with Wanyama in the team, going most of the tail end of 2013 without conceding a goal. Incredible stuff. Wanyama struggled a little to get back into the team thanks to Jack Cork’s imperious form, too, and Cork should also return to the fray this year, too. Indeed, the centre midfield looks like a really exciting proposition for Southampton fans, with a number of players who would potentially be starting for half of the bigger clubs in the league.
On a final note, the young guns – James Ward-Prowse chief among them, with the England U21 captain tipped to rise in the ascendancy this season and being to stamp his authority in midfield – but also Matt Targett, touted as Luke Shaw’s long-term replacement, Sam Gallagher, who broke through the ranks last season, scoring his first senior goal against Yeovil in the FA Cup before starting the home draw with Arsenal, and Harrison Reed, who like Ward-Prowse is a midfielder who has been impressive for the England youth teams and featured in flits last season. It’s hard to overstate how much talent there is in the Southampton academy, and it is an oft-stated opinion that most Premier League academies should nurture youngsters in a similar way – Southampton’s alumni speak for themselves in terms of success. This is probably one area which we can expect to stay the same long term for Southampton, and so can be an area they use to rebuild this season and build upon over the years to come, too.
Overall, Southampton should probably not aim to even come close to equaling that wonderful season last time out; while they’re unlikely to go down, based on both the strength of the squad and strong management, it must be said that expecting too much, too soon of Koeman and his young, fledgling squad is probably the wrong way to go about following this Saints team and, really, this season should be looked at more as a transitional year than anything else, and anything above a run of the mill, standard mid-table season will be a bonus.