How does Southampton's start to the 2016/17 campaign compare to last season?
Rebuilding has almost become ritual at Southampton. Once again, after a strong season they had their squad dismantled, this time losing their manager as well, causing a complete overhaul between May and August that often has many experts tipping them to struggle.
The Saints finished sixth last season, three points off the Champions League places, and despite the shrewd appointment of Claude Puel, nobody is expecting them to get back into Europe, especially not with Europa League commitments to consider.
However, despite a tricky opening few fixtures, Southampton are looking like a strong and solid top-half side again. Two wins in their opening seven games is hardly ideal, but matched with two defeats and three draws, it means that the Saints currently lie in tenth place in the Premier League, and a run of three games without defeat shows sure signs of improvement.
It would be easy to think that this decent but not brilliant start would not show up well in comparison to the Saints’ form at the same stage last season, but in reality, they are in a remarkably similar position.
In fact, the only real difference in the first seven games is the number of goals being scored. Last season, Southampton won two, drew three and lost two of their first seven, giving them an identical record to this time around. Just like this campaign, they had done nothing to suggest that they would better the already impressive season that had gone before.
In 2016/17, the Saints have one of the best defences in the league, conceding just six goals, but only seven at the other end has limited their ability to win matches, although Charlie Austin looks as if he is coming into some good form up front on his own. Last season saw a few more goals at each end, with the likes of Everton and Manchester United putting three past them at St. Mary’s, but the departed Graziano Pelle scored enough to keep their record respectable.
So with almost identical on pitch records after seven games, the differences really come in personnel, and how this affects their prospects for the season. Sadio Mane, the Saints’ most frightening, but also inconsistent winger, has gone to Liverpool, Victor Wanyama has vacated the midfield, whilst Graziano Pelle left a 6 ft 4 in hole up front as he took a wad of cash to go and play in China.
In their places have come Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, the talented 21-year-old midfielder who is operating in a smart midfield trio with Steven Davis and the combative Oriol Romeu, who has perhaps been the most impressive performer of the season for the Saints thus far.
Up front, Nathan Redmond has replaced the precocious pace of Mane well, but the lack of Pelle sometimes limits the Saints threat from crosses. Still, Charlie Austin, fit again after a £4 million January move, is showing just what an excellent poacher he is with some sharp performances.
The defence has stayed the same, only with more experience of playing together. Fraser Forster is a great goalkeeper, plus Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand represent two of the most outstanding defenders in the league. The European Championship winning pair of Jose Fonte and Cedric Soares aren’t a bad pair to add to a really solid defence.
The Europa League will test the depths of the squad, but by and large, comparing this season to last season shows Southampton fans they have no need to panic. Admittedly, a run to sixth place may be beyond them, but Puel’s style is bedding in and they are already improving massively. Another good season may await the Saints.
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