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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Jack Wilshere’s injury shows why Arsenal shouldn’t renew his contract
The 26-year-old has been struck down by yet another injury.
Jack Wilshere will be pleased with the progress that he has made since returning to Arsenal from his loan spell at Bournemouth.
He was initially nothing more than a squad player that was out in the cold at international level too, but the midfielder worked hard to gain more game-time in North London.
Across all competitions, he has played more than 30 matches and his form earned him a call-up to the England squad.
It looked like he was getting a once-promising career back on track, but almost like clockwork, he has suffered an injury to set him back once again.
Gareth Southgate confirmed that he wouldn’t be travelling to the Netherlands for Friday’s match and the quotes were reported by Sky Sports.
“It is not a specific injury and over time they flare up and they need to settle down over a couple of days.
“We are hopeful it will settle down pretty quickly. It’s an ongoing problem and it’s not something new for him. He’s very disappointed not to be involved in the game.
“He’s trained well though but if you think about the journey he’s had in the last two years and his big injuries then he’s progressing really well.”
Although it is encouraging that it isn’t a serious injury, it is a reminder that Jack Wilshere remains a risk for both club and country.
It is difficult to build a team around a player that is susceptible to miss matches and the quote from Southgate is a worry as he refers to an ongoing problem.
Arsenal have had a difficult campaign and they will be planning a rebuild over the next 48 months as they transition away from the Arsene Wenger era.
They will have to make tough decisions on many players at the club and Wilshere’s future will be brought into focus over the next few weeks as his contract expires at the end of the season.
There have been numerous reports regarding contract talks between the two parties and there is hesitancy on both sides.
This latest injury suffered by Wilshere and the comments from Southgate referring to an ongoing problem show why it is Arsenal who need to end this association.
Wilshere can’t be relied on to stay fit and to feature prominently in a busy schedule. Arsenal will have ambitions of challenging at the very top of the game and will likely be involved in European competition every season. They need to have a squad of players that are reliable and the 26-year-old isn’t that.
Aside from that, Wilshere represents what Arsenal have become over the last decade. He is a player that had a lot of potential, but he has failed to fulfil it and been very inconsistent at the highest level. Of course, he isn’t to blame for the club’s problems, but he is also unlikely to offer the solutions.
This season has been a nice farewell campaign for him. It would have been sad if his Gunners’ career had ended after being shipped out on loan to Bournemouth.
He has returned to earn some of his credibility back, but the club need to move on and progress if they are to get back to the top of the English game.
A lot of contentious decisions will need to be made and the first should be the release of Jack Wilshere this summer.
Why Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Luke Shaw has crossed the line
The Portuguese manager has been highly critical of Luke Shaw this season.
The fractious relationship between Jose Mourinho and Luke Shaw plumbed new depths when the left-back was substituted at half-time in Manchester United’s FA Cup victory over Brighton & Hove Albion. The 22-year-old had been handed a rare opportunity to impress at Old Trafford but lasted only 45 minutes.
Speaking about Shaw in his post-match interview, Mourinho said: “Luke, in the first half, every time they came in his corridor, the cross came in and a dangerous situation was coming. I was not happy with his performance.”
The differences between the pair now appear to be irreconcilable. Shaw, who was signed by Louis van Gaal in the summer of 2014, has been used sparingly by Mourinho. The former Southampton starlet has made just 18 Premier League appearances under the Portuguese in a career that has been blighted by injuries.
Being substituted at half-time is almost as embarrassing as it gets for a player and Shaw’s mood will not have improved after being publicly criticised by his manager. It’s certainly not the first time Mourinho has chosen to talk candidly to the media about his concerns with the 22-year-old.
Some players require an arm around the shoulder to perform at their peak, while for others it takes a kick up the backside. Mourinho, opting for the latter, does nothing without reason and has clearly tried to spark a reaction from Shaw, without success.
From being one of English football’s brightest prospects after making his World Cup debut aged just 18, Shaw, who has seven England caps to his name, is in danger of not fulfilling the potential that convinced United to spend what was then a world-record fee for a teenager.
Mourinho’s tactic of singling out individuals who have not met his standards is in stark contrast to Sir Alex Ferguson, who never blamed his players in public. It has divided opinion among pundits, with Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier claiming the United manager is ‘destroying’ Shaw.
Mourinho is an expert at using smokescreens to distract from his side’s unconvincing performances. And this latest controversy has moved the narrative on from United’s shock Champions League exit at the hands of Sevilla.
Tough love is one thing, but the sustained, public attack on Shaw is unacceptable. If Mourinho genuinely believes he is not good enough to represent United, then fair enough. But to continually vilify the youngster’s performances is a step too far and one that could irreparably damage Shaw’s confidence.
This is not to say that Shaw is a completely innocent bystander. Mourinho’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal, also questioned his desire and general conditioning when he joined United four years ago. Indeed, the Dutchman signed Shaw up to a tailored exercise regime in an effort to improve his fitness.
But while van Gaal’s treatment had the desired effect, Mourinho’s has done the opposite. Being publicly humiliated on a routine basis does neither party any favours.
In all likelihood, Shaw’s disappointing United career will come to an end this summer. A fresh start away from the toxicity under Mourinho is exactly what he needs.
Keanan Bennetts has perfect opportunity to impress Mauricio Pochettino this week
The left-sided star has a chance to impress in first-team training during the international break.
With the international week in full flow, plenty of teams in the Premier League have seen their squads diminished by call-ups to national teams.
Tottenham Hotspur are one such side. Nonetheless, with most of the first-team squad away with their respective nations, work continues at Hotspur Way.
In order for Spurs to have a full complement in training, plenty of young talent needs to be pulled in to the ranks.
Mauricio Pochettino will, therefore,e get a chance to see some of his young players training with regular first-team players such as Fernando Llorente, Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura.
One player who will be training with the first-team this week is talented wide-man Keanan Bennetts, according to London Live.
The 19-year-old left-winger has been catching the eye for the club’s youth team in recent weeks, making the news after scoring a fantastic goal for the under-19s against Monaco in the UEFA Youth League last month.
Bennetts has also been attracting interest for his positional dexterity. The wide-man has played at left-back in recent times and it could be that is his future best position.
This week he will be up against some excellent players such as Lamela and Moura, who did not receive selection to the Argentina and Brazil national teams, respectively.
If he can prove himself with this calibre of player, Pochettino will have to take notice.
It is coming to a point in his Tottenham career when Bennetts has to make such an impact. The teenager is out of contract at Spurs in the summer and needs to ensure he is kept on for at least one more season.
Tottenham fans who follow the youth teams are certain he is deserving of such a chance. If he can show Pochettino what he is capable of this week, then a new deal will surely be in the pipeline for the talented wide-man.
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