Southampton Season Preview: improvement needed

With the 2018-19 Premier League season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Southampton fan Joe Jenness (@JoeJenness).

Last season was the first since 2012-13 that Southampton encountered a relegation battle. Even though you managed to avoid the drop, it surely must be viewed as a disappointing campaign?

Last season was one of the worst I have seen in 25 years as a Saints fan. Mauricio Pellegrino played the most dull and insipid football I have seen. It was conservative football, set up not to lose, sacrificing creativity for pragmatism (and that’s being fair to him!). He was a limited manager and that fed into the team – most of them looked uninspired and constricted.

Thinking back, I am struggling to think how he survived for so long. We lost at home to Palace and that should have been the end, but somehow he stayed. The atmosphere at St Mary’s had been bitter since the end of Claude Puel’s reign, but Pellegrino managed to surpass that and turn it utterly toxic.

I think last season was a big wake up call to many; the fans, many of whom had come to accept our overachieving as the standard (many too young to remember our previous toils in the Premier League in the nineties); the players, who had been sleepwalking on the pitch for nearly 18 months; most importantly though, the board, who had happily congratulated themselves when things were going well but stayed silent when the chips were down. They persevered too long with men who were incapable of managing the team.

Performances appeared to improve once Mark Hughes took over in March; baring the 3-0 mauling at West Ham. Do fans see him as a steady pair of hands?

After the Newcastle and West Ham games (we lost both 3 nil) I thought we were done for, but credit to Hughes, he brought spark and determination to keep us up. If he had been given longer, I think we could have finished more comfortably, but keeping us up with six games is nothing short of miraculous.

I will admit I was not bowled over by his appointment. His teams have never been known as dynamic and Stoke were treading water before he left. Southampton has prided itself on exciting, left field appointments for a few years now and his appointment felt like the common approach of a no thrills British coach being appointed to get us “out of jail” – I am just glad Everton had taken Fat Sam earlier in the season!

However, I am happy to eat my words on this as he really galvanized the team – the games against Bournemouth and Swansea especially, we really deserved those wins and we played with freedom and directness not seen since Ronald Koeman. Those wins kept us up. The players seem to really like him and I think he is the kind of manager they respond to – a legend of the game, much like Koeman was.

Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini were two of your top three goal scorers last season, despite only starting a combined 21 league games. Is Sam Gallagher or Shane Long clinical enough to start up top if Austin and Gabbiadini aren’t fit?

No. Shane Long really divides Saints fans. I love him, but he’s not going to score you goals. However, his style of play does benefit the team, so there is very much a role for him. He needs to have more clinical forward players around him as his pace and aggression can free up space.

I don’t think Sam Gallagher is a Premier League player yet. Given our shortage of goals over two seasons and the early closing of the window, I don’t think we can rely on him as a back-up. His record in the Championship last year (six goals in 33 matches) is not good enough.

Charlie Austin would be great if his legs weren’t made of fibreglass and Gabbiadini has flattered to deceive for most of his time here. However, his agent is indicating he wants to stay and “prove himself at Southampton” so hopefully, he will be the player we hoped he’d be. I still feel a new, clinical striker needs to be signed.

Dusan Tadic, your second top scorer with six goals, has gone to Ajax. Do you think he could be remembered as most technically gifted player you’ve had since Matt Le Tissier? (Edit: not suggesting Tadic is as good as Le Tiss was)

That’s a good question. Dusan did all he could to keep us up in the last few matches so in that respect, he deserves the Le Tissier comparison. However, that’s where the comparison ends! Yes, Dusan had plenty of skill in his locker but he was extremely inconsistent for nearly 2 years. Matt kept us up year on year with goals, assists and some incredible skill.

I won’t half miss Dusan though, he really loved the club and you could see that in his interaction with the fans. Ajax might not be the powerhouse they once were, but they are one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs and he deserved his move.

Your goalkeeper changed between Alex McCarthy and Fraser Forster last term. Does new signing Angus Gunn have an opportunity to nail down the number one spot?

I think so. I think he will be first choice by the end of the season. McCarthy did really well when he came into the team. This will be an unpopular opinion but I can’t help feel he was playing well above himself. He did pull of some brilliant saves though and against Bournemouth won us the points.

I don’t think you pay £15mil for a backup goalie though. The club have looked at that position and decided it needed investment. I’ve not seen much of Gunn, but Norwich fans seem to rate him and if reports of a buy-back clause are true, so do Man City.

I am at a loss to explain the downfall of Fraser Forster. At one stage he looked impenetrable. Last year, he was a massive liability and it was clear his team had lost faith in him. Rumours are afoot that he is off to Burnley on a season long loan which would be good for all involved – he will have his work cut out against Tom Heaton and (a fully fit) Nick Pope.

Full-backs Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand appeared to be among your better players in 2017-18, especially in the latter stages. Is it important that they have freedom to get forward?

Yes. We have always looked good when we play expansive football and in those two we have two extremely quick, good crossers of the ball. Pellegrino didn’t like his full-backs to attack; there were many occasions where Bertrand would halt rather then bomb down the wing like in previous years – it was very frustrating to watch.

Hughes seems to like a 3-5-2 formation and this would certainly get the best out of them. A three-man defence would give them greater attacking licence by offering defensive support. Cedric is a good defender, but he lacks in positioning and strength. Going forward though, he offers an excellent outlet.

Wesley Hoedt and Jack Stephens seem decent in possession but are perhaps vulnerable aerially. Are you glad you’ve brought in a 6’7” centre-back in Jannik Vestergaard?

I think the jury remains out on Hoedt. There were times when he looked very poor, but he was playing in a poor team that was inviting pressure. Jack Stephens is something of an enigma to me… as I write this I can’t decide if I rate him or not. I agree, he is suspect in the air but has great composure on the ball and a good tackler too.

Vestergaard looks good and comes highly rated. Plus, he is about 12 feet tall so hopefully he can improve our weakness in the air. I like the look of him, I like that he wouldn’t look out of place at an Iron Maiden concert!

Oriol Romeu looked like one of the best ball-winners outside the top six in 2016-17. What did you make of his form last year?

Oriol was a player who thrived under Puel, looked poor under Pellegrino and revitalised under Hughes. He is a definite confidence player and one who has the attributes to be a midfield great (you don’t come out of La Masia without having something about you). I didn’t think last year was his best, but I think Hughes will get the best out of him. When he plays well, we look stronger in defence and attack.

Steven Davis has been playing at this level for 13 years now. Do you hope Mario Lemina and new signing Stuart Armstrong can help freshen up the midfield?

Steven Davis, what a man. He must be about 105 now and still playing at the top. If this was Logan’s Run he would be long gone. I really like the look of Armstrong, he has looked very established in the midfield already, bringing calmness and technical ability in. I suspect he has been bought in as the long-term replacement for Davis (if a long term Saint’s player exists!).

Lemina is a fantastic player – one of the best players I’ve seen at Saints but he was so inconsistent. I read that he fell out with Pellegrino early on (he made him play with an injury against Everton shortly after he joined) so perhaps that explains it. If he can stay fit and on-song, he must start in the centre.

James Ward-Prowse always seems something of a conundrum; he’s not strong enough to be a holding midfielder but not quick enough to play a very advanced role. Is Hughes’ challenge not so much about finding the talent, but finding where to fit that talent within a system?

I think that accurately sums it up. I think Prowse would work as a centre mid, but that’s a position that seems to be dying out in the modern game; midfielders seem to be either categorised as defensive or attacking. As you say, Prowse isn’t strong in either of those roles, you would have to sacrifice one of those architypes to get him in the team. He offers real threat from set plays and against certain teams, that is essential. I think his inclusion will have to be tactical.

Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal only scored three league goals between them last year. Will new signing Mohamed Elyounoussi improve your productivity?

Boufal is infuriating talent. He scored 3 of the best goals in recent history but again, was too inconsistent and lacked strength. His goal and celebration against West Brom was wonderful, he clearly displayed what the rest of the players (and fans) were thinking. However, not wanting to warm up against Chelsea is poor and I don’t want players at my club who don’t want to help the cause. He’s gone to play in Spain on loan – a good season there and maybe we can recoup some of the fee we paid for him.

Redmond hasn’t lived up to his potential since he joined us. He needs to add a lot to his game, he hasn’t scored or assisted enough since he joined. I think he suffered from Puel’s decision to play him through the middle and that has clearly cost him a lot of confidence. I hope he can live up to his potential, as the club obviously have a lot of faith in him.

I saw some of Elyounoussi playing for Basel. I see him as the Tadic/Mane replacement, he scores goals, makes assists and has skill to excite the crowd. I think he will be the exciting talent we hoped Boufal would be.

Saints aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? How do you rate your competitors?

If the World Cup was anything to go by, this year will be great. If Man City can be as good as they were last year they will win the league again. Kevin De Bruyne is bordering perfection on the pitch. Liverpool have to mount a serious title challenge, the world’s most expensive defender, the most expensive goalkeeper, the phenomenal Mohamed Salah. Anything bar top two is a disappointment for them. Unai Emery at Arsenal is intriguing too – will it be the King is dead, long live the King?

Elsewhere I think we could be seeing the decline of Jose Mourinho – he doesn’t seem to be having the same effect at Utd he has had at other clubs and if his recent comments are anything to go by, I don’t think he is enjoying his time there. Spurs have to do something too – Mauricio Pochettino gets the plaudits but this year will be the hardest to get in the top four, they need to have a trophy to show for their excellence. I expect Chelsea will get back to being Chelsea (though it depends if the players like the new manager!).

At the other end of the table, I think Cardiff, Huddersfield, Watford, Brighton, Fulham and Palace will be my tips for the drop. I have a worry about Burnley too if they make it through to the Europa League group stages, that squad does not look big enough for Thursday night/Sunday afternoon football.

Wolves will be fascinating too, they have made some great signings and have cash to boot – an outside for Europe maybe? Ditto West Ham, some good signings, a good manger but a complex that seems to regularly hold them back.

As for the rest, its difficult to say; the money in football is ridiculous, with huge money signings happening everywhere. With no disrespect to them, Everton are buying players with one good year under their belts for £50 mil – that sort of money bought you Zidane once. All the clubs are flexing their cash muscle, but only one team can finish top and three more in the Champions League. Three will have to finish bottom and everyone else will have to sit in mid table mediocrity. It doesn’t matter how much you spend, you can’t all be winners.

I expect our friends down the road (Bournemouth) will have a good season too. Apparently their new left back turned down Bayern to join them. If that doesn’t symbolize the ridiculousness of the Premier League, I don’t know what does.

Where will you finish?

Good question – 12th to 15th. Hopefully higher then Bournemouth!

The Football Lab’s Verdict

If Stuart Armstrong starts well and Mario Lemina adds consistency, Southampton will have a strong midfield, while aerial deficiencies could be corrected by new keeper Angus Gunn and centre-back Jannik Vestergaard. However, enigmatic magician Dusan Tadic has gone and the Saints currently look short of a striker combining Shane Long’s work ethic with Charlie Austin’s goalscoring reliability; although they have looked brighter under Hughes, a lack of firepower could limit progression. 16th