Premier League Preview: Southampton

Another top-half finish, their third in a row. A magical run to the EFL Cup Final, which they were unlucky to lose to Manchester United in a thrilling 3-2 game at Wembley. Another new manager this season, their fourth different boss in five years. Another summer with their best players constantly linked to moves away from St. Mary’s to bigger clubs in England and abroad. This is the story of Southampton, and the Saints hope to write another successful chapter during 2017-18. For a club like Southampton, an eighth-place finish is a very good season, but their supporters were left with a sour taste in their mouths after last year. Why was that? Southampton were downright boring. The Saints were strong defensively, despite losing their main center back, Virgil van Dijk, for the latter half of the season due to injury. But they couldn’t score many goals themselves. Saints’ fans witnessed far too many 0-0 draws last season, and goals, especially at home, were a collector’s item. Can Southampton do better this season? Yes and no. They probably can’t rise any higher than eighth this year, but they can look a lot better doing it under new manager Mauricio Pellegrino.

2016-17 Record & Finish
12-10-16 (W-D-L), 46 points, 8th in the Premier League (finished ahead of Bournemouth on goal difference)
-7 GD (41 GF, 48 GA)

Manager
Mauricio Pellegrino – 1st season with Southampton

Ins and Outs
Jan Bednarek (£5.1 million from Lech Poznan)

Martín Cáceres (free to Lazio)
Lloyd Isgrove (free to Barnsley)
Cuco Martina (free to Everton)
Harrison Reed (on loan to Norwich City)
Jay Rodriguez (£11.65 million to West Brom)

X-factor
Manolo Gabbiadini

Manolo

Gabbiadini arrived on the south coast of England in late January and had a sizzling start to his Southampton career, one that even Gabriel Jesus would envy. The Italian striker bagged six goals in his first four games for Southampton, including both Saints goals (plus another wrongly ruled out for offside) in their EFL Cup defeat in February. But then he got hurt, and he hasn’t scored since. Even so, Gabbiadini’s six goals in 12 Southampton appearances was a great return for the former Napoli player. Now fully fit, can he regain that incredible goal scoring form from February again this season? His career high for goals in a season is 11 (in 30 appearances across all competitions for Napoli in 2014-15). Southampton need him to bag at least this many this year, and they’ve lost some depth up front with Jay Rodriguez (and his six goals) gone to West Brom. If Gabbiadini can be the guy leading the line, with Charlie Austin and Shane Long supporting him, he can help spark a lifeless Saints attack. If Gabbiadini cannot stay healthy or consistent for close to a full season, Southampton’s offense will, once again, find it hard to score goals. You can’t imagine them finishing eighth again if they average barely more than a goal per game this season.

Best Case Scenario
Southampton hold on to their best players this summer. Defenders Virgil van Dijk, Cédric, and Ryan Bertrand have all been drawing interest from England’s big boys, and Saints lose José Fonte to West Ham back in January. There’s not a lot of depth behind Southampton’s current, regular back four, which, in fairness, is really good. The key to sustaining success this year is keeping the gang together at the back. Up front, Gabbiadini stays healthy for a full season, as does Charlie Austin – he led the club with nine goals in just 21 appearances in an injury-riddled 2016-17. Nathan Redmond and Shane Long both score at least a half dozen each, and James Ward-Prowse and Dusan Tadic continue to create and score from their attacking midfield positions. Saints can finish at least as high as eighth, and maybe close in on Everton and the group above them, with a better attack and consistent defending again this season.

Worst Case Scenario
Southampton drop back into the lower half of the Premier League table and lose at least one of their key pieces in defense. It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that van Dijk is on his way to Liverpool (You don’t really want to be wearing the same colors as Adam Lallana, though. Do you?); they’ll be awfully thin at center back if he does leave. If Southampton fail to correct their offensive misadventures, and if they aren’t quite as good defensively, Pellegrino’s inaugural season at St. Mary’s will be a tricky one. Southampton aren’t a club that has historically been a regular participant in the Premier League, but their supporters are starting to expect that now. If they finish 13th or 14th this year, that’s not a good season, but it’s certainly not terrible. But I’d be concerned that it could have a ripple effect: storm clouds spotted on the horizon, the club makes major changes to the personnel, and further struggles continue into the following season. A 14th-place finish would feel like a step back, but there are a handful of teams in the league who, on August 1st, would gladly sign up for a 14th place finish this season. Southampton want to achieve more. Let’s hope that ambition doesn’t come back to haunt them.

vvd

If I were in charge for a day…
If there’s one thing we learned from Claude Puel’s lone season in charge, it’s that his striker by committee approach didn’t work with the players he had. One week, it was Austin and Redmond. The next, it was Long and Rodriguez. And then Austin and Rodriguez. And then when Austin was out but Gabbiadini was fit, the possibilities grew even more. How do you solve that? So glad you asked. I’d play Austin up front, with Gabbiadini either right alongside him or behind him; either way, they can link the play together nicely. Long is a solid option to have coming off the bench. Redmond is more of a natural winger, so I’d give him the left wing and move Tadic to the right wing. Ward-Prowse can be the playmaker in attacking midfield, with Oriol Romeu providing additional coverage as the holding midfielder. Sofiane Boufal, Puel’s prized signing last year, wouldn’t have a place in my team. He seems more interested in attempting complicated tricks and flicks to maneuver past defenders when there’s an easier route to the goal. His production was really poor last year: just one league goal, and two in 29 appearances in all competitions. I’d try to recoup some of the money wasted on him last summer.

Here’s the starting 11 I’d send out to face Swansea in 11 days:

Forster; Cédric, van Dijk, Bednarek, Bertrand; Romeu; Tadic, Ward-Prowse, Redmond; Gabbiadini, Austin

The Saints’ early fixtures are pretty tame, with three of the first four at home. That will be an important stretch of games for Pellegrino to get the home supporters behind him from the get go. Here’s the rundown of Southampton’s opening seven games:

Aug. 12 – vs. Swansea City
Aug. 19 – vs. West Ham
Aug. 26 – at Huddersfield Town
Sept. 9 – vs. Watford
Sept. 16 – at Crystal Palace
Sept. 23 – vs. Manchester United
Sept. 30 – at Stoke City

Tomorrow, we move from the south coast to the northwest of England. The blue side of Merseyside is our location, where Everton have splashed the cash this summer and are looking to make some real noise in 2017-18. But have they done enough?

As always, thanks for reading. Come on you Reds!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s