After a successful and busy return to the Premier League for Southampton, there is a general consensus that in the coming season, not much more will be expected of them than avoiding relegation. And I agree. Well, sort of.
In their first season back, Southampton stunned football fans (mostly Liverpool fans) by beating the Merseyside club to the coveted signature of Gastón Ramirez. While the Uruguayan has not yet lived up to his billing, the squad is being built around him. There was also a change of manager, with the conservative Nigel Adkins being replaced by an Argentine with a bit of Spanish flair, Mauricio Pochettino. The season was a success, but what lies ahead and how can Southampton continue to progress?
The signing of Victor Wanyama was, in most people’s eyes, a coup. A strong central midfielder that has been ferociously linked with clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and (yet again losing out) Liverpool, this signing was not expected by a club like Southampton. This signing also makes complete sense for Southampton, especially looking at the style of football Pochettino wants to play. Lining up mainly in a 4-3-3, Pochettino promotes a strong pressing game while being sensible in possession. The system is fluid, disciplined and based on a strong defence and counter-attacking. When opposition is dispossessed, an attack is launched, with passes and diagonal runs cutting open defences. It also requires three midfielders. Currently, Southampton boasts a formidable-ish group of players – Schneiderlin, Cork, Ramirez, Lallana, Davies, Wanyama and youngster James Ward-Prowse. Ramirez and Lallana will be expected to play a more attacking, creative game; it will be interesting to see if Pochettino opts to play either of them wide, just to facilitate two defensive midfielders, i.e. both Schneiderlin and Wanyama.
In defence, Southampton may be lacking some bite. With Nathaniel Clyne and exciting youngster Luke Shaw in the full-back positions, Pochettino may well exploit teams on the flanks. The problem, however, is in the middle of defence. With Yoshida, Hooiveld and Fonte the only CBs of note, Dejan Lovren has been brought in, despite several clubs looking to sign the centre-back (ouch, Liverpool… again). Lovren may have a poor on-field record regarding discipline, with three red cards in 18 league starts for Lyon – something that doesn’t bode well for Saints supporters, but only time will tell. The team is also short on reliable ‘keepers, with Artur Boruc being the obvious choice for the number one spot. Gazzaniga and Davis, the back-up ‘keepers, may well prove me wrong, but I’m not convinced.
In attack, Southampton have options and goals can be expected. Rickie Lambert’s name stands out immediately, with the Englishman having an excellent debut PL season, reaching double figures. Almost in Lambert’s shadow, is the still young Jay Rodriguez, who also looked quite good last season. Both are natural goal-scorers who are good in the air and in the box; teams will have to be wary of the threat these two pose.
If the club is to have a successful season, some players will have to produce. Here are four players who I believe will play an essential role to any successes the team have in the upcoming league campaign:
A man who mainly burdens the goal-scoring threat for Southampton, Rickie Lambert can be described as your typical target man. Strong in the air and on the ball, good finisher in the box and also a threat from a set piece. Having played in all the games for the Saints last season, it’s easy to see why Lambert is so important to the team. 15 goals and 5 assists, with an average of 2.5 shots and 2.1 key passes per game, Lambert is truly the spearhead of the Southampton attack.
Morgan Schneiderlin is a defensive midfielder who breaks up play, acts as a ‘guard’ for the back four and starts attacks from the back – and falls into the ‘underrated players’ category in the Premier League. Having started 36 matches last season, Schneiderlin boasts quite the record; five goals, with a 85.2% passing accuracy and averages of 4.1 tackles and 3.9 interceptions per game. Even better, he boasts an average of 2.9 accurate long balls per game, making him an important part of any counter attack.
One of the hottest prospects in world football a mere year ago, much had been expected from Gastón Ramirez – and many were left disappointed after his debut season. A 78.5% passing accuracy, five goals and only three assists while starting 20 games all season is not what is to be expected of a club-record signing. He may not have settled quickly, but the season ahead is important for both player and club – and much will be expected from the talented Uruguayan. If Gastón can step up to the plate, this may yet be a season to remember for the Saints.
At only the tender age of 18, Luke Shaw is already an integral part of this team. Having started 22 games last season, coupled with three sub appearances, the youngster boasts averages of two tackles and interceptions, and 3.6 clearances per game; no mean feat if you consider his age. While having obvious weaknesses, i.e. his passing and holding too long onto the ball, he is still young and has a lot to learn. That said, from the evidence shown so far, Shaw will be an outstanding player in a few years, and one hopes he is sensible when making decisions regarding his future.
Southampton may not have the strongest squad in the league, but with a tactically sound coach this team my well surprise most people. Much will depend on injuries, a few players’ form and if Pochettino and Nicola Cortese (chairman) can bring in another player or two. The optimist in me wants this team to do well in the upcoming season, and will almost go as far as claiming ‘a top 10 finish is possible.’ And by top 10, I mean tenth – at most. But, realistically, the newly promoted teams look like the teams most in danger. Southampton, as a club, will have to look realistically at the campaign, with avoiding relegation in mind. That said, a higher finish than 17th is well within their grasp. Southampton, I believe, will do well to finish around 15th; anything higher than that will be an absolutely amazing season for the club and their supporters.
This is, after all, a consolidating season for the Saints.
PREDICTED FINISH: 15th