You can practically see the tumbleweeds flying around St. Mary’s as Southampton prepare to count the costs of what I shall refer to as The Great Sale of 2014. The aforementioned sale has seen the departure of the manager arguably responsible for Southampton’s impressive rise, Mauricio Pochettino, as well as five key players (and one not-so-key one), and incoming manager Ronald Koeman is left with the unenviable task of repairing a side that have pretty much had their spine ripped out.
One saving grace for Koeman is that Southampton are a side who have arguably overachieved over the last two seasons, coaxing wonderful examples of team chemistry and skill from players that have cost them next to nothing, so there shouldn’t be too much pressure on him if the repair job doesn’t immediately reap rewards. The other saving grace should be the massive pile of cash the club are now sitting on, having taken in around £100m from this summer’s player exodus.
All in all, it’s a time of great change for the Saints. The Southampton that will take the field on opening day will be a radically different side that has won hearts for the last two years, and well, it’s my job to predict how they’ll do. Not particularly easy.
An overachieving club will usually see their star players coveted by others, but the ferocity with which Southampton’s players were picked up mirrors behaviour seen only at Boxing Day sales. Nevertheless, the team’s stellar performances over the last few years, building upon a solid lower-table finish to finish in 8th last season, saw the departures of Luke Shaw to Manchester United, Calum Chambers to Arsenal, and the trio of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert to Liverpool. It’s worth pointing out that in the Merseyside club’s attempts to become Southampton v2.0, the club have reportedly also enquired about Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez, but The Great Sale has apparently concluded.
In have come a list of names which go some way towards stabilising the team; a goal that should be Southampton’s first one this season. Koeman has decided to shop in his native land to bring in Dušan Tadić and Graziano Pellè from Twente and Feyenoord respectively, with the latter in particular coming to England with a reputation as a stellar goalscorer – 23 in 28 games is quite impressive. However, history teaches us that just because you can put the ball into the net in Holland, it doesn’t mean you can do the same in England; for every Luis Suarez and Ruud van Nistelrooy, there’s a Mateja Kezman and Afonso Alves. Regardless, the pair will be expected to spearhead Southampton’s assault for goals this season. Saphir Taider, an Algerian international central midfielder, has also joined on loan from Inter Milan; an odd choice, considering Southampton’s wide range of players in the middle of the park. Finally, Southampton have followed the home-grown approach that has contributed towards making them so likeable, by bringing in some English talent. Celtic’s Fraser Forster will now be able to give a live demonstration to those that believe that his exploits in the SPL do not make him worthy of the England national team that just finished bottom of their World Cup group, while Champions League winner Ryan Bertrand has joined on loan from Chelsea.
It’s worth mentioning that last year’s star signing, Dani Osvaldo, went on loan to Inter in exchange for Taider. Southampton have proved themselves to be a club that knows how to nurture talent rather than identify existing talent, and the unsuccessful signings of Osvaldo, Gaston Ramirez, and to an extent Victor Wanyama, mean that Southampton’s approach of avoiding big signings this year could pay dividends.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
As mentioned above, Graziano Pellè comes with a strong reputation and will be expected to hit the ground running. At 29 years old, Pellè is in the middle of his peak years, so if there was ever a time for the Italian to hit form from the get go, it is now. Other than Pellè, you’re really looking at the survivors of The Great Sale to prove their professionalism and help Southampton’s attempts to replicate their success of last year. Morgan Schneiderlin, in particular, will need to get on with things after a very public show of unhappiness at not being allowed to join Pochettino at Spurs. Similarly, Jay Rodriguez, who has also been linked to a move to White Hart Lane, will need to get his head down and score goals for the team; in the quite plausible event that Pellè and Tadić don’t adapt to life at the club right away, Rodriguez will need to keep the goals coming. Finally, this could be a big season for young midfielder James Ward-Prowse, a technically impressive player that has already excited Southampton fans this year with an incredible free kick for the England U-20 team. 2014/15 could be a big year for the English starlet, who the club will look towards to improve in the way his now departed colleagues did over the last few years.
Replicating their 8th place finish from last year will be very difficult. Last year’s Southampton was a well-oiled unit; a complete package of the philosophy of their manager combined with the ethos of their club, added to a crop of fundamentally trained players. No team would find such an exodus easy to recover from, especially when the manager’s now gone too. With that in mind, I can’t see Southampton finishing in the top half of the table. There appear to be some really poor teams in the league this year, so I expect Southampton to be able to steer clear of the relegation zone before preparing to build to a better finish next year.