Southampton: 2018/19 Premier League Preview
After dangerously flirting with the Premier League trapdoor last time out, have Southampton learned their lesson?
Action Images via Reuters/Craig Brough
It was a nervy season on the south coast. Until the final couple of weeks of the season, it looked as though the Saints would return to the Championship for the first time since the 2011/12 campaign.
Over the past few seasons, Southampton have developed an undesirable habit of continuously selling their star players without properly replacing them, and it looked as though last season would see this practice finally catch up with them.
After surviving relegation by a mere three points, actions this summer needed to answer several questions — but have the club found the solutions in time?
2017/18 Season Review
Southampton’s insistence of selling their prized assets without properly replacing them has been going on for some time, but it looked as though the poorly handled transfer policy would cost them a seat at England’s top table.
Last season couldn’t have ended quick enough for Southampton fans. They spent only six weeks in the top half of the table throughout the entire season, but a dismal run from the beginning of December until the end of January saw them go winless in 12 matches and slip into the bottom three, resulting in Mauricio Pellegrino’s departure.
Having spent ten weeks of the season in the relegation zone, the future was looking bleak at St Mary’s. A critical win, though, over fellow drop zone rivals Swansea City in their penultimate fixture saw Saints climb to safety by the skin of their teeth.
A long run in the FA Cup lifted spirits among Southampton fans as they visited Wembley to face Chelsea at the semi-final stage, though the Blues were victorious, eventually winning the competition.
Southampton’s transfer policy has come under heavy fire from fans in recent seasons and have been dubbed a ‘selling club’ by many.
Last season provided a strong wake-up call for the club — the luck had run out and the squad had to have quality added to it. Failure to act over the summer could have been disastrous for the club going into the new campaign.
Fee: £22.5 million
After finally losing their grip on Virgil van Dijk at the centre of the defence, the Southampton back four became evidently weaker.
Saints conceded 56 goals last time out, which was as many as rock-bottom West Brom and Swansea City. Losing van Dijk left a gaping hole that needed filling over the summer, which boss Mark Hughes will hope Jannik Vestergaard can do.
The six-foot-four centre half played over 60 matches, scoring seven times for Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach and brings European experience to a frail backline.
Fee: £16.2 million
Elyounoussi will add a different dimension to an area of the pitch that Southampton have been lacking in recent seasons.
The likes of Sofiane Boufal and Nathan Redmond have struggled for consistency and with Dusan Tadic departing the club, Elyounoussi will give Mark Hughes a much-needed extra option in wider areas.
The Norwegian international arrives off the back of a strong campaign in the Swiss league with FC Basel — in which he notched 16 goal — and brings Champions League experience to a side in needed of attacking potency.
Fee: £10.1 million
Out-of-favour Fraser Forster and regular stand-in Alex McCarthy now face stiff competition for the number one shirt at St Mary’s.
Angus Gunn’s long-term future at Manchester City had been in doubt for some time, with a variety of clubs eager to gain his services this summer. Gunn eventually put pen-to-paper on a deal on the south coast and he will provide Hughes with a selection headache in goal.
After a string of poor performances, Forster lost his starting spot to McCarthy who finished the season as Hughes’ preferred option in the relegation dogfight.
Stuart Armstrong also arrived from Scottish Premier League champions, Celtic, in a deal worth just over £7 million, while Jordy Clasie and Florin Gardos returned to the club following season-long loan spells at Club Brugge and Romanian side Craiova, respectively.
Southampton fans dread the transfer season. Having seen so many of their more senior players depart for pastures new in many a window gone by, the question of ‘who will it be next?’ is always on fans’ minds.
The recruitment at St Mary’s hasn’t proven to be hugely effective in recent campaigns and a ‘clear out’ was needed.
Boufal has failed to live up to expectations since arriving at the club and has headed out on loan to La Liga side Celta Vigo for the campaign. Guido Carrillo joins him on loan in Spain as the centre forward links up with CD Leganes.
Clasie will go straight back out on loan — this time to Dutch side Feyenoord — while the club have released other recent returnee, Gardos, on a free transfer.
Tadic is the only sale so far in the window. The attacking midfielder moved to Eredivisie side Ajax for just over £10 million.
Hughes took over the reigns with the club in a perilous position, a dangerous 18th-place. He didn’t have much time to get to know his players, implement his own style and turn things around, but Southampton’s survival ensured that Hughes had a full summer to work with a group of players that will still be relatively new to him.
In the final knockings of last season, Hughes tried to re-invigorate his team with an attacking impetus while trying to tighten things up defensively. Under Pellegrino, Southampton’s negative style invited lots of opposition pressure and they managed only six clean sheets all campaign.
Hughes’ first three matches saw his side concede nine goals, though they turned it around just in time to ship only three in their last five.
Vestergaard may give Mark Hughes more than just an extra defensive option. The centre half can now give his new manager the option to change the shape of the team.
Hughes can now play his new defender alongside the likes of Maya Yoshida and Wesley Hoedt, giving Ryan Bertrand and Cedric more of a licence to push forward and join attacks.
Redmond and Elyounoussi can flank either Charlie Austin or Manolo Gabbiadini as attacking wingers and will have the extra support and cover of the wingbacks playing further up the pitch.
Armstrong can also provide a different option for Hughes which could allow him to deploy the more conventional 4-2-3-1 formation. A healthy crop of players able to play across the midfield areas will allow for lots of interchanging between the midfield three.
The Key Question: Can Southampton learn from their mistakes?
Last season was the closest Saints have come to returning to the Championship since their promotion back in 2012.
Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, van Dijk, Graziano Pelle, Victor Wanyama, Nathaniel Clyne… the list goes on. Southampton have allowed far too many of their star players to join other clubs — financially driven or not, it’s not a sustainable practice.
Money has been reinvested poorly, and the recruitment policy has rightfully been scrutinised in recent seasons. Having come so close to relegation last time out, the Southampton board must now know the cycle must break.
The acquisition of Vestergaard will bolster the defence and his experience in European competition will benefit those around him. Southampton, though, can struggle at the other end of the pitch, so the lack of striker recruitment is surprising.
England’s top division gets more competitive each year, and Southampton must be able to keep up with the pack — lucky escapes seldom happen twice.
Last season was the first time since 2012/13 that Southampton have failed to finish inside the top eight. The talent in the side was clear to see, but more so were the gaps that those star players have left following their respective departures.
Fans can hope that Hughes’ full pre-season with the team will be effective and that their side can return to the top half of the division right away.
There is a distinct possibility the club have completely ignored the warning signs of last season and that they will once again flounder in the league’s lower reaches.
Hughes may struggle to rediscover the turn of form that kept his side up in the dying embers of the last campaign and Southampton will once again face a relegation fight.
After losing van Dijk midway through last season, the confidence and belief in the defensive side to Southampton’s game drained. The recruitment of Vestergaard, though, will breathe a new, fresh lease of life into a stale defence.
Tadic’s exit would have rung alarm bells in windows gone by, though the club have filled the hole this time around. Elyounoussi may take time to adapt to English football, but at least measures have been taken to plug gaps.
The lack of a prolific goalscorer is surprising considering seven goals were enough to top the team’s scoring charts last season. Creativity has also been an issue of late, though Armstrong could slot into a variety of midfield roles.
Southampton need to focus on steadying a wobbly ship this season, but the signs are encouraging. Nonetheless, they’ll do well to finish in the top ten. 12th-14th for the Saints.
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