Southampton: Too good to go down? Too bad to stay up?
Will Mark Hughes get the best out of a consistently inconsistent Southampton side this year or will it be another long hard season for Saints fans?
Dare we say it but the signs look ominous for Southampton early on this season.
A drab goalless draw at home to Burnley on the opening weekend struggled to capture the imagination of even the most optimistic of fans.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Saints’ most recent defeat to Everton showed signs of promise but still ended in defeat.
Southampton avoided relegation by three points last season and the early signals suggest that they will be in another relegation scrap come next May.
But it is hard to read this side. Their squad seem too good to be involved in a relegation battle. But there are factors about the side that suggest they aren’t good enough to survive in the Premier League.
Where are the goals coming from?
The biggest concern for Mark Hughes will be where the goals will come from. Last term, Southampton failed to score in 15 of the 38 matches, highlighting a toothlessness in attack.
Since the 2016/17 season, Charlie Austin has been the Saints leading scorer with 13 league goals. However, he has only played in 41 matches from a possible 78 in that time.
Southampton need their best striker to be playing if they are to have any hope of improving their goalscoring record.
The loan signing of Danny Ings from Liverpool is a gamble given the former Burnley striker managed just 691 minutes in the league last season. If he can recover the form that encouraged Liverpool to sign him, then Austin and Ings could form a deadly partnership.
Aside from those two, it is hard to see where else Southampton will get goals from, Shane Long’s struggles in front of goal have been well documented, mustering just five over the last two seasons.
Manolo Gabbiadini started his Premier League career brightly but his form has fallen away with just five goals in 28 games last year.
Nathan Redmond has shown glimpses of magic but contributed only one league goal in 2017/18 whilst chief creators Dusan Tadic and Sofiane Boufal have departed the club. Tadic was also the Saints second top scorer with six last season and his contributions from wide positions will be missed.
Summer signing Mohamed Elyounoussi could be a potential scorer as he showed an eye for goal at Basel last year racking up 13 goals from out wide including one in the Champions League against Manchester City.
Have they improved this summer?
Another question for manager Hughes is the transfer activity. Southampton made four permanent signings as well as the loan of Ings. However, it remains to be seen whether these players improve the first team.
The addition of 22-year-old goalkeeper Angus Gunn looks to be a good signing as he showed a lot of promise keeping 15 clean sheets for Norwich in the Championship last season. It looks to be a battle for the number one spot at St Mary’s this season with last seasons Player of the Year Alex McCarthy starting the season strongly and England international Fraser Forster waiting in the wings.
Stuart Armstrong from Celtic looks to be another player who will add depth to the squad and push for a starting place although Oriol Romeu and Mario Lemina look set to claim the starting berths in the centre of midfield.
The signing of 6’6″ centre half Jannik Vestergaard from Monchengladbach appears to be the only addition who looks set for a starting place as he helped the Saints to a clean sheet against Burnley in their opening fixture. The giant Dane kept seven clean sheets in the Bundesliga as well as adding three goals and looks to be an astute bit of business by Hughes.
Can they get more out of their existing players?
Away from the new signings, Southampton need to get the best out of the players they already have. There are players of real pedigree in their squad that should not be challenging down the wrong end of the table.
Dutch centre back Wesley Hoedt struggled at times last season, making two errors leading to goals. It seems he will battle Jack Stephens for a starting spot.
Cedric and Ryan Bertrand are the obvious choices at full back where there is little competition for places, any injury to either full back and it could leave the Saints in real trouble.
There are positives though: Cedric has a European Championship medal to his name and Bertrand a Champions League medal. Both are experienced Premier League full backs and need to step up to help push Southampton back in to mid-table.
Gabbiadini, the mercurial Italian, needs to find his form again and ease the striker woes that have hit Southampton over the last two seasons.
Former Juventus midfielder Lemina was a bright spot in a poor season for the Saints after his arrival from Italy last August. Last season’s Player of the Season, Oriol Romeu, is a consistent performer alongside Lemina in midfield without pulling up any trees and club captain Steven Davis is always reliable.
Southampton clearly have plenty of good players but the jury remains out as to whether they can get back to being a strong mid-table Premier League side.
Last year they struggled mightily. It will be interesting to see whether Mark Hughes can steer the Saints back to being a threat to the top six.
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