Having narrowly escaped relegation last season, Southampton will be desperate to avoid such a close shave this year. Will experienced Premier League manager, Mark Hughes, take the Saints back to a comfortable mid-table finish? Or will another relegation dog fight ensue?
Since their return to the top division, Southampton have been consistently in the top half of the table and pushing for Europa League spots. But last season, they stayed up by the skin of their teeth. It took a dramatic, albeit very scrappy, Manolo Gabbiadini goal away at relegation rivals Swansea to secure safety for the Saints, who were very simply, struggling – struggling to score, struggling to defend.
They were given the ‘much too good to go down’ label, which did nothing to create any sense of urgency to get them out of their predicament – the message from the club almost seemed to be the same: “We’ll be fine”.
The board stubbornly persisted with an underqualified manager, Mauricio Pellegrino despite the fact they’d been trigger-happy enough to fire Claude Puel who finished 8th and got the club to a League Cup Final.
However, after Pellegrino’s eventual sacking, Mark Hughes came in to the club he once played for and installed discipline and steel, whilst also adding a spark, not to their style of play necessarily, which was still fairly insipid, but to the mood surrounding the personnel and fans. Thankfully for the supporters of Southampton, it was enough to remain the Premier League.
Manager and preferred tactics:
After struggling with Stoke, Hughes will be determined to put his stamp on the style at St. Mary’s. Saints fans have been blessed with some fantastic football in the last few years – even the football they played in League One and the Championship was pleasant and easy on the eye. However, the last two season have not been entertaining in the slightest – Puel was sacked for boring football despite his statistical success and Pellegrino was simply out of his depth.
Hughes will be charged with bringing attacking football back to St. Mary’s in a similar way to his task at Stoke City when he took over from Tony Pulis. He was successful for several years at Stoke and played attractive football but he wasn’t afraid to mix it up and be more direct. Hughes didn’t stray too far from 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 at any point in his brief spell at the end of last season bar a couple of flirtations with 4-4-2.
Last year, it was Dusan Tadic. Once the managerial change had been made, Tadic was instrumental in Saints’ survival – bagging a vital brace against Bournemouth and influencing each of their run-in games. An extremely notable mentioned goes to Alex McCarthy, whose performances in the second half of the season were the difference between survival and a year in the Championship. Key saves against Bournemouth, Everton and Swansea in the final four games were utterly crucial in ensuring their survival.
This time around, the onus falls on Saints’ attacking players, however. Nathan Redmond has not been good enough to hold a consistent place in the team over the last two years, whilst Shane Long has not scored enough despite being a consistent nuisance, and Manolo Gabbiadini has not built on the promise first shown signing for the club. Charlie Austin has been the South coast side’s most potent goal threat – when he’s been fit. They will all need show Mark Hughes just how capable they truly are.
The Saints have been busy this summer – and not because of outgoings this season. Dusan Tadic has departed for Ajax; however, in truth, until the last two months of the season, he was another inconsistent performer. Soufiane Boufal who promised much, according to Claude Puel, has been shipped out on loan to Celta Vigo and there won’t be too many Saints fans bemoaning that bit of business.
In terms of incomings, Southampton have been shrewd and filled obvious gaps that required filling – Jannik Vestergaard has been brought in from Borussia Mönchengladbach. The 6ft6in centre half is a Denmark international and was highly sought after – he should add competition to a now healthy set of centre halves.
Stuart Armstrong has been brought in from Celtic, who have been a fruitful feeder of players, since Southampton signed both Victor Wanyama and Virgil van Dijk from the Bhoys.
The wildcard, perhaps, is the Moroccan-born Norwegian, Mohamed Elyounoussi. Signed from Swiss club FC Basel, the 23-year-old provides an exciting replacement for Tadic in the Saints frontline.He contributed an impressive 13 goals and 17 assists last season, marking himself out as one of Europe’s brightest young talents.
Completing Hughes’ incoming quartet is Angus Gunn – the goalkeeper provides competition for Alex McCarthy, who last season ousted first-choice Fraser Forster – whose form and confidence was never quite re-found following his long injury lay-off. Gunn joins from Manchester City and will no doubt have been swayed by the presence of goalkeeper coach, Dave Watson who has been part of the England set-up since 2012.
The expectation is that they will show more commitment and perform far more consistently than last season, but in doing so, Saints’ fans will want to see a more attack-minded style of football.
Hughes will need to make sure that the Saints can entertain because to simply be solid and difficult to beat will not be enough for a set of supporters whose expectations have been raised by Mauricio Pocchetino and Ronald Koeman. Puel and Pellegrino failed to live up to these high standards but Hughes seems to have his team disciplined and passionate again, which isn’t a bad first step. A reasonable expectation for Southampton this season is to finish back in the top half of the Premier League again.