Southampton FC head into the 2019/20 Premier League season with newfound confidence after their resurgence under Ralph Hasenhuttl, with a productive preseason to bolster that confidence.
Preseason matches should never act as precursors to the season ahead due to the irrelevance of the games, however Hasenhuttl will feel that the four wins and one draw picked up over the course of the summer is enough to make a statement on his intentions for the season ahead.
The Austrian currently has a 32%-win percentage as Southampton manager and considering the mess that he was left with by previous manager Mark Hughes (18% win percentage), it is a very credible achievement, especially as he took over the club mid-way through the season. Surely the Austrian will only build on the foundations set by himself and will bring Southampton back to the free-flowing football which brought them two top-eight finishes in the Premier League in consecutive years (2014/15 and 2015/16).
The summer has been a busy one for Hasenhuttl, bringing in two new faces, whilst old faces have arrived back. Che Adams, Moussa Djenepo and Danny Ings have all signed permanent contracts this summer combining to a fee of around £50m – evident attacking intent from the Austrian.
Sofiane Boufal, Cedric Soares and Wesley Hoedt are among the returned loanees who will be pushing for a place in the starting XI. Wesley Hoedt, who received awful abuse during Mark Hughes’ reign as manager, has been one of the most solid in pre-season, looking good paired with Jannik Vestergaard – the competition will give Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens a place to fight for in the Saints line-up.
Hasenhuttl has been criticised this summer for not bringing in another centre-half which contradicts the “in Ralph we trust” slogans being chanted at Saints games. Considering the difference Hasenhuttl was able to make in the space of a few weeks at Southampton, it may be strongly within the Saints’ fans best interests to let Ralph do what Ralph thinks is best.
A transfer window for Southampton in recent years has often been one of extradition, however this summer has been slightly different. The departures of Sam Gallagher and Matt Targett are ones purely for their personal progression – the two 23-year olds need game time if they are to improve, which Hasenhuttl simply was not going to give to them.
A combined £18m for the pair realistically is a very good deal from Southampton’s perspective. Southampton fans also feel that some players should have left after their evident poor attitudes over the summer; Charlie Austin and Mario Lemina being at the forefront of these speculations. The midfielders and forwards in the squad are more than enough to keep these two out of the starting XI and even the matchday squad. Keeping them at the club may be a statement by Hasenhuttl that he is in charge and poor attitudes will not be tolerated anywhere. The progression between these players and the manager across the season will be an interesting one to follow.
Last season, Hasenhuttl implied an effective 3-4-1-2 system which allowed for fluidity within the side. However, during preseason he has been seen to be using a 4-2-2-2 formation, previously implicated at his former club RB Leipzig – a formation which saw Leipzig climb to 2nd in the Bundesliga. Suggesting Southampton will finish second in the Premier League would be far-fetched, to say the least, however it is safe to assume a finish higher than 16th/17th will be obtained, bettering their previous two seasons.
Breaking into the top half of the Premier League may be a challenge though – the strength of Wolves, Leicester and Everton outside the top six is a very hard group to break in to. However, there was very little between them in the “best of the rest” pack last campaign – a goal that Hasenhuttl should definitely have his eyes on.
Southampton’s young talents have always been ones to keep your eye on and this year I believe there will be two stand out players breaking through into the first XI. Yan Valery the first, the 20-year-old Frenchman showed his immense ability and class towards the end of last season under Hasenhuttl, being allowed to bomb up to join the attack, whilst defending with grace when necessary. His composure on and off the ball will surely capture the eyes of the top sides within the years to come.
The other stand out youngster is 19-year-old Irishman, Michael Obafemi. His season was cut short with a multitude of hamstring injuries last year – disappointing considering he really impressed with his pace and direct attacking play. According to Saints FC physiotherapists, his injuries were due to the way he trains in the gym, his stocky figure is obviously the product of hard work, however with the right guidance, I believe he has the potential to shine in the Premier League.
An exciting season awaits for Southampton fans, something that they haven’t necessarily had for the last four years. Burnley away and Liverpool at home are their first two games of the season, neither of them being a walk in the park.
However, Saints can go into these games with a swagger and confidence after beating teams such as Arsenal and Tottenham towards the end of last season. Southampton will feel like they no longer have anyone to fear and providing they perform against the lesser teams in the league, they have huge potential to do well in the 2019/2020 season.