Relative to their size as a club and their spending power, you could argue that no team over the last three seasons have achieved as much as Southampton. They’ve constantly finished in 6th-8th place, and will be playing European football once again this season. They’ve survived consistently selling some of their best players to bigger clubs. They’ve even had multiple managerial changes and this season is no exception with the appointment of Claude Puel for the departing Ronald Koeman. In some ways they now resemble Everton back in the David Moyes days where they regulalry chop and change their squad but always finish 2 to 4 spots higher than perhaps their wage bill and revenue would suggest.
Last season was another fine season for Southampton as they finished in their highest table position in the Premier League era. The football was perhaps more pragmatic than earlier iterations with an added emphasis of long crosses but a 6th place showing made up for the drop in aesthetics. However, there is an argument to be made that of the past three seasons, the 2015-16 version were possibly the most underwhelming.
All of this is a matter of degrees, as Southampton were still above average across a number of fronts. The Mauricio Pochettino version of Southampton were undone by horrible goalkeeping that saw them eventually peter out towards mid-table despite playing very attractive and productive football. Koeman’s first season were by the beginning of February in 4th place and then went into shot conversion hell. Between the months of February and March, Southampton only scored 5 goals and had a conversion rate of 3% over 132 shots and eventually ended up with another 8th place finish. History won’t remember too much of 2014-15 Southampton, but they were probably the fourth best team in the league that season.
The New Manager
I’ve watched Ligue 1 pretty extensively for only the last two seasons so I’m in no way capable of telling you what happened with Claude Puel in Lyon and why they were a failure domestically or his earlier years at Lille and Monaco. His reputation with Nice especially last season was playing attractive possession based football and leaning on younger players. Their entire midfield three that they played were 25 or younger, with Alassane Plea and Ricardo Pereira only 22 and Valere Germain 25. Puel is the guy who’s been credited with turning Hatem Ben Arfa’s career around, and he’s just the type of coach to put his faith in the famous Southampton academy that seems to churn out quality players with some regularity.
As fun as Nice were last season–and they were generally aesthetically pleasing to watch–I still have my reservations about just how good a team they were. They benefited from Marseille collapsing in a fashion that was even impressive by their lofty standards, Saint Etienne being even more sub-par than their usual selves and the league overall having a down year beyond PSG. They also benefited from a sky high conversion rate to begin the season even if it’s acknowledged that they were a side who more so prioritized good shot selection over pure volume.
The other thing with Puel is that over preseason, he’s taken the 4-2-3-1 setup that’s mostly been Southampton’s starting point previously to the woodshed, replacing it with the 4-3-1-2/4-1-2-1-2 structure that brought Nice all their success. Formations resembling a diamond haven’t really been used much over the years in England. Sure we can name specific instances: Swansea on occasion, Liverpool’s supernova 13-14 season had them play a diamond, LVG experimented with it in his first season and the famous 2009-10 Chelsea as well. But via @stats4footy, from 2013-15 only Spain have played it less:
Will Puel’s version succeed in England? Time will tell on that. His acquisitions over the summer and some of the remaining parts fit into his framework: they already have a proven creator to play the role that Ben Arfa thrived in, a young midfielder with the talents to play different roles within the midfield, fullbacks who can provide the width necessary and a winger who could possibly be a striker in disguise.
Tell me if you’ve heard this before, but Southampton had another summer consisting of selling their stars at really high prices. Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle and Victor Wanyama were sold for the region of £56M which is really good business. Wanyama had one year left on his contract and the odds of him extending were probably not great, especially considering he was keen to leave last summer. Southampton made a profit on Pelle despite him also having one year left on his deal and being over 30. Mane at 24 is coming into his best years and has been a good player in the league. His profile fits with what Jurgen Klopp wanted, but £36M for him is a very decent fee even though he had a very fine season.
Coming in, Nathan Redmond at only £11M is a fine gamble. On a very poor Norwich side, he managed to probably be their only bright spot in attack. Courtesy of Footy in the Clouds‘ website that tracks how players contribute to a team’s attack while 11v11, he contributed just over 33% of his teams shots which ranked in the top 30 among players who played at least 1000 minutes last season. Also intriguing with Redmond is how Puel sees him much more as a second striker, which might conjure up similar memories of what he did with Alassane Plea last season and some of the success that came from it. Was Redmond the best player on a poor team who doesn’t get much better with improved talent? Or is he a genuine player who’ll show much more of his potential now that he’s no longer stuck in Norwich purgatory? No one knows the answer yet but at that price, it’s definitely worth a shot even though he’s got a way to go before replicating Mane’s production:
Similar sentiments could be said about Southampton’s other big signing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, once a favorite of Pep Guardiola. Southampton have lost defensive midfielders over the past two summers and Hojbjerg from all accounts profiles decently as one with added playmaking and box-to-box potential. A full time role as a potential key cog in the system could be the perfect way to show his capabilities as a player, and put his lackluster campaign at Schalke behind him and at 21 he has plenty of time still to progress. Jeremy Pied is basically added insurance in the fullback and even midfield position.
Overall it’s been another summer of Southampton selling high and buying low with the added potential of high resale value in the near future. Redmond has work to do to realise his potential but is worth gambling on, Hojbjerg fits a need with also a potentially high ceiling while Pied helps with squad depth. If the two gambles pay off, Southampton could find themselves with good players and more options to trade moving forward.
One could make the argument that this could be the weakest version of Southampton over the past 3-4 years and that it has the makings of a transitional season with a bigger emphasis spent on the summer of 2017. With the departures of Mane and Pelle, goal scoring and shot generating could be an issue in a league that values it more than France. Their manager while having a solid enough pedigree in Ligue 1 is an unknown in England, their two prized acquisitions have high ceilings but have to realise potential. Having to navigate European football with their domestic campaign could be a problem too. At some point we’re going to see Southampton relatively struggle one of these summers with their player trading and occupy a more pedestrian spot in the Premier League food chain, even with the acknowledgement that they’re a club who’s generally run better than most. Is this the year that it happens?
The one good thing that could come from this season for Southampton fans is that Dusan Tadic could possibly be unleashed in a way that we haven’t seen from him since his first few months at the club and his days in the Eredivisie. At the age of 27, he’s right in the peak of his powers and how high up Southampton finish this season will be driven by how he performs as the probable main creative hub in the diamond. Despite not always being in Koeman’s good graces, he managed a 0.71 NPG + A rate last season and created a number of high quality chances that stacked up favorably to some of his peers:
All things being equal this season, Southampton are competing in a group alongside West Ham/Leicester/Stoke/Everton for “Best of the Rest” honors. If things go their way, it’s entirely reasonable that they finish as the best of the five. It’s also possible that the Europa League, for good or bad, drains them enough that they finish the worst off. The bookies have their over/under is 50.5 points, which is low on the surface considering previous seasons, but if things go wrong it could be where they end up. The football media will likely write them off for their constant retooling, but with consistency across different managers and a system that has so far absorbed change effectively, Southampton perhaps deserve the benefit of the doubt.
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