There are numerous subplots going into 2017-18 for Southampton: the club trying to bring back the swashbuckling attacking football that the fans have yearned for, could Nathan Redmond takes the leap and becomes one of the best wide players in the league, potentially having a better answer as to just how good James Ward-Prowse actually is. Also hidden in the Saints summer is them breaking their transfer fee record for former Juventus midfielder Mario Lemina, who arguably has the potential to be the most electrifying midfielder the club has had while in the Premier League.
All of those stories pale in comparison to the Virgil Van Dijk saga that’s hovered over the club since Liverpool allegedly tapped him up. With a transfer request handed in, the player clearly wants to leave. But after multiple summers of Liverpool snatching up Southampton players (and compensating them quite handsomely in the process), the club is finally stomping their foot on the ground and saying “No Más”. They probably also feel emboldened to do this since Van Dijk’s contract doesn’t end until 2022, and the craziness of the market might dictate they could get the same astronomical fee in the summer of 2018.
However, with that situation in limbo the knock on effect is that the standoff between the club and player could have massive consequences on what could be a big bounce back season.
I kind of feel bad for Claude Puel. While I don’t think Southampton were great last year and had genuine problems in consistently creating quality chances, he also got the wrong end of the stick when it came to conversion luck. Only 7 PL teams since 2009 had a worse conversion rate in attack than Southampton’s 23.3 percent, and their save rate of 62.2% is the 11th worse in the same time span. The fact that they finished 8th is something of a minor miracle considering the handcuffs they had on, a testament to how solid they were when it came to shot volume on both sides of the pitch.
It’s clear that part of the reason he was sacked was because the fans weren’t happy with the lack of fun that involved watching them on a regular basis. I think the complaint itself isn’t unreasonable, whether he should’ve been sacked for that is another question. What is to wonder is whether or not the hierarchy at the club thought that this team would’ve had another season of converting shots at a poor rate under Puel. I’m skeptical of that being the case considering he coached a Nice team in 2015-16 that overachieved because of variance. Southampton got some of the worst luck we’ve seen from a PL side, but even then it’s also fair to suggest that the process the club undertook wasn’t without its faults.
In his place is Mauricio Pellegrino, a guy whose name is a delightful hybrid between Mauricio Pochettino and Manuel Pellegrini. Fans will be hoping that his managerial chops are of the same category as those two, and his work at Alaves dictates that he might be up to the challenge. With a shoestring budget, he led Alaves to a commendable 9th place finish in La Liga with both goal and expected goal differential mirroring each other.
What’s intriguing here is the difference in shot quality in both directions. Southampton focused more so on beating the opposition by volume, while Alaves focused on shooting from the central zones and forcing opponents to take low quality opportunities. It’s fair to wonder whether Pellegrino could merge the two worlds in a way that Puel never really came close to doing. The attack will be doing it with basically the same squad as last season and one which is featuring some wayward shooters (Redmond/Boufal). But if he manages to register an attack that maybe goes from 14 shots per game to ~13 while upping the average quality in open play to around 12%, he’d be improving the process and probably helping the club to a greater goal tally than the 41 obtained last season.
I probably would’ve given Puel one more crack and banked on things evening out, but Pellegrino seems like a very reasonable hire. He did an admirable job at Alaves with a small amount of resources, and he seems to be a fit for the club’s ethos of giving young players a chance to become regular first team members. Southampton have more or less done well with their last three managerial hires, and they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt to #TrustTheProcess.
One of the things I hypothesized as to the problems Southampton had with shot quality going forward is that starting Oriel Romeu and Steven Davis made it hard to create any form of dynamism. Combine that with centerbacks who weren’t renowned for breaking defensive lines with their passing and it just put a massive strain on the front end talent to compensate for it, and the talent up top wasn’t quite good enough to do so.
And that’s why I love Southampton getting Mario Lemina for £18M. He’s exactly the type of spark that the club has been needing from the deeper position. I loved watching Lemina at Marseille during the 2014-15 season when at times he was tasked with manning an entire midfield with their insane pressing and man-marking scheme, and he hasn’t deviated too much as a player since leaving the Stade Veledrome in 2015.
It is a bit odd that at age 23, Lemina hasn’t played more than 1330 league minutes in a single season, but some of that can be explained: he was injured in the beginning of 14-15 and couldn’t break into Marcelo Bielsa’s starting XI at Marseille until November, and Juventus had a lot of players in the central midfield positions. You can find good value at times by just snapping up young players on mega clubs that don’t get consistent playing time (see here). He’s embarking on the prime years of his career, and Southampton could even stick to their plans and sell him off in a couple of years for a nice profit.
How much will Lamina move the needle? Time will tell, but I do think that him in the central midfield could be key in nudging that xG/shot from the bottom 5 in the PL into something more respectable.
Obviously a lot of what happens with Southampton in 2017-18 hinges on whether Virgil Van Dijk is still with the club by the time the summer window ends. There’s enough evidence to suggest he’s one of the better center backs in the league, and something that potentially helps his glowing reputation is the sizable gap in quality between himself and the rest of the players who man his position in the squad. CBs can be hard to find, especially at the low price Southampton got him for. Should Southampton have sold him earlier in the summer when allegations of tapping up by Liverpool were brought up? Probably. £60M is a lot of money for a defender, and it could’ve been put to good use with enough time in the summer to scout for replacements. But with the season only a day away, getting that money wouldn’t be as fruitful now.
In a world where Van Dijk doesn’t get sold this window, I quite like this team. The only tangible departure was Jay Rodriguez to West Brom, and he’s never reached the same heights he did in 2013-14 after his bout with knee injuries. Puel to Pellegrino could be an upgrade in manager, Sofiane Boufal has a full training camp under his belt, Manolo Gabbiadini is starting his first full season with the club, and maybe this is the year where Nathan Redmond #MakesTheLeap. Looking at all the clubs around them also breeds genuine hope to finishing with a better point total: it remains to be seen if Everton’s summer is any more than a bid to be the most seventh place club to ever seventh place in England, West Ham still have massive holes defensively, and Leicester are gonna have trouble finding a way to give all their forwards the requisite game time they’re looking for.
Finishing atop the “best of the rest” table in the PL while playing attractive football looks to be what Southampton are aiming for this season, and they’ve got the juice to pull off the task at hand.