Southampton have a new manager, bringing with him new ideas and a new philosophy. But does he need any new players? We take a look.
It was hard to feel too surprised when Southampton took the decision to dismiss Mark Hughes. A club that once prided itself on making imaginative, outside the box appointments had gone for the most stale, predictable, dull choice available in the Welshman. After “masterminding” the club to Premier League survival with all of eight points from eight games, the Saints decided to double down on Hughes, giving him a three year contract in a clear indication that he was to be their man for the foreseeable future. Nine points from fourteen games and a spot in the bottom three torpedoed that plan, with the South Coast club taking the hit of paying off his inexplicably long contract in order to get back to the ideas that saw them move from League One to the top half of the Premier League.
In fairness to Hughes, when looking at the expected goals for and against over his time in charge, it does seem that he was beginning to make the side more defensively resolute in the fight for survival last season. It was this year, though, which saw that xG conceded number creep up again without an real movement on the attacking side. All in all, it’s hard to feel too sympathetic towards the man.
Enter one Ralph Hasenhüttl. Descriptions of the new Southampton manager as the “Alpine Klopp” are overly obvious and reductive, though not entirely without logic. The Austrian’s time at Ingolstadt saw him build one of the more aggressive pressing sides in an era when the Bundesliga was extremely into aggressive pressing, and at RB Leipzig he was happy to follow the Red Bull template set by Ralf Rangnick of a broadly similar philosophy. Making any grand assumptions about how Hasenhüttl is looking to go about things at Southampton based on three games is obviously premature, but, true to type, we’re seeing the side press more. When looking at the defensive team radars, while the club’s high press rating was below average under Hughes, in this very small sample size, they are hitting the 95th percentile.
It isn’t a shock that the players have responded to the new manager by rolling their sleeves up and doing a lot more hard work. A more structured press will surely take time to come into fruition. In terms of the shape, the last two games have seen Hasenhüttl opt for a 3-4-3 formation that seems to cover a lot of bases. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oriol Romeu provide a decent double pivot, with Romeu the more natural defensive midfielder and Hojbjerg offering a good range of skills with and without the ball. Otherwise he seems to be showing faith in youngster Yan Valery at right wing back with Matt Targett on the other side.
It is the two attacking midfield roles behind the striker (so far Danny Ings, though Charlie Austin is also a serious option) where perhaps things could perhaps be improved upon. The current favoured players are Nathan Redmond and Stuart Armstrong. Redmond has a long history of being an equally tantalizing and frustrating player, with his good dribbling and creative passing abilities generally hampered by a desire to shoot from anywhere. Looking at his shot map below, he has the classic problem of seeming as though he is playing against a force field, apparently able to get a shot off everywhere except in front of goal. The good news, though, is that Hasenhüttl is a step above every previous coach the Englishman has worked under. If one is looking for a player who could really improve under the new boss, Redmond might be someone to watch.
The other player being used is Stuart Armstrong. This is somewhat of an awkward fit as he is much less a wide forward in the mould of Redmond than a creative central midfielder being pushed further forward. It seems like his more ideal role would be as the most advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3, but Hasenhüttl doesn’t look like employing that shape. However you look at it, Armstrong should probably feel as though he hasn’t shown his best football at St. Mary’s Stadium this season.
It also seems as though this is an area of the pitch where Southampton are weaker than they once were. Dusan Tadic had been the key man here in recent years, and while now at 30 years of age it is understandable that the Saints would look to cash in while they still could, he remains a better creative passer than anyone in the current squad. Sofiane Boufal was also sent packing, which makes sense considering his inconsistency in his time in England, but still perhaps remains a greater natural talent than most at the club right now. When looking at the players providing open play passes into the box last season, it’s these two who top the list.
And now looking at this season, while Redmond has continued to be useful in this regard, after him come the full backs. None of the other players in more advanced positions are contributing too much to this part of play.
The summer of 2016 might have been a pivotal moment for Southampton. Not only had Sadio Mané left to Liverpool for what was, at the time, relatively big money, but stalwarts like José Fonte, Graziano Pellè and Victor Wanyama left as well. In what used to be typical Southampton style, they went about replacing them with high upside options in Redmond, Boufal and Højbjerg. The problem is that none of those players made the kind of leap that Southampton hoped for, and while the club did finish a respectable eight in 2016-17 (albeit with a 17 point decline from the previous season), the effects from that summer spilled on into future years as the process behind Southampton’s transfers became less and less ideal. The summer of 2016 produced bad results despite a good process, but the following transfer windows have had lesser processes along with similarly uninspiring results.
In part that’s how we’ve gotten to this point, a run of the mill squad with no prospects that pop in a positive manner. The January transfer window is tough to navigate when looking for high upside talent on manageable prices. For every successful January move like Memphis Depay to Lyon, there are multiple failed ventures like Guido Carrillo’s move to Southampton last January. That being said, there are some players that could be of interest to Southampton that both fit the age timeline of what they should be looking for, and still be within their price range.
As mentioned before, the front three remains perhaps Southampton’s biggest area where they can improve. While a creative number ten or winger in the mould of Tadic or Boufal might be the biggest need, the fitness records of Ings and Austin (and continued poor form of Manolo Gabbiadini) make striker an additional area with room for improvement. As such, here are some options that the club could realistically target.
A lot of what was said last fall still stands. Marcus Thuram remains a fascinating player because he has the size and strength to play as a more conventional striker, but with the speed and burst off the dribble that you would associate with players that are four to six inches smaller than him. It’s also noteworthy that Thuram has largely maintained a decent expected goal contribution despite playing on a Guingamp side that for the second season in a row has produced a limited attack.
What’s been most encouraging with Thuram this season is that he’s had more “wow” moments while playing out wide, which is something that is nice to see and bodes well for his development because it makes it a bit more easier to envision Thuram providing value as a wide player if he plays on a better team. He’s been creating more havoc off the dribble, which can be seen in his noticeable increase in completed dribbles, and he’s shown a little bit more awareness, recognizing how to leverage that threat into creating something for himself or a teammate.
The flaws still remain though: at times, Thuram can still look like a bull in a China shop when he barrels into opponents. It’s hard to envision him ever being a high volume passer or chance creator on a better team, despite the recent progress he’s shown. But considering he’s playing on a squad that’s limited in certain ways, just the fact that he’s showing incremental progress is a positive sign. The one small worry is that his xG/shot has taken a hit with the added usage he’s taken on.
Thuram represents the low risk, high upside option. On the face of it, Thuram isn’t necessarily the cleanest fit because he would be coming from a Guingamp side that doesn’t pressure opponents, to the newly proactive defense of Southampton. His success this season has come from movements that are more outside-in, rather than from being an interior player through and through. But with Guingamp being favorites to get relegated in Ligue 1, Thuram shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg, and his higher end outcomes as a player are right up there with a number of players that will go for much higher transfer fees. For a club that were once praised for getting high end talents on cheap fees, Thuram would represent a return to that mode of squad construction.
For someone who turned 22 years old in late August, Neal Maupay has already been through his share of ups and downs. He became a hot commodity in French football for getting regular game time for Nice at just 16 years old in 2012-13, but his progress got halted later that season by a knee injury that started a downturn in fortune which saw him go from a hot shot prospect in Ligue 1 to plying his trade in Ligue 2 in 2016-17. At Brentford Maupay has reclaimed his career, and this season in particular, he’s been one of the best attacking talents in the Championship.
Over the last few years Southampton have lacked a focal point up top. Ings reviving his career, after knee injuries kept him off the pitch at Liverpool, certainly has helped ameliorate that problem. However it’s clear that they should be looking for a younger solution whose best years would be ahead and could carry surplus value in a hypothetical future transfer.
There’s a lot to like with Maupay as a striker, particularly in his movement off the ball. He’s smart in terms of using different types of maneuvers without the ball to present himself as an option. In addition to his positional craftiness he’s also quite mobile, so he presents an option to get behind the opposition defense both during transition opportunities and when sensing the opportunity to make a looping run between the space of the center back and fullback. His combination of constantly being on his toes and looking for openings, along with his ability to link up play, makes him a dynamic forward.
What’s interesting about Southampton is that even during their heyday as a PL club from 2013-16, their greatest success in attack came from strikers who leaned more towards the target man archetype in Pellè and Rickie Lambert. Maupay would not be a successor to those two individuals, but he does share the ability to be a helpful cog in a successful attack by being a striker who is confident laying off passes for others to run onto. It’s fair to wonder how Maupay would transition from Brentford, a club that’s put loads of time and resources towards constantly hunting for the best type of shot to Southampton, a team that have constantly been inefficient with their shot locations. But, given his intelligent movement and willingness to put in a shift defensively, there’s enough in Maupay’s game to think he would transition well into the Premier League.
Southampton’s poor record in getting young attacking talents to make the leap since Sadio Mané left means that, in some ways, the attacking positions on Southampton are a blank canvass because no one has proven themselves to be indispensable to the side. Redmond has shown signs as an interior player under Hasenhüttl, but the duration of his time at Southampton has been disappointing with his shot selection continually being an issue.
Emiliano Buendía is interesting because he’s a Swiss army knife of a player. He’s not the flashiest player out there, as his attacking numbers aren’t outstanding when looking at his expected goal contribution. He’s not a gaudy shot contributor individually or for others, but he’s perfectly fine in that department. Rather, he just does a little bit of everything in attack. For a player that plays an attacking position on the right wing, Buendía’s defensive output resembles a high end central midfielder, which is impressive.
Even without the flashiness to his game, Buendía has been immensely helpful to Norwich because he has shown the ability to do two things well: have diversity in his passing, and possess intelligent awareness off the ball. He’s constantly moving around, trying to get himself away from his marker to receive the ball and turn without too much pressure. When he does receive the ball, he’s quick on his feet and isn’t afraid to attempt high value passes to teammates who are making runs into dangerous areas.
With Norwich in second place and performing like one of the best clubs in the Championship, it’s hard to envision them selling Buendía unless it was for an absolute premium, especially given that he has only been there for less than six months. That being said, it’s not hard to envision someone of Buendía’s archetype being successful in a Ralph Hasenhüttl system given his ability to both make quick decisions with his passing and not shirk from defensive duties.
The appointment of Hasenhüttl represents a real chance for Southampton to return to what made them so successful in the first few years of their return to the Premier League. Looking at younger players with higher upsides outside of England’s top flight can help rejuvenate the side, particularly with the Austrian’s ability to teach new tactical ideas. The future could once again be bright for Southampton, and some of the right signings could help take the club another step forward.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association