Author Archives: Robert Evans

Southampton F.C. – a plethora of attacking talent

Since the beginning of the summer transfer window, we as fans have been inundated with attacking talent in the Premier League – It’s truly a neutral’s dream-league of world-class strikers, wingers and attacking midfielders ranging from all areas of the table.

Teams like West Ham have brought in a proven goal-scorer in the form of Javier Hernández, Manchester United have purchased arguably the best striker in the league in Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea have bought a very promising Spaniard in Álvaro Morata, whilst other teams such as Man City and Tottenham have retained their star strikers Harry Kane and Sergio Agüero.

But whilst this has left many football fans up and down the country excited with their new signings, I’ve seen some Southampton fans lose sight of the talent that we have sitting before our very eyes.

I personally believe that at St. Mary’s, we too have a lot of attacking flair – arguably even more than in seasons gone by – and as I have already alluded to in a previous article, some of those players will have their first full pre-season at the club.

The Finisher

I have my reservations about Charlie Austin’s talent as a footballer on the whole; he is not very athletic, quick, or even entirely skilful. However, the man is a finisher. In the 2016/17 season, Austin scored six and assisted once in 11 premier league starts, and in the 2014/15 premier league campaign, he scored 18 times and assisted five times in 35 starts, for a QPR side that was relegated. Whilst I do not like to heavily rely on stats, no one can argue with Austin’s finishing ability and I am definitely of the opinion that he can score 15+ PL goals, should he play most games.

I do have a few worries with Austin, though. Primarily, I’m not sure he fits into Mauricio Pellegrino’s high-pressing style of play: he isn’t quick enough nor does he have the stamina to press a top-flight defence and latch on to loose balls. I hope that his lust for goals can sway Pellegrino onside, and to push us on in the hunt for more European football.

The Space Finder

His Italian heritage isn’t the only thing that makes many pundits connect him to Filippo Inzaghi; Manolo Gabbiadini’s sheer ability to find pockets of space and get beyond defenders despite his lack of natural pace is astonishing. With four goals in his first three premier league games, we thought he could set the league on fire before his injury at Tottenham, after which he struggled to find the net. However, considering he slotted straight into the side without having a chance to fully train with his teammates, and without any knowledge of the English language, he was an absolute hit. My hope for Manolo is that he uses the full pre-season under the new manager to fully comprehend the language and style of play, whilst also developing cohesive relationships on the pitch with the other players. Solely based on his first four games, including a stellar EFL cup final performance, we could see 15-20 Premier League goals from the Italian in the 2017/18 campaign.

One other point on Gabbiadini is his versatility: he can provide goals as a lone striker, he can cut inside from the right wing as more of an inside forward to compliment Austin, and I believe that with his abilities he could play just behind a striker in the “number 10” role, as more of a shadow striker. His capability to play a number of roles and positions will make him one of Pellegrino’s favourite players, and scare the life out of PL defences.

The Back-up Speedster

Whilst last season he was more the villain of the year rather than star of the season, Shane Long provides much needed cover for our main two strikers. In the 2015/16 season under Ronald Koeman, he played a crucial role in securing Europa League football for the Saints, by chasing down loose balls, pressing defenders and through some instinctive finishing, so his value must not be forgotten. I believe he will be an asset to the squad, playing mostly EFL and FA cup games, providing depth and competition for the aforementioned strikers.

As I have also mentioned, Long is ideal for systems that look to press defences in order to cause mistakes and create more chances. Pellegrino may find that Long is his perfect striker for this system, and I am hoping that under a new, more attack-minded manager, the Irishman can get back to his best form.

The Young Target Man

We also have a young, hungry, English academy graduate who plays a different role to the three above. Sam Gallagher can provide a completely different striker, and one that we were missing last season after Graziano Pellè’s departure: the target man. Last season, he scored 11 goals in 35 starts for the now relegated Blackburn Rovers in the Championship, and I am hoping that he manages to translate this potential into performances when given the opportunity at St. Mary’s next season. His aerial prowess and physicality gives us a different dimension to our attacking line, should he be given game time.

Although I would keep in mind that he lacks Premier League experience and is only 21 years of age; it is unlikely that he will play many games, but like Long, he adds competition and cover for our frontline, but he is also an academy graduate, something us Saints fans are hugely proud of.

The Midfielders

Most Southampton fans can be forgiven for being underwhelmed by our attacking performances under Claude Puel last season, but in spite of our lack of goals from strikers, I think that some of our midfielders need to step up and play more of a role in creating and scoring goals. Nathan Redmond was the standout, and I am hoping that he can provide more goals and assists from the wings, with his pace and determination. I also believe that Dušan Tadić must improve on last season, and create more clear-cut chances for our strikers, which is something the Serbian was lacking under Puel.

Finally, my diamond in the rough for the season is Sofiane Boufal. With a full pre-season under a new manager and the opportunity to form new attacking relationships with his teammates, I’m sure that Sofiane can only improve – especially when you consider that he joined us having missed pre-season whilst also nursing an injury. I hope that he can be the signing we all wanted him to be last summer, and that there is still a huge amount to come from him, including a new found sharpness in front of goal.

These are the many reason why we haven’t rushed to sign another forward, and why in my opinion, we probably don’t need one.

Review: Southampton’s summer so far

Like many of you reading this, I spend a large amount of time in my day-to-day life checking the saintsFC hashtag on twitter, trying to find the latest news about all things Southampton F.C.

Over the past six weeks, things at Saints have been, in some ways, as turbulent as ever – our captain has declared himself mentally unfit to play, we have a new manager and there are constant links to European gems. However, in many ways, it has been a much quieter summer than in years passed, so I’d like to jot down a few feelings that I believe many Saints fans will share, and I’m going to break it down into four sections.

DISCLAIMER: Like all football fans, I am reactionary to a lot of news, and I have no insider knowledge at the club, as some other fans believe they do.

The Manager:

From his first interview as new Southampton manager, to his handling of the Virgil Van Dijk saga, I have been thoroughly impressed by Mauricio Pellegrino. Solely based upon the way he has spoken and his demeanour in interviews, we have seen his calmness, we have been engaged by his desire to play pressing, attacking football (something found wanting under Puel), and he also managed to convey the fact that he will take each game as it comes, playing to our strengths but accepting when to take a more conservative approach (something he was highly praised for at Alavés). Our pre-season friendlies have not set the world on fire by all accounts, but we must keep in mind that these matches are organised for team cohesion, fitness and adaptation to the new manager’s philosophy. His tendency to play a 4-2-3-1 has intrigued me, as it has worked in the past at St. Mary’s and is probably the formation that suits our current squad best.

Mauricio Pellegrino has managed to captivate and unite a fan-base that had been heavily divided under Claude Puel, he seems to have also intrigued many Southampton players, who again were divided under the previous manager. I am truly excited to see his press conferences, his team’s style of playing and to see where we end up under MoPe next season. One final point, though, I think his spoken English is excellent. Out of our last three managers, only Ronald Koeman truly captured the fans in press conferences and pre/post match interviews. I think this could be something MoPe manages to do with the language he uses and the way he speaks English, subconsciously swaying fans onside.

The Players:

From the way in which Southampton F.C. has used youtube, twitter and other social media, it is easy to see that squad harmony is at a much higher level than it has been for the last 12 months. The players seem to have bought into the new manager, they seem much happier, and they seem much more motivated than they were under the aforementioned Puel. I have seen and read interviews with certain players, most recently with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who, for me, could have a breakout season if given the chance. He admitted that the pre-season has been good thus far, that the players are enjoying the new manager, and that he wants to thrive this season under MoPe. For such a young man, he’s more mature than most footballers, and I am really excited by the prospect of more appearances for him this season, hopefully whilst learning under a manager who places faith in him.

Other special mentions have to go to Sofiane Boufal, who with a full pre-season could be another breakout star. Just from pre-season I’ve seen more defensive urgency from Sofiane than ever before, perhaps in an attempt to coerce Pellegrino into believing in him?

We Saints fans are proud of our academy graduates, and with new contracts for Gallagher and Stephens, and McQueen and Sims earlier in the year, it seems like Pellegrino and the board have agreed again on the promotion of youth. Like most of you, I never particularly liked Claude Puel’s beliefs in football, but he did manage to promote a number of youth players who shone under him, something that I hope continues under the new manager.

Virgil Van Dijk:

Here we go then, the arrogant, petulant, opinion-dividing centre-back that is both our best player and captain. As with many of you, I change my opinion every single day on him. One day, I want to hold him to ransom, force him to see out the remainder of his contract, just to prove a point to the “bigger” clubs that we are no longer a selling club. Other days, I want to get rid of him for £70 million, and to reinvest the whole of that sum in 2/3 quality players who both want to be here, and will improve our squad on the whole. But now that I’ve had a chance to sit back, to think about him and to come to a reasonable conclusion; I will have faith in whatever MoPe decides to do with him. From every statement made by both the club hierarchy and the manager since his appointment, it seems as though Pellegrino will have the final say on VVD’s future. I think his handling of our captain has been excellent, trying to get him on side, but accepting that squad harmony is more important than one player’s selfish needs. It will all come to a decision after the squad get back from France, it seems.

In the case that VVD does end up going, please not to Liverpool. It’s getting boring now. But who would I have as captain? I have seen lots of tweets arguing in favour of Oriol Romeu, and whilst he was excellent last season, he’s still only had one good season from start to finish. My pick would be England international and Champions League winner Ryan Bertrand, who seems set to stay this summer, and my hope would be that making him captain convinces him to stay for the long run. If Bertrand communicates his desire to seek pastures new following this season however, then we should of course avoid handing him the captaincy – we don’t want to find ourselves in a Virgil 2.0 situation. 

Transfers:

Finally, the interesting bit… or is it? Like most football fans, I want to see my team sign new players, so that I can get even more excited about the coming season, but it isn’t that summer at St. Mary’s. Almost every player we’ve been linked with has been ruled out of a move; Vietto was shot down overnight by sources close to the club, according to Adam Blackmore, Munir and Allan I just don’t buy into, and Stuart Armstrong’s transfer has gone very quiet, too. From an outsider looking in, I believe that this is the summer where we keep our players, rather sell and reinvest. Even the VVD saga has not ended up in a bid, and should we end up selling him for a premium, that is the only moment I’d expect us to spend big; when we have already made money.

But after a lot of thought, I think this is a highly positive outcome for the club on the whole. It means that all of our players will be Premier League ready, with experience of the league. They will know each other, and the manager, after a full pre-season together. Those who missed out on full pre-seasons last summer (Boufal and Gabbiadini due to later, and January arrivals) will now have a chance to build full relationships with their teammates. It is a cause for joy that, for once, we may not sell star players, and if we do, it will only be because the manager sanctioned the deal and thought it best for all parties, rather than the club being bullied by a larger club. As always, I am expecting a couple of additions, should some players depart, but our starting XI is looking very capable as things stand, should no player leave, and I believe that no outgoings and few players coming in will be a blessing after recent years.

Where do Southampton need to improve in the upcoming transfer window?

With 12 games gone in the Premier League this season, Southampton F.C. currently  sit 10th in the table. This means that now, we can start to see where our strengths and weaknesses lie in this new-look Saints side under Claude Puel.

The Saints have not set the world on fire, nor have they been totally under-impressive, but we all knew that it would be a tough transition period after Koeman’s departure. With that said, there have been some who have performed to an excellent standard. Virgil Van Dijk has arguably been the best centre-half in the Premier League, Oriol Romeu has been fantastic over the last two months in defensive-midfield and the ever-reliable Charlie Austin has the highest goal tally of any English, Premier League player this season – so where do we need to improve?

Firstly, Austin needs some support.

Shane Long is yet to find his first goal of the season despite a very successful campaign last term. In addition to this, Jay Rodriguez has struggled to get into the side even when fit and, lastly, Nathan Redmond has only scored three after his conversion to a striker under Puel.

In a formation where we are relying on two strikers to get our goals, we simply haven’t scored enough goals. Jay Rodriguez’s Southampton career could be over after the summer fiasco, and if Long does not start scoring soon, unfortunately the same could be said for him as well, having fallen to the bench under Puel. We need to buy a fresh young European striker, who can provide more goals and healthy competition in the hopes that Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez could start to fire again.

For this position, look no further than 22-year-old Andrea Belotti of Torino, who has manage to record ten goals and three assists in the Serie A this season. With a shot conversion rate of 65%, Belotti is an all round strong centre-forward, with decent pace, strength and most importantly, a clinical edge in front of goal. He may command a hefty fee given his age and attacking prowess, but if Southampton truly want to push on into the upper echelons of English football, they need more goals. With regards to prizing him away from Torino, Southampton would provide a club that nurtures young domestic and foreign talent, a club with ambitions of hitting the heights of European football and a springboard for him to push on to other clubs if he desires (as has happened with Clyne, Mané, Schneiderlin etc.)

Secondly, in spite of the fact that we hold great quality in the heart of defence with Virgil Van Dijk and Jose Fonte, we must be prepared for the future. The reason being is that whilst Fonte is still a fantastic defender for us, I think all fans can admit that a decline is underway (even if it is a small one at that). On top of this, Van Dijk has been receiving praise from all angles in recent weeks and in such fine form, a bid from a big club cant be too far away. For these reasons, it would be valuable and worthwhile for Southampton to snap up a young defender that can provide competition and be eased into the side at the time of Van Dijk’s potential departure or Fonte’s downfall. 

Southampton are constantly linked with Rúben Semedo, a centre back who has been superb for Sporting Lisbon this season. He is a young, versatile Portuguese defender who can play both in the centre and on the right of the defence, and at only 22 years of age, he would fit the “Southampton philosophy” of signing young European talent. Not to mention that he could also settle in easily with his fellow Portuguese compatriots, in Fonte and Cédric.

He would provide cover and competition in two different positions and he has the ability to make a name for himself in the Premier League. With regards to prizing him away from one of Portugal’s biggest clubs, we’ve already done it with Cédric, and players of Semedo’s class at his age will want to push on and play in a more competitive league.

Thirdly, with our narrow diamond we desperately need to make sure that there are players in the club that can play in one of three positions; holding midfield, central midfield and attacking midfield.

We have a plethora of creative options in Dušan Tadić, Sofiane Boufal and the young Jake Hesketh, but at holding midfielder we only have Oriol Romeu. Personally, I would like to see Southampton bring in another player who can play in both the centre and the holding roles, offering cover for Romeu but also healthy competition in the centre.

Morgan Schneiderlin is the name on every fan’s lips. He is a player that is undoubtedly still a fan favourite at St. Mary’s, a player that would slot perfectly into our formation, a player that would not need time to settle into the club, and finally, a player that would probably be favourable to Claude Puel given his nationality. I genuinely believe that we could tempt Morgan to come home, offering the push towards European football that he so desired and a good contract at a club that he is very fond of. However, it’s undeniable that Manchester United would want to recoup a large proportion of the £25m+ they paid for him.

Those are my thoughts on the three areas where Southampton need to strengthen, and I believe that getting those three players along with some other additions for squad depth and hopefully more youth promotion, Saints could continue to push on and cement a Europa League place in the Premier League. There have been rumours of takeover bids at the club in recent weeks too, so maybe our money concerns will be put to rest and we could finally financially compete with the next tier of Premier League sides.