Author Archives: Sam Cox

The early promise shown by Mauricio Pellegrino

During Ronald Koeman’s reign at Southampton Football Club, I remember racing to watch each and every press conference, desperate to hear his comments on the week’s drama and results; and following an entire season of quite the opposite, it’s wonderful to have that back again with Mauricio Pellegrino.

Southampton announced the appointment of Pellegrino on the 23rd of June, and it’s safe to assume that he’s a name many English fans aren’t particularly familiar with. Yet despite the Argentinian being in charge for less than a month, I’ve already been left excited for the project that could be under our new boss.  

We’re yet to see a ball be kicked in a single competitive game, yet solely through Pellegrino’s early press conferences and interviews, my interest has been captured and my attention grasped. It’s not a matter of accent and dialect, it’s his knowledgeable mannerisms, phrases and aura that has already created an excitement about the product we may see on the pitch.

The Saints have just concluded their pre-season training in Switzerland after a 0-0 draw with St Gallen, and the videos shared throughout the week have helped to give the fans a slight idea of how the Argentine will operate at the club. It appears that there’s been double sessions, drills on high intensity, and pressing the opposition; similar to the style of play Pochettino enforced at Southampton. If this is the case then it’s not only pleasing to watch, but it’s also an exhilarating style which the Saints fans will welcome with open arms.

One clip in particular that stuck with me was the crossbar challenge between Pellegrino and Kelvin Davis. As a fan it’s always nice to see certain figures ‘break character’, so seeing our new manager and a club legend partake in this was highly entertaining; which also helps the club to connect with the fans.

Admittedly, Claude Puel was also known for getting stuck in during training, which I personally loved, but as we later realised, player/manager relations were not as they seemed on the outside.

During Claude Puel’s short time in charge of Southampton Football Club, he guided us to an EFL cup final, developed a number of players into first team stars, and even pushed through a number of academy prospects. But whilst the headlines will predominantly focus upon our goalscoring troubles and dull football, off the field issues played an equally important part in his sacking. When a manager continues to present tedious, predictable and repetitive performances and press conferences, combined with a non existent relationship with fans, something has to give.

Which brings me onto a vital aspect of being a Southampton manager where Puel clearly fell short; unity in the squad.

This is something that Pellegrino has clearly acknowledged himself, as he proves when asked about his objectives and goals from pre-season…

“We have to create one style of playing, one model, one behaviour, and an understanding between manager and players, medical staff and us. Not just inside the pitch but always outside the pitch too.

“We have to meet how they are because in modern football today there is a lot of diversity. We are a lot of people with different behaviours and different beliefs, and you have to try to unify them to create one team on the pitch. It’s something that looks really easy, but it’s not too easy.”

Now by no means am I getting carried away or forgetting just how much more there is to prove; but just like any other fan, I’m growing increasingly optimistic of seeing us rebuild that bridge between the club, the manager and the fans.

Southampton FC’s history with Wembley Stadium

In two days time, over 35,000 Saints fans will embark on their journey to the home of English football. This isn’t a journey we are entirely used to, so I, like everyone else, will savour every last second of it.

Southampton take on Manchester United in the first major final of the season as Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils battle Claude Puel’s Saints in the EFL Cup final. Saints fans have only travelled to Wembley four times in their clubs 131-year history, despite being in eight domestic finals.

Southampton’s first three major finals were held at current athletics ground ‘Crystal Palace’ as Ernest Arnfield’s men lost two FA Cup finals; the first in 1900 as Bury ran out 4-0 winners. Saints then lost 2-1 to Sheffield United in 1902 after a 1-1 stalemate resulted in a replay. Saints’ most recent major final was, again, in the FA Cup as Gordon Strachan’s men travelled to Cardiff to face Arsenal. Robert Pires broke Saints hearts as his goal in the 38th minute sealed a 1-0 win for the Gunners at the Millennium stadium. Apart from a dismal record away from Wembley, Southampton currently have a 50% win record at the national stadium, as Saints have won and lost two finals in four respective competitions. These competitions being the FA Cup; the League/EFL Cup; the Zenith Data Systems Cup and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

1976 F.A Cup Final

Saints’ first appearance at Wembley was in 1976 and it’s still our greatest achievement to date. Lawrie McMenemy’s Second Division side had a huge task of beating First Division Manchester United to their first major trophy. Southampton were undoubtedly the underdogs as many expected the Red Devils to ease past Saints to victory. However, as the game unravelled, McMenemy’s side showed they had the quality and fight to match Manchester United. After their opponents hit the bar, Saints took their chance. Jim McCalliog sent a ball over the top of the Manchester United defence which looped into the path of Bobby Stokes. Stokes allowed the ball to bounce once then struck a precise shot past United ‘keeper Alex Stepney. The goal was scored in the 83rd minute as the yellow end of Wembley went wild. The goal didn’t come without its controversy though, as the United players and coaching staff claimed Stokes was offside, but the linesman’s flag remained down. As the full-time whistle blew, Saints pulled off one of the great FA Cup giant killings and secured themselves their first major trophy. The sea of yellow and blue erupted when club captain, Peter Rodrigues, collected the trophy from Her Majesty the Queen and lofted it high. There are many parallels from this game to our upcoming match this Sunday. Firstly of course, we have our opponents. Just like 1976, standing in our way of a major trophy is arguably one of the biggest clubs in world football, Manchester United. Coming into this Sunday’s fixture, the Red Devils have only lost once in their past 25 games. Due to this incredible form, Saints are firmly the underdogs once again, and hopefully rather like 1976, we can use this to our advantage.

1979 League Cup Final

Three years after the FA Cup final triumph, Lawrie Mcmenemy masterminded another great cup run. Southampton embarked on their League Cup adventure by beating First Division Birmingham City and Derby County in rounds two and three. Saints then needed a replay in the fourth round to see past Fourth Division Reading. In the quarter-finals, Saints beat Manchester City 2-1 and then secured their place in the final by beating Leeds 3-2 on aggregate across two legs. In the final, Saints faced Brian Clough’s legendary Nottingham Forest side. Much like the 1976 FA Cup final, Saints were seen as the underdog as Forest were amidst their greatest ever era; Clough’s side eventually won the European Cup that season. Brian Clough was up to his usual antics before a ball was even kicked. Prior to any cup final at Wembley, opposition managers lead their teams out onto the pitch before kick-off. However, Clough did not lead his team out and gave duties to his right-hand man Peter Taylor; he followed closely behind and went straight to the dugout. Saints took the lead in the 16th minute through David Peach and the score remained 1-0 up until half time. Forest then equalised just six minutes into the second half as Garry Birtles drew his side level. Birtles then struck again to give Clough’s side the lead in the 79th minute after a closely fought second half. Forest’s number 10 Tony Woodcock looked to have sealed the tie in the 83rd minute, but Nick Holmes nicked one back five minutes later to give Saints hope of taking the tie to extra time. Unfortunately for McMenemy’s side however, Saints couldn’t grab that elusive third goal and were defeated in their second match at Wembley. This was Saints’ last League Cup final appearance.

1992 Zenith Data Systems Cup Final

After the League Cup final defeat to Nottingham Forest, Southampton had to wait 14 years until their next Wembley appearance. The opponents, again, Nottingham Forest, still managed by Brian Clough. Although this competition is far less prestigious than the previous two, it’s still a trip to the home of English football for the fans and the club. Saints were managed by the highly unpopular Ian Branfoot who famously shut out Matt Le Tissier citing that he wasn’t good enough. However, Branfoot started Le God in this particular final alongside Alan Shearer, Neil Ruddock, Francis Benali and Ian Dowie. Southampton had the worst possible first half as they found themselves 2-0 down at the break after goals from Scot Gemmill, in the 16th minute, and Kingsley Black, right on the stroke of half-time. This particular final conveyed the phrase “a game of two halves” as Southampton looked a completely different side in the second 45 minutes Matt Le Tissier pulled a goal back in 64th minute with a header from six yards out, and only six minutes later, a ball into the box found Kevin Moore, whose header crashed in off the woodwork to level the scores. The game went to extra time after Saints’ great come back from two-nil down, but once again, it was Forest who won the trophy at Wembley after a deep ball into the box found Gemmill unmarked – Tim Flowers was helpless in denying the winner.  

2010 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final

Ah, what a day. After a fall from grace which left Saints bottom of League One with a 10 point deduction, this final really showed what was in store under the guidance of Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese. For the first time, Saints came into this game as huge favourites as Alan Pardew’s team showed great form within the new era at the club. Players such as Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Jose Fonte and Michail Antonio, unknowingly used this victory as their springboard to Premier League and International success. Saints took on Carlisle in the 2010 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final after seeing past MK Dons in the semi. Southampton took the lead after 15 minutes through a trademark Rickie Lambert penalty, after Peter Murphy handled in the box. Saints then netted just before and after half-time as Rickie Lambert flicked on the ball to the far post, where Lallana found himself free to knock the ball into the net. Southampton then sealed the trophy after a mistake from Horwood allowed Antonio to let fly at the Carlisle goal; Collin made a brilliant initial save, but his strong hand couldn’t stop the ball dropping to Papa Waigo, who was left with the simple tasking of nodding it into an empty net. As the game fell away from Carlisle, a ball deep into their half from Kelvin Davis found Antonio, who chested the ball down and struck a venomous low volley past Collin. Our opponents that day did pull a goal back as Gary Madine glanced the ball past Kelvin Davis, after a free-kick was whipped into the box. The waves of red and white flags flew in the air as Saints sealed their first win at Wembley since 1976. One of the great images of the day was to see our saviour savour the day as his smile beamed from ear to ear. Markus Liebherr was seen taking photos throughout on his small digital camera, as he soaked up the atmosphere from the club he saved. Back-to-back promotions soon followed as a new manager, Nigel Adkins, took the reigns. And the rest, they say, is history.  
After a 41 year wait without a major trophy, a victory on Sunday would cap off a meteoric rise under Markus and Katharina Liebherr. I’m sure the players will have Markus in their minds and hearts as they step onto the carpet that is Wembley’s pitch. After a two-week break Saints should be fresher than their counterparts who played a Europa League game away in France only two days ago. Whatever the result, the fact that Puel and his players have taken us fans to Wembley for a mouthwatering tie is something to be very grateful for. Let’s hope we return to the south coast with an EFL Cup and a performance to be proud of.  

January: It’s time to invest, but in who?

We’re now just over halfway through the 2016/17 Premier League season, and it hasn’t quite been the season many fans had hoped for thus far.

After another preseason of change, we once again saw some all too familiar traits from years gone by. Key players seeking pastures new and our manager moving to a rival Premier League club; giving Les Reed and the board a much busier summer than they would have anticipated. Key decisions had to made to try and push on from a sixth place finish and Europa League qualification – that is quite the task of a club playing in the third tier only five years ago. They chose a relatively unknown Frenchman to take the reigns from a record setting, Champions League winning Dutchman.

Claude Puel was appointed on the 30th of June to replace Ronald Koeman on the recommendation and advice of a certain Arsene Wenger no less. Prior to the former Monaco midfielder’s appointment, Saints had already sold Sadio Mane to Liverpool and Victor Wanyama to Tottenham Hotspur for an estimated combined total of £46 million. Saints were also in extensive talks with Chinese club, Shandong Luneng, for the transfer of Graziano Pelle, with the move being completed a few weeks into Puel’s tenure – leaving him with the unenviable task of meeting his players, assessing them, then going into the transfer market to fill the gaps. With not a huge time-frame from his appointment to the opening game against Watford, himself and the club decided to not bring in any recognised strikers and to put faith into Shane Long, Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez. Puel also stated his intent to use new recruit, Nathan Redmond, as a striker – comparing him to former French protege Thierry Henry.

Redmond started life on the South Coast perfectly as he bagged Saints’ equaliser in the opening day draw against Watford, but since then, he’s gone on to score only twice more. Since the start of the season, Redmond has been a figure commonly placed in the starting eleven, meaning Puel has chopped and changed his starting partner. During the opening games of the season, the Frenchmen preferred Long to start alongside the former Norwich man, and rightly so too. After the Ireland international’s impressive goal scoring feat during 2016 he was more than deserving of his place in the starting eleven. But as the opening games of the season unraveled, Long couldn’t rediscover his form of the back end of last season as he failed to score in each of the matches he featured in.

Subsequently, Puel has rotated his frontline, featuring most commonly Austin as a strike partner with Redmond. Since the Englishman’s first start against Sunderland, Austin has netted on nine occasions in all competitions as he stated his claim as Saints’ best goalscorer. Things were going tremendously for Austin as talk of an England call up became common ahead of Southgate’s announcements. Unfortunately for him however, the call from newly appointed Southgate never came and during Saints’ final Europa League game against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, he landed awkwardly when rising for the ball and dislocated his shoulder. After Saints were eliminated by the Israeli champions, it was revealed that he would need surgery and could miss up to three months of action. This sent Puel back to the drawing board as Saints’ only prolific goalscorer so far will be sidelined for a substantial amount of time.

In comparison to this point last season, as many know, Saints have been far less clinical in front of goal. Before Saints’ game against Norwich on the 2nd of January last season, Ronald Koeman’s men had scored 45 goals in 26 games – averaging 1.7 goals per game. Whereas this season, Saints have scored 30 goals in 29 games – averaging 1.03 goals per game. When examining the stats it’s not hard to see why we haven’t been scoring as much as we could have.

Prior to the trip to Carrow road, Mane had been involved in 15 goals over all competitions; registering seven goals and eight assists. Shane Long had scored seven goals and registered two assists, whilst the beautiful Italian, Pelle, had netted nine times and assisted three times. In comparison to this season, Long has notched just one goal in all competitions, and Nathan Redmond has grabbed just three goals. As previously mentioned, Austin has scored nine goals in all competitions and Jay-Rod has scored four goals, two prior and post his injury – including a wonder strike to seal all three points away at Bournemouth.

As we are now entering the early stages of the January transfer window, it doesn’t take a mysterious black box to highlight what we need to invest in this winter; however, the black box will be able to identify the players we do need. With every transfer window, there will be guaranteed speculation of players coming in and players leaving the club, that’s just the way it is at St Mary’s. With Southampton’s lack of goals it hasn’t been hard for the press to link strikers to a move down south. Two of the names that have been linked are Liverpool striker, Daniel Sturridge and Napoli forward, Manolo Gabbiadini.

Daniel Sturridge is a name every fan in England is aware of. The 27-year-old Englishmen has been one of the most prolific forwards in the Premier League and on the international scene. During his greatest goalscoring season, Sturridge grabbed 25 goals in all competitions as Liverpool narrowly missed out on the title. Last season, the Englishmen grabbed 13 goals in all competitions as he played a bit-part role under new manager Jurgen Klopp. This poises the question ‘Why wouldn’t Liverpool want to keep hold of a player with such great talent like Sturridge?’ Well, the main cause for concern with Sturridge is that he has been plagued with injuries ever since Luis Suarez left Liverpool in the summer of 2014.

Since the end of the 2013/14 season, he has featured 68 times for club and country as regular hamstring injuries seem to be the cause of a lack in game time. Another perception Sturridge carries is that his commitment for the team isn’t the greatest. Jurgen Klopp’s style of play is much like that of Mauricio Pochettino’s. Both men like to establish a high pressing game to give the opposition as little time on the ball as possible. This could be one of the reasons why Sturridge is lower than Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi at Anfield as perhaps Klopp doesn’t feel he works as hard as the Brazilian and Belgian off the ball. The likelihood of this transfer being completed is very slim. Jurgen Klopp was quoted in saying he “doesn’t want Daniel to leave the club.” Another factor could be location. With a few London clubs interested in the striker, including West Ham, Sturridge is believed to prefer a move back to the capital; where he once played for current league leaders, Chelsea.

As previously mentioned, the second player Saints have been linked with is Manolo Gabbiadini. Gabbiadini is a 5ft 9 forward who can player as a striker or as an attacking midfielder. The 25 year old is an Italian international who has scored one goal in his six appearances for the Azzurri. The Italian forward failed to reach double figures for Napoli last season as he bagged nine goals in all competitions. So far this season, he has netted five times, so could be on course to reach double figures if he stays put. The reason why many clubs in the Premier League have been linked with Gabbiadini is due to his immense goal scoring form during the 2014/15 season; where he spent half of the season at Sampdoria before joining Napoli for €13 million. Whilst at Sampdoria, he scored eight times; prompting Napoli to fork out on such a high transfer fee. Life at Napoli started well for the Italian as he scored a further 11 times for his new club-including one against his former employers. There is a possibility Saints could sign him as he’s been linked with a move to the South Coast in a variety of news outlets in Italy. However, like always, Saints aren’t the only club interested in his services. Wolfsburg appear to be the frontrunners for him as they look to replace the now PSG man, Julian Draxler. My issue if Saints do complete the signing of Gabbiadini is that he lacks Premier League experience. At this point in the season I believe we need someone who knows and is adapted to the pace of the Premier League.

One man who is certainly that is Jermain Defoe. Former England international, Defoe, has been prolific in every Premier League season he’s featured in. With eight goals already at a struggling Sunderland side, it proves how clinical he can be when not having much quality around him. His 18 goals last season proved pivotal in Sunderland’s battle against the drop and he’s on course to match that again this season. In 276 league appearances for Tottenham Hotspur, he netted 92 times and since joining Sunderland in January 2015 he’s scored a further 27 goals in the Premier League.

Sunderland boss, David Moyes, was quoted saying that Sunderland need to decrease their wage bill if they are to bring in any new players this winter. Defoe is earning over £50,000 at Sunderland, so Saints could definitely test their resolve. Defoe would be the quick fix of goals we need from now until the end of the season, and at the age of 34, he’s certainly coming to the end of a fantastic career. The one problem many fans may have if we try to bring in the Englishmen is his ties with our South Coast neighbours. Defoe joined Bournemouth on loan from West Ham in October 2000 and scored 18 goals in 29 league appearances. Defoe has also played for the blue side of Hampshire, joining Harry Redknapp’s Pompey for £7.5 million in 2008. He scored 15 goals in 31 games for Pompey before leaving after just one season to rejoin Tottenham and Redknapp at White Hart Lane. Southampton haven’t been linked with a move for Defoe, but I would like to see Defoe bag the goals we need in the red and white stripes.

The final striker we’ve been linked with is FC Utrecht’s Frenchmen Sébastien Haller. Since joining the Dutch outfit from Auxerre he has scored 37 goals in 67 appearances. He’s only 22 years of age and is giant in stature as he stands at 6ft 2. He’s was linked with a deadline day move to Saints in the summer but a move never materialised. So far this season he has netted nine times in all competitions. This is probably the most likely transfer to be completed as Haller is familiar with Claude Puel. He has also been seen following Nathan Redmond on twitter – if that means anything!

With Haller being so young at 22 he can definitely adapt and fulfil his potential in the Premier League. My concern however would be the immediate amount of goals he would get and how long it would take him to adapt to life in England.

Claude Puel has kept his cards very close to his chest saying that Saints won’t be completing any signings during the January window; but as Saints fans know, this could mean anything. Saints have always liked to keep the transfer business in secretive fashion for as long as possible. For example, when we signed Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in the summer very few media outlets reported we were interested in him; then all of a sudden it was announced that we had completed the signing. The reasons Saints do this is to minimise the competition and price we have to pay. If very few clubs are aware of our interest, then those who may be interested won’t feel obliged to start a bidding war over the player, thus preventing the price to rise and rise.

I also believe Claude wouldn’t come out and say we need players so publicly for a number of reasons. Firstly out of respect for the other clubs in the Premier League. The Frenchmen appears to be a man of dignity and compassion, therefore speaking about other club’s players would go against his morals. Secondly, not to add pressure on the current squad and to keep the squad harmony high. For example, if you say that you’re perfectly happy with the squad then the current squad will feel that their efforts are being noticed and welcomed by the manager.

I’d love us to sign a striker with great Premier League pedigree, but if the board feel as though a deal will not be financially correct for the club then the last thing I’d want to see is us bring someone that we can’t afford. We also need to remember that the Southampton board like to bring in players who understand and represent the ethos of the ‘Southampton Way’, and if there aren’t any players who can fulfil that this window, I won’t begrudge a lack of activity this winter.

Europa League: A low-down on Southampton’s opponents

On the 2nd of January 2016, Southampton travelled 200 odd miles across the country for their match against newly-promoted Norwich City. At this point of the season, Southampton had currently won only one match from seven, including a draw against Aston Villa and a loss to Stoke City, both of which coming at home. Saints looked strong favourites for the clash against the Canaries despite their current barren run, but Norwich were coming into this game off the back of a historic victory away to Man United. The contrast of confidence in both squads showed as Norwich edged the match 1-0 with an Alexander Tettey goal, three minutes after Victor Wanyama received his second red card of the season. After the loss, Saints slumped down to 13th in the table, placing them only seven points off the relegation zone. However, from this point on in the season, Ronald Koeman’s men turned their season around.

This fine form coincided with the return of Fraser Forster, who achieved six clean sheets in a row on the Saints’ march up the league table, alongside Shane Long’s inspired goal scoring form. Southampton picked up memorable victories at Old Trafford and achieved the comeback of all comebacks at home to Liverpool –  it still gives me the chills just thinking of Sadio Mane’s second goal!

From that loss against Norwich, Saints only lost three games in the remaining 18 fixtures, winning the last four. In the last four weeks of the season, Saints had fixtures against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs left to play. At this point, Saints had managed to salvage their season and were in the thick of the fight for a spot in Europe next season. A Sadio Mane hat trick sealed all three points against Manchester City in a 4-2 home victory. Then a Steven Davis double a week later against Spurs saw Saints take three points from White Hart Lane for the first time in 12 years. This meant that going into the final game of the season against Crystal Palace, Saints had to better West Ham’s result against Stoke and hope that Manchester United lose at home to Bournemouth.

As it turned out, Southampton came out 4-1 winners against former manager Alan Pardew and his Palace side, and to make things even better, West Ham threw away a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 at Stoke. This guaranteed a place in the Europa League qualifying round for the boys in red and white. From here, the match at Old Trafford was abandoned due to a bomb scare and when the match was replayed two days later, Manchester United won the match 3-1. The end result? Southampton had finished their season in 6th place on 63 points – their highest ever Premier League finish and points total. A week later, the FA Cup final saw the Red Devils seal a 2-1 win in extra time over Crystal Palace to lift the historic trophy. As a result, Southampton were entered straight into the group stages.

On the 26th of August, the eagerly anticipated draw was finally going to take place, and Southampton were amongst some of Europe’s top clubs. Southampton were placed into pot three, so a difficult draw was potentially on the cards. As the draw was being made, all Southampton fans were glued to their screens. The draw was dragged out and Saints fans had endured 10 groups being drawn, A to J without seeing our name. As group K was being drawn, we were all hoping our name will be plucked from a ball. First in the group – Inter Milan. Second team into the group – Sparta Prague. The third team – Southampton Football Club. Finally, we saw our lads placed into the Europa League group stages, with the fourth team to join group K being Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

But, who exactly are the teams that we will face (no matter how big or small) and who should we look out for?

Patience…

It’s almost August and the transfer window is now in full swing. Up until this point, it’s been far from quiet down at St Mary’s, with the inclusion of a managerial change and the customary player moving to Liverpool for a substantial transfer fee. Early on in the window, Southampton stated their intent by securing the signature of England U21 winger Nathan Redmond from Norwich, on the 25th of June. But since then, we have seen more outs than ins and very little transfer activity. This has caused some fans to quite understandably, feel a little bemused as to why we haven’t replaced the players who have left. However, there is no need to panic.

During July, Southampton received a minimum of £57 million from the sales of Victor Wanyama to Tottenham, Graziano Pelle to Shandong Luneng and Sadio Mane to Liverpool (a deal potentially rising to £38 million). Along with the £10M spent on securing Nathan Redmond, Southampton have also signed one other player this window – Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Southampton confirmed the signing of the Danish international midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg from Bayern Munich for £12 million on the 11th of July. Højbjerg joins the Saints whilst being regarded as one of the hottest prospects in central midfield and by joining Southampton, he has been given the opportunity to consistently play at the level he has shown glimpses of at Bayern Munich. However, since then, it has all gone quiet on the Southampton transfer front.

With Pelle and Mane gone, we have lost 44 goals from the past two seasons. Due to this, some fans have called for the club to bring in a new striker to replace Pelle. But It seems that at the minute, the club are more than happy, as am I, to allow Austin, Long and Rodriguez to spearhead our attack. Last season Shane Long had his greatest professional campaign to date in terms of goalscoring and after an equally impressive Euro’s tournament, he will no doubt be ready to push on and better last season’s tally. As for Charlie Austin, the former QPR man will come into this Premier League campaign with a full pre-season under his belt and a better understanding of his potential strike partner – Shane Long – and the club itself. The only cause for concern with Austin is his injuries, but I don’t believe that this will be a problem – in the season before joining Southampton, Austin played 36 times for QPR in the Premier League and domestic cups, not bad for someone who is ‘injury prone’. Then we move onto Jay Rodriguez, who seems to have finally overcome his ACL and foot injuries. During the end of last season and the pre-season games played this year, the Englishman appears to have lost a yard of his quick pace and he also appears tentative when on the ball and going into challenges. However, these are psychological reasons and hopefully after a run in the team, and a few games under his belt, we will once again see the J-Rod who rightly earned his call up to the England side.

Next, I believe that whilst we can look back on Pelle’s time at Southampton with great pleasure, there is no need for us to worry about his departure. Judging from the friendlies played against DC United U23, PEC Zwolle and FC Twente, Puel looks to play two up front and use fast paced attackers in a style of football that is predominantly played on the ground. Under Koeman, Pelle was the focal point due to his immense aerial ability and his physicality that allowed him to constantly offer a passing outlet. Despite his qualities, Pelle’s style of play most likely would not have fitted into Puel’s plans – this would explain the decision by the club and Puel to let him move on so quickly.

If Southampton choose against signing a Pelle replacement this window and the strikers we currently have don’t quite grab the goals we need, then we can invest in a new striker during the January transfer window. I believe that in this moment, not buying a new striker this window is sensible by all at Southampton F.C. The reason being? if the three strikers we currently hold do score the goals we so hope they do and we signed another striker, we’d have to bench 2/4. This would place one forward as fourth choice and this would simply be throwing problems upon ourselves.

One of the main factors that Les Reed and the board would have considered when appointing a new manager, was whether the new boss could place faith in the youth team. The demands from the higher forces from the club would be that the new manager would oversee players progress from the development sides into the first team. Claude Puel wouldn’t have been appointed if he didn’t tick this box. Under Koeman, we thought he would have done this, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, he froze out youth team players deemed ‘not good enough’ and as a result, we lost two years of youth promotion. This could be a reason why we aren’t seeing a vast amount of players coming in this summer. Due to youth being a fundamental element to the ‘Southampton way’, perhaps Claude Puel has jumped onboard with the ethos of Southampton Football Club and has seen enough from players such as Harrison Reed and Yan Valery to stop him unnecessarily dipping into the market. Perhaps Puel harbours the ambition to plug the gaps within the first team with talent from the U21 and U18’s squad – I’m sure that this is something that we would all prefer to see.

I don’t believe the squad at this point in time is as strong as it was last season, and I’m not saying we don’t need anymore players, because we do. We need a replacement for Sadio Mane. Mane’s electric pace and unpredictable nature added a vast amount of quality to the side and without him, we become less dynamic and easier to defend against. Many names have flown around in the media for a replacement, including Hatem Ben Arfa (who has signed for PSG) and Sofiane Boufal, who is reportedly in talks with Watford. But one thing is for sure, and thats that we need to see a large amount of the £34 million transfer fee re-invested into a player of high quality. At this moment in time, we are seeing clubs of similar size to us – like West Ham and Stoke – bid up to £35 million on players. I don’t want Southampton to spend over the odds for players and I neither want to see us spend money we don’t have, but I think it’s about time we treated ourselves to some star quality with money that we certainly do have. One signing of real intent wouldn’t bend the transfer policies that our club holds. 

Southampton are clearly not finished in the transfer market as of yet and as we all know, Les Reed likes to keep transfer deals under wraps until they are confirmed – the signing of Højbjerg proves just that. So, until the door slams shut on the transfer window of summer 2016, you can rest assured knowing that the recruitment team is working vigorously, Puel is analysing the players before him, and that as always, Southampton will continue to unearth more diamonds in the dirt. Afterall, that’s the Southampton way, and we do it damn well.       

Part one: Here we go again

As Saints fans, we are used to a rollercoaster ride of a summer. But this year, we thought it would be different – after key players Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk signed new five-year deals, many Southampton fans were hopeful of a peaceful summer where they can relax by the pool and not frantically refresh their Twitter feed every ten seconds. But our very own lying Dutchman clearly had other views…

We were almost guaranteed a less anxious summer when Director of Football Les Reed said at the player awards “this summer will be much quieter than the previous two.” However, with Everton sacking Roberto Martinez, they stated their intent to pinch our great Ronald Koeman almost immediately. He wouldn’t, would he? Surely Everton is nothing more than a sideways move, if not backwards, especially as Koeman has shown enough to us all to suggest that one day he could manage a club like Arsenal or even Barcelona. Given that Koeman has a year remaining on his contract and the fact that he’s repeatedly stated that he will honour the final year, fans were simply rejecting the Everton rumours in confidence that Koeman is a man of his word. Well, that’s what we all thought anyway. It appears that through a mixture of employing a new agent and the possibility of great financial gain, Koeman’s head has been turned. Through doing so, Koeman has lied to the players and fans who have sung his name so loudly over the past two seasons – I must add that these are the same fans who were behind Koeman every step of the way during last seasons barren winter run. It’s an undeniable fact that Koeman has given us our two best seasons in the Premier League to date, but his departure and the way in which he’s conducted himself has left us with a very bitter taste to remember him by.

So, with Koeman all but gone, who do Southampton fans look toward now to take the club forward once again?

Eddie Howe

Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe is my preferred choice to take control at St Mary’s. Howe’s philosophy of an attractive passing game will suit our style which we’ve become so accustomed to. His track record at Bournemouth is there for all to see after guiding them from League Two to the Premier League.

When Howe took over at Bournemouth in 2008, he guided the club out of the relegation zone despite a 17 point deduction at the start of the year. The following season, Howe won promotion to League One even with a transfer embargo looming over the club. However, Howe did move to Burnley in 2011 leaving Bournemouth with a 50% win ratio, but the move proved unsuccessful for him as Burnley finished 8th and then 13th the following year. He left in 2012 touting “personal reasons” for his departure.

No need to panic though Saints fans, every manager has a bad spell at a club where it doesn’t quite seem to click. And with Howe only needing to making a short journey across the South Coast, there’s no reason for him to be feeling homesick. Since his departure from Burnley, Howe moved back to Bournemouth and during his returning season he won promotion again for the Cherries finishing second behind Doncaster Rovers. Bournemouth had a largely successful first season in the Championship, with his side having a late charge for the playoffs. However, they didn’t quite make it, finishing 10th – six points off a play-off place. Howe used this experience to his advantage and Bournemouth won promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history the following year. With a victory over Charlton on the last day of the season coinciding with Watford’s draw to Sheffield Wednesday, the Cherries won the Championship title. Howe has picked up individual accolades for the tremendous work he’s done with Bournemouth, including ‘Manager of the Decade’ at the Football League awards. To many, Bournemouth looked certain to be relegated back into the Championship over their first year in England’s top division, but oh how wrong they were to be. Bournemouth had an unbelievable first season in the Premier League. The Cherries finished 16th and the club was all but safe weeks before the final game of the season –  five points clear of the relegation zone to be exact. In terms of five-year plans, Howe is the perfect candidate for me as his young age compared to other managers allows him to give us longevity. He’ll also be able to grow alongside the club due to the shared ideologies in how football should be played.

Andre Villas-Boas

Another candidate to replace Koeman could be the former Chelsea and Tottenham boss, Andre Villas-Boas. AVB gained his coaching badges and licenses through a discussion with Sir Bobby Robson after a 16-year-old Villa Boas lived in the same apartment block as the former England manager, when Robson was working at Porto. From gaining his UEFA Pro License he then became assistant manager to Jose Mourinho at Porto, Chelsea, and Inter Milan. AVB then gained his first managerial role at Academica in the Primeira Liga after leaving Mourinho’s backroom staff. He displayed great results at Academica with an attractive style of play. As a result, he moved to Porto, and his impact was immediate, winning the Portuguese Super Cup against bitter rivals, Benfica. Villas-Boas then went a season unbeaten in the league and winning the title by more than 20 points. During that season, his side only conceded 13 goals. His Porto side then went on to win the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League, the tournament that we will be competing in later this year.

Due to his incredible success at Porto, Villas-Boas was appointed Chelsea manager in 2011, leaving Porto with an 87.23 % win ratio. However, his time at Chelsea was cut short after falling out with senior players Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, and Ashley Cole. This called Abramovic to question his tactics and team selection for the match. As results didn’t improve and with Chelsea slipping out of the top four, Villas-Boas was relieved of his managerial duties.

AVB then replaced Harry Redknapp at Tottenham for the 2012/13 season. During this season, he picked up two “manager of the month” awards and guided Spurs into the last 16 of the Europa League. Spurs narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot to rivals Arsenal on the last day of the season. AVB reportedly turned down offers from PSG and Real Madrid to stay at Spurs. With Gareth Bale being sold to Madrid for £85 million, Spurs brought in a whole host of new additions. Not every player seemed to make the step up and a lack of squad harmony ensued. After a 6-0 defeat to Man City and a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, Andre Vilas Boas left the club by mutual consent. He left Tottenham with the highest win percentage of any Spurs manager in the Premier League with 55%.

Since leaving Spurs, AVB has managed Russian League side, Zenit St Petersburg. He was the first manager in Russian Premier League history to win his first six matches in charge. He then led Zenit to their fifth league title in his second year in charge. In his final season in charge, Villas-Boas won the Russian cup and finished top of the Champions League group.

I personally believe that it would be a coup for the club to appoint AVB. After failure in the Europa League last season, all of our players are desperate to right our wrongs and prove that we are worthy of being on the European stage – and it is here that AVB can prove to be valuable due to his experience of winning the competition. He certainly hasn’t fallen short domestically either, making the Portuguese boss all the more suitable for Southampton Football Club.

That’s my view, but who would you like to see in the dugout next season for Southampton? Be sure to let us know @freshsaints

 

Life after Fonte

On the 9th of January 2010, twenty-six-year-old Jose Fonte of Crystal Palace dropped down a division into League One, after being impressed by the ambition that Southampton Football club showed. Fast forward six years, and I think we can all agree that this decision paid off. Southampton are now an established Premier League club, with Fonte holding the title of captain and fan favourite of the St Mary’s faithful. But, after an illustrious tenure on the South Coast and slight cracks beginning to show, is it time we look for his replacement?

Fonte joined the club for a fee believed to be around £1.2 million in 2010, and since then, he’s paid that back ten fold – his form during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 Premier League campaigns especially, play testament to this. He wears his heart on his sleeve and has been ever-present in the side since his debut against Millwall in 2010. During his six years with the club, Fonte has played alongside eight different centre back partners. This not only highlights his quality to fend off competition, but it also displays his immense leadership skills and consistency throughout the years and divisions.

When Saints were promoted back to the Premier League after their 2011/12 Championship season, many were sceptical whether Fonte would be able to cope with the pedigree of Premier League attackers. During our debut season, Fonte ,unfortunately, lost his place in the side to newly recruited Maya Yoshida. At this time, it appeared that Fonte was struggling to adapt to life in the Premier League. However, after a full Premier League season under his belt, Mauricio Pochettino knew that Fonte was more than capable to rub shoulders with the Premier League’s best. To help take Fonte and the defence to the next level, Pochettino recruited Dejan Lovren. Fonte and Lovren formed a formidable partnership at the back which stemmed after Saints’ 1-0 opening day victory at West Brom. There were a few raised eyebrows when Fonte was on the team sheet to partner Lovren, but he proved valuable in keeping a clean sheet to secure the three points that day. Forgetting his actions at the end of the season, it was undoubtable that Lovren brought the best out of Fonte. The Portuguese international finished the season in the top ten best defenders in the Premier League, with 75 interceptions and 312 clearances, above Lovren.

After a summer exodus at St Mary’s with key players leaving for seemingly better clubs – including Fonte’s defensive partner Lovren – Fonte remained loyal and is currently reaping the rewards. With Southampton appointing Barcelona’s legendary centre-back Ronald Koeman as manager, this allowed Fonte to continue his progress in becoming one of the best defenders in the league. He was appointed captain when Adam Lallana left, and alongside loanee Toby Alderweireld, Fonte remained a rock at the back, helping to guide the Saints into the Europa League. Fonte also received recognition from the Portuguese national team, making his debut in a European qualifier against France. This gifted Fonte the opportunity to line up with his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo.

This season, however, it appears Fonte’s age is beginning to catch up with him. During our worst run of the season, with one win in ten, Fonte appeared to be sluggish in decisions, off the pace physically and lacking his usual instinctive defensive style – It wouldn’t take a genius to see that our defence was the weak point during that barren run. Only when Fraser Forster returned from a lengthy injury, did Fonte and the defence look as solid as it did the previous year. The defensive line then went on to achieve six consecutive clean sheets, with Fonte and Van Dijk showing their best form of the season. However, the Portuguese international did receive a red card against Sunderland when bringing down Borini. A smart foul you may argue, but that cost Southampton, as they only managed to draw to the relegation-threatened Sunderland at home. To me, it proved what we all know, that Fonte is an excellent defender. However, what fans may find hard to accept is that when ageing in such a fast paced division like the Premier League, errors will begin to creep into his game more and more regularly. It’s only natural and it happens to us all. Simply look at John Terry’s past two contrasting seasons as proof of age suddenly catching up.

The main question, however,  is who would be able to replace such an adored and established Southampton legend?

One candidate could be Stefan de Vrij. The Dutch international formerly worked under Koeman at Feyenoord and was once linked with a move to St Mary’s. After an impressive World Cup, Lazio were quick to sign the central defender. De Vrij is currently eight years younger than Fonte and has a lot of years to improve his already impressive game. In this season’s Serie A, De Vrij averages 4 tackles and 6.5 clearances per game. In comparison, Fonte registers 1.4 tackles and 5.8 clearances per game. One major factor which sees de Vrij a suitable replacement is an already formed partnership with Van Dijk. Due to international commitments and the Danny Blind’s newly reformed Holland side, Van Dijk and de Vrij are first choice centre-half partners.

Staying in Italy, another potential replacement could be 23-year-old centre-back Antonio Rüdiger who plays for Roma, on loan from VFB Stuttgart. He made his professional debut for the first team against Borussia Mönchengladbach at the age of just 19 and since then, he’s been capped nine times by the German national team – making his debut in 2014 during a 0-0 draw against Poland. The overriding problem here, however, is that he’s only on loan at Roma this season, and they are likely to make the loan permanent with a €9 million transfer fee already in place at the end of the season.

The third centre-back who would be a suitable fit is Niklas Süle. Süle has been capped for the German U21 side 10 times and has played 70 games for 1899 Hoffenheim. He is widely regarded as a hot prospect in Germany and has a strong all-round game, especially in his ability to time a tackle and retrieve the ball back. After sustaining a horror ACL injury, Süle has returned to be an indispensable member of the Hoffenheim back four. Süle may be available this summer due to Hoffenheim being threatened with relegation, but Liverpool are keeping tabs on the youngster.

The final player is Aleksandar Dragovic, who could be considered a like-for-like replacement. At just twenty-three years old, he has proved himself to be an incredibly smart, strong and tactically aware centre-half. He has built a reputation as a tough-tackling defender with technical ability in abundance. Any who have watched Dynamo Kiev, will be aware that they play a fast-paced brand of football, with Dragovic playing a key role in that link up between defence and attack. Such a role can be physically demanding on a player, even more so in the Premier League. But Dragovic has the natural stamina and ability to dig deep in the dying moments; lazy last minute lunges and tired legs are not a feature in his game.

I’m not saying Fonte’s race is run, far from it, but I think we should act now if we are to sign a suitable replacement. Jose has been the perfect example of what’s been great about the club since Markus Liebherr took over in 2009, and I will be deeply saddened to see the day where he isn’t leading the team onto the St Mary’s turf. However, if we bring in a replacement now, they could learn and be moulded into the next Fonte and fill the void that he will leave when he’s gone.  

 

Southampton’s race for European football

After last week’s exhilarating performance and result against Liverpool, Ronald Koeman’s side showed they have the fight, resolve and quality to challenge for European qualification. With Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane replicating their great early season form, all whilst Shane Long and Charlie Austin have popped up with vital goals, Southampton are now breathing down the neck of their fellow European football competitors.

As we approach the final few hurdles of the remaining season, the teams that join Southampton in this mouthwatering finale are Liverpool, Stoke City, Man Utd, West Ham and Manchester City. Liverpool are currently sat in 9th position, Stoke are in at 8th, with Manchester Utd in 6th, West Ham are on the brink of Champions League football, sat in 5th place, and Manchester City are slacking in 4th. With only seven points separating Man City in 4th and Liverpool in 9th, the Premier League will surely have a few more twists and turns as these sides challenge for a European spot, be it the Europa League, or the Champions League.

However, the race for these European spots will become much clearer when all teams have played the same total of games. Due to European and domestic cup commitments, not every team has featured the same amount of times in the league this season. Liverpool have the most games in hand, with two, which could potentially move the reds one place higher to 8th –  leapfrogging Stoke in turn. Then, with results going their way, Liverpool could move as high as 7th, but only if they were to better Southampton’s goal difference.

All three teams above Southampton have a game in hand, due to FA cup and Capital One cup appearances.

These could prove to be crucial points for West Ham, Manchester City and Manchester United to gain breathing space from the following pack. Manchester United and West Ham could go six points clear of Southampton if results fall in their favour, and Man City could push their margin to seven points. The pressure is well and truly with the four teams who have their games in hand.

On paper, Liverpool and Manchester City have the ‘easiest’ run-in in terms of times facing the current top four. Liverpool will only play against Tottenham on the 2nd of April, whilst Man City will only face Arsenal. Unfortunately Saints fans, you guessed it, we have the toughest run-in on paper. Southampton will play against three of the current top four in the last seven games of the season. And of course, that would include the current top two battling it out for the Premier League crown – Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. The King Power Stadium is Southampton’s next stop in the Premier League, whilst our final away outing of the season is at White Hart Lane, against Pochettino’s Spurs. Before Southampton make the trip to North London, however, St Mary’s will be the host of a potentially season-defining match against Man City on the 1st of May.

As for the Hammers and the Potters, West Ham will face Arsenal and Leicester, whilst Stoke will play against Man City and Tottenham. Manchester United will also compete with the current top two – Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. United’s clash against the Foxes will be held at Old Trafford, whilst they also travel, like Southampton, to North London to face Tottenham.

Worryingly, the final table would be grim reading for Saints if the remaining fixtures finished how the reverse fixtures finished earlier in the season. If Saints’ remaining seven games finished how they did earlier in the campaign, we would only gain three more points, leaving us with 50 points in 9th place. Manchester City would rise to 3rd with 73 points, whilst Arsenal would slip down to their familiar surroundings of 4th place with 68 points.

Manchester United would finish the season in 5th and gain automatic qualification to the Europa League, whilst West Ham, who would finish in 6th place, qualify through Manchester City’s Capital One Cup win. Liverpool would finish in 7th with 59 points and Stoke would finish one place below the reds in 8th.

However, there’s no need to panic Southampton fans. During the reverse fixtures, Southampton were in their worst form of the current season. We have to remember that during those games, we were missing Pelle, Forster and Rodriguez. Not to mention that we were still trying to find our feet after the loss of Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne and Toby Alderweireld. Now, however, with the return of Forster, the defence has looked as strong and reliable as it did the season before. To add to the positives, Pelle and Mane are both back amongst the goals, Shane Long is in the best form of his career, Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez will be back from injury and Wanyama looks to have turned a corner after his five-match ban. With all these factors present, there’s no reason why we can’t get the results to gift us an immediate return to European football for Ronald Koeman’s side.  

 

Charlie Austin: Following the footsteps of a Southampton great?

Since Rickie Lambert left Southampton for his boyhood club, Liverpool, there has been a 6ft 2 Liverpudlian shaped gap left on the St Mary’s turf and in Saints fan’s hearts. But, could that gap be filled once again?

With the arrival of Graziano Pelle back in 2014, Southampton fans thought they had an immediate replacement.
Sadly, this was not the case. Whilst the Italian may possess some of Lambert’s mean heading ability and a strong presence up top, this is rivaled by a habit to moan at teammates, storm down the tunnel and find himself amongst long goal droughts – three traits that were never seen in Lambert’s game. Pelle has been a brilliant forward for Southampton and has given fans some unforgettable memories, but he just can’t fill that gap left by Lambert.

However, on the 16th of January, Southampton announced the £4 million signing of Charlie Austin from QPR. The England international striker was in high demand from other Premier League rivals and Saints’ fans were licking their lips at their new found potential Lambert replacement. The similarities are there for all to see.

Back in 2009, Southampton were sitting rock-bottom of League 1 with -10 points. They were crying out for someone who had experience in the lower leagues and the man to change that was Rickie Lambert. Lambert was brought in for £1 million at the age of 27 and those who knew League One, knew that Southampton had found themselves a bargain.
Prior to putting on his red and white stripes, Lambert had scored 29 goals in his previous season for Bristol Rovers – with 59 goals for the Pirates in 155 appearances.
Rather like Lambert, Austin joined Southampton with a goalscoring record to boast about – scoring 46 goals in 79 appearances for QPR. Both strikers joined Southampton with a strong reputation, knowing that if they receive service, then the goals would quickly follow. All fans can agree that both signings are a bargain given their proven records.

Successful debut seasons in the Premier League are yet another similarity between the two. As both strikers were playing for newly promoted sides, the same question marks were lingering over them. Could they handle the physical nature of Premier League defenders? Could they adapt and impress in England’s top division? The answer was of course, yes.
Lambert finished his debut season with 15 league goals, making him the League’s joint highest English goalscorer alongside Frank Lampard.
Charlie Austin also went on to have an amazing breakthrough season in the Premier League, scoring a total of 18 goals – making him the League’s second highest English goalscorer that season.

As for debut goals, yes, you guessed it. They both struck gold on their Southampton debut. Lambert opened his account in a League cup tie against Northampton at St Mary’s, heading home Lloyd James’ cross to open the scoring.
A little more glamorous admittedly, Austin was presented the challenge of grabbing his debut goal at Old Trafford. This looked to be an unlikely feat from the first whistle, as Ronald Koeman opted to start Shane Long. But Austin clearly thought otherwise.
With only seven minutes left on the clock and the game poised at 0-0, Southampton won a free-kick right by the corner flag. With a signature Ward-Prowse set piece, Austin found himself a free header that powered past David De Gea in the United goal.

Best of all, however, both forwards share the same rags-to-riches story. At just 15 years-old, both players were released and forced into the everyday jobs that helped to create their widely documented success stories that we now all know.
After being released by Reading for his slight frame, Austin found work as a bricklayer. Life wasn’t any sweeter for Lambert either, who took up a job at a beetroot factory after being released by Liverpool.
But their dreams of playing football were far from over, as they both went on to join non-league sides. Austin was considerably more prominent in non-league football, having played for Kintbury Rangers, Hungerford Town, and Poole Town. Lambert briefly trained for non-league side Marine, but soon joined Blackpool as a trainee.

For now, though, we should enjoy knowing that we have a forward in our side who has always found the back of the net at all levels of English football. However, to see the best of Austin, it would come as no surprise to me if we must wait until the new season.

The reason being is that he needs time to fully adapt to our style of play. Simply look to Austin’s strike partner Shane Long for a lesson in the importance of patience and time with new signings. During the Irishman’s debut season at Southampton, Long just couldn’t nail down a first team spot. Instead, he would drift into the side with two good games and then frustrate fans with a series of underwhelming and wasteful showings. His £12 million price tag was mocked by many. But now, having been given time to adapt and learn his role in the side, Long has become one of our most influential and exciting players.

But truth be told, the gap left by Lambert will never be filled, no matter how successful Austin is. It was a case of the right man being here at the right time with his and the clubs own two stories merging into something truly special.
It’s certainly exciting and intriguing to see the similarities between the two, but I want to see Austin create his own legacy.

With an eye for goal, clinical finishing and a potentially formidable partnership with Long on the horizon, Southampton fans have every reason to be hopeful that Charlie Austin can one day stand alongside Sir Rickie Lambert in St Mary’s folklore.