Matches

Jose Fonte and Southampton FC: the fairy tale that’s come to a crashing end

Ugh. We’re here again. In this current moment it’s looking increasingly likely that Jose Fonte will complete his move to West Ham United, with reports stating that the two sides are close to agreeing a fee in the region of £8M; my only question surrounding this latest advancement however, is why? Just why?

On the 9th of January 2010 Jose Fonte decided to depart from Championship outfit Crystal Palace, in favour of a League one side that had recently entered into administration and faced a ten point deduction: that side was of course our beloved Southampton FC.

For the fans, there was excitement and hope that this tough tackling Portuguese centre half would finally bring solidity to our side, but Fonte himself saw far beyond the short term goals of this transfer.

“I’ve come here with a purpose, which is to help this club move to the top divisions. I want to play in the Premier League and I think I can do that quickest by moving here.”

These were the very words that Fonte spoke on his first day in red and white, and the tale that soon followed is remarkable.

There’s that beautiful day at Wembley for the JPT final, the back-to-back promotions taking Southampton to the Premier League, achieving our highest ever Premier League finish, and even returning once again to the Europa League. Since the 9th of January 2010, it’s undeniable that Fonte has been at the heart of all our success.

But it was with the reward for these achievements that has since changed Fonte into a player that we seem to no longer know.

Understandably, Fonte received his call up to the Portuguese national team ahead of the Euro’s, and to say the least, us Southampton fans were thrilled – rather emotional in fact. After years of hard work, grit, and dedication, our club captain was representing his country on one of the biggest stages that a player can ever prove himself on. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling like a proud dad as Fonte first stepped out onto the pitch to face Croatia…

However, with this start in place of the injured Ricardo Carvalho, Fonte didn’t just fill the gap, he made it his own, leaving manager Fernando Santos helpless in selecting Fonte for the quarter final against Poland, and semi final against Wales. In both games Portugal were victorious, and consequently Fonte held his place in the starting XI for the final against France – a decision that would see Portugal become Champions of Europe with a 1-0 win.

Through his ability, attitude and personality, Fonte has given so much to our club throughout his career, making it simply beautiful to witness that same man achieve his childhood dream

Every Southampton fan was supporting Portugal that night as they got behind Fonte, leaving us all optimistic for yet another season with a player capable of such fine performances. But oh how wrong we were…

Fonte returned to St Mary’s with a hero’s welcome, but shortly after it was clear for all to see that his head had been turned. Fonte had tasted success of the highest level, and now he wanted more. This lead to a summer of speculation whereby papers and online sources were filled with ideas regarding Fonte’s current situation, but in truth, only those involved with the deal know what was said over that summer.

What we do know however is that the performances that soon followed from our captain were showings of a man who was no longer stimulated. Fonte’s mind was clearly elsewhere, and on the fifth of January, that was confirmed by Les Reed:

“He’s had several opportunities to improve the situation and he’s reserved his right not to do that.

“He’s made it very clear he would like to explore the opportunities for a transfer.

“That’s where we are at the moment, Jose wants to leave the club. He’s formally asked for a transfer.”

These quotes were hard for every Southampton fan to swallow. We’ve heard it all before in regards to other stars from years gone by, but hearing such news about our club captain and a man who has been with us through every step of our journey was gutting. Just gutting.

With Fonte’s agent being Jorge Mendes – the same agent as Cristiano Ronaldo – this decision to hand in a transfer request was surely used as a means to alert the big boys. Fonte clearly wanted more silverware, and had his eyes firmly placed on a move to either one of Manchester United or Liverpool.

But it seems that Fonte didn’t take into account a particular circumstance; that neither club wants him. Which funnily enough, is exactly what’s happened.

Since realising this, Fonte has been the subject of two bids from two mid-table Premier League sides, West Bromwich Albion and West Ham, with Southampton reportedly close to accepting a bid from the latter.

Fonte has played his hand, and with brutal honesty, it seems to have backfired in the most embarrassing of ways. Not only have Fonte’s dreams of a ‘big move’ amounted to absolutely nothing, but it seems that he is now completely incapable of swallowing his pride and reconciling with the club and us Southampton fans. It appears that for this reason, Fonte harbours no ambition to make life work on the south coast. So much so that I believe if Fonte knew only West Ham and West Brom were interested from the start, his notice would have remained firmly in his pocket.

I will always love and adore Fonte for the years of service and crunching tackles as a member of our original League One side, there is no doubting that. I just hate that this against all odds fairy tale will be tarnished with the same brush of so many other departures from Southampton FC in recent years.

The real reason Southampton must find a finisher this January

Since the devastating shoulder injury to Charlie Austin in early December, we’ve been left without a real goal-scoring threat. (Besides Virgil Van Djik, of course.) We can turn tough draws into hard-earned victories if we use the January transfer window to snap up a useful forward, but another crucial reason as to why we must buy a striker – and buy one NOW – is to allow Sofiane Boufal to flourish.

It’s undeniable, Sofiane Boufal is class. He can receive a pass, turn, and glide past defenders with supreme confidence, all whilst boasting the ability to put the ball into the back of the net from the most ridiculous angles. On top of this, he also shows a hunger out on the pitch that leaves him constantly demanding the ball to be played into his feet, and why wouldn’t you with magic feet like his? 

via GIPHY

But what happens if that confidence disappears?

There are plenty of examples of talented wingers who burst onto the scene only to experience a prolonged dip in form. Even some of the very best in Riyad Mahrez, Pedro, and Eden Hazard have succumbed to spells of bad play. Granted, Boufal is yet to set the Premier League alight like the aforementioned names, but I believe he possesses the talent and tenacity to become a legitimate star. 

And yet his chance to make a name for himself could be snuffed out well before he truly begins. That’s because the confidence of creative players like Boufal is strongly linked to positive play in the attacking third, something Southampton have undoubtedly lacked since losing a goal-scoring threat. 

There are only so many times a footballer can beat his man on the left flank, then proceed to look up for a cross or slicing through ball, only to have no one available – or worse, complete a pass to a player that is incapable of finishing. This type of play is tiring in its own right, but when the fruits of labor are nowhere to be seen and there is no positive reinforcement, it’s also quite demoralising. A player with dazzling skill can become frustrated at his team and lose confidence in himself – something that with a player as naturally gifted as Boufal, we cant allow to happen. 

But if Southampton can use this transfer window intelligently and purchase a recognised out and out forward, then we’ll not only perform better as a squad, but we can unlock the potential of one of our most talented players.

Interview: Talking Mamadou Sakho with Sam McGuire

Another transfer window, and yet another Southampton player wanting out. Incase you missed it earlier this week, Les Reed confirmed that Jose Fonte has made it clear that he wants to explore the possibility of a transfer, having rejected both an improved and extended contract. Once again, this places Southampton in the forever recurring position of having to find a suitable replacement for one of their stars, but just like always, Southampton already appear to have their eyes on someone.

According to Paul Joyce, Southampton have shown great interest in the availability of Mamadou Sakho, who has been told that he can leave the club after falling out of favour with manager Jurgen Klopp. The report states that the French International is supposed to be keen on a move down South, despite interest from Sevilla and Galatasaray.

Eager to find out more about the French International, I spoke with Sam McGuire – writer at TheseFootballTimes and podcast member at Anfield Index – to find out if Sakho is the right man for Southampton Football Club.

Let’s start with the positives; what strengths do you see in Sakho as a player? He’s what most top teams seem to crave these days; a ball-playing centre-back. He break the lines with passes, he’s incisive and positive with his use of the ball. The reason he doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves is because of how awkward he looks when doing it. He’s commanding in the air, he’s a leader and he’s got that grit you sometimes need to get you over the line. In the Europa League match against United at Old Trafford many forget the home side had us on the ropes in that first half and Sakho put in a MOTM performance to keep them out.

Some might say his biggest strength, and possibly the greatest compliment you could pay him, is the fact Alberto Moreno looked fairly solid beside the Frenchman.

What weaknesses has Sakho shown?

His decision making can sometimes be questionable. As in when he attacks the ball and when he lets it bounce. If you’re squeamish you probably won’t be a fan though. As mentioned earlier, he’s not the most graceful on the ball and sometimes it looks as though he’s played himself into trouble but more often than not he’s got it under control.

There’s also question marks over his off field behaviour. He did storm out before a derby after not making the squad, he did put his career in danger after taking a supplement the club didn’t know about and he was sent home for being a disruptive influence on the tour.

Paul Joyce has claimed that Sakho is keen on a move to Southampton; how reliable do you deem Joyce regarding Liverpool news?

If Paul Joyce says something Liverpool related it’s usually true. This is a guy who leaked the Sevilla team news the night before the final by posting it as his Twitter picture.

What exactly has helped Sakho become such a fan favourite at Liverpool?

He bought into Liverpool as a city and in return the fans realised he was one of their own. He’s an adopted scouser. He does a lot of work in the community and goes beyond what’s expected of him and we as fans have a lot of time for players who do that. He showed us respect and we returned it with interest.

At times it was like having a fan on the pitch because he wanted to win as much as we did.

It’s safe to say that Jurgen Klopp and Mamadou Sakho seem to have their differences; what has happened between them and how would you summarise their relationship?

It’s difficult to comment without fully understanding what happened because there’s got to me more than meets the eye. Even after the drug debacle I think Sakho had a future at the club but he had to regain Klopp’s trust. It’s unlikely the club would have given the player a new squad number if he was always on the way out. But then something on the tour, he was late for a few things and disruptive in general.

Klopp sent him home as a way to show who was boss and you have to respect that.

There is a reported £20M price tag to acquire Sakho’s this window; do you believe that he is worth such a fee?

Definitely. He only recently signed a new deal at the club, he’s 26-years-old and he’s still a quality defender.

Obviously the likes of Romagnoli, John Stones, Eric Bailly and your own Virgil Van Dijk don’t come with the baggage Sakho does but in a world that they’re all worth £50M plus Sakho is comfortably worth £20M.

Finally, what would be your overriding thoughts if Sakho leave’s Anfield this window?

A mixture of regret and resentment.

Had he not been a fool on the tour he could have been part of the Liverpool squad. I know we’re second in the league but there are still defensive problems, especially when it comes to lapses in concentration and distribution of the ball, and it’s something you can’t help but feel Sakho would be able to fix, or at least play a part.

I trust Jurgen Klopp but sometimes you see Lucas/Lovren/Klavan do something ridiculous in defence and just let out a sigh knowing Sakho is at home. It’s just best for all parties if he leaves now though.

 

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.

Fraser Forster: questions need to be asked and answered

On the 13th of January 2016 the chant of “Fraser Forster, England’s number one” was being bellowed from all corners of St Mary’s stadium. Nearly one year on however, this chant has since been replaced by moans and murmurs, with Southampton fans understandably vocal over their worries of the big man.

 This time last year Southampton had been forced into relying on the services of Maarten Stekelenburg, and upon Forster’s return from injury, Southampton went on to keep six consecutive clean sheets – an achievement that would prove to be a new club record.

Forster’s return to the starting XI was remarkable; not only was he was denying the opposition numerous clear cut chances, but he was also raising the game of his team mates through the confidence that he naturally installed into his defence. Subsequently, this saw Southampton pick up 15 points across these six clean sheets – a run of form that made up for just one win in their previous ten games.

But at this moment, that brave, acrobatic, and confidence spreading shot-stopper is nowhere to be seen. So much so that many fans are running out of patience and calling for a new man to stand between the sticks.

Over the course of this season, the England International has been a serious disappointment. Given the fine form that he showed following his return from Injury, fans would’ve no doubt been excited to see just what level Forster may reach in the forthcoming season – after all, player development has been placed into the DNA of Southampton Football Club in recent years.

Forster has always shown clear weaknesses to his game; this can not be argued. But in the past these errors have often been instantly recovered, wasted by the opposition, or redeemed later that game. It goes without saying that hopes of progression over this season have been squashed by Forster’s undeniable regression.

The same weaknesses from the past are being shown, only this season they are happening far more often and being punished at an expected rate – worryingly, Forster doesn’t appear to boast the confidence to correct them either.

More specifically, there are four standout weaknesses to Forster’s game in my eyes. There is his inability to sprint from his line in 1v1 situations, his woeful distribution, his indecisiveness and lack of bravery to claim crosses, and finally, there is also his lack of anticipation when placed in reoccurring situations.

It could be argued that all of which were on show in Southampton’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur last night; Why exactly is this happening though? competition.

In this very moment, Forster is undroppable, regardless of how badly he may perform.

He could launch the ball into his own net this coming Saturday and yet still, he will be placed into the starting XI the following week. Forster has become all too complacent, and who wouldn’t when a 36-year-old Stuart Taylor is your only competition.

He knows that the number one spot is his own, and whether he realises it or not, this has caused Forster to lose his risk-taking nature that allowed him to decide those game changing moments.

Goalkeepers need to take risks and act as if each shot that they are facing will be their last. Instead, Forster seems too scared to rush off his line or dare to think one step ahead of the striker at risk of being the one at fault.

During his first season with Southampton, Forster had the motivation of proving his quality at a new club. During his second season, Forster had the pressure of returning from injury with a point to prove and the chance of turning Southampton’s fortune. This season however, Alex McCarthy’s early season injury and Taylor lack of quality appears to have left Forster awfully complacent and in need of motivation.

It will be interesting to see whether the return of McCarthy sparks some new-found form out of Forster.

There is no point in beating around the bush, it’s clear for anyone to see that Forster has been well below his expected standard this year, and even the statistics are there to back it up too.

Over the course of the season so far, Forster has faced 53 shots on target, recording a save to goal ratio of 1.3. This is poor when compared to his 2.76 average over the 2015/16 season.

Despite this drastic decrease however, Southampton have managed to record an average of 1.11 goals conceded per 90 this season. This is just a small increase on the impressive 0.94 figure of last season.

These statistics speak volumes of just how impressive Claude Puel’s defensive organisation is, but also just how much Forster is letting down the side. Behind any team that wishes to taste success, a fine goalkeeper is always in order.

There will be times when your side go one goal to the good and for the remainder of the game, your play just isn’t up to your usual standard and you need to cling on – its in these moments that your goalkeeper must step up, and at the minute, Forster simply isn’t doing that.

Over the course of this season Forster has had numerous opportunities to save all three points or even rescue a result for Southampton, but he’s failed to do so.

Now by no means am I saying that I expect him to be the difference in each tight margin of every negative result, but what I am saying is that I want to see the return of the 6ft 7inch man mountain who revels in such moments, not shy’s away from them.

The recent restoration of Southampton’s identity

When we as fans think of Southampton Football Club, we think of the hero’s that have worn the red and white stripes, our rise from League One, and the joy handed to us as a result of supporting this remarkable club. But to the rest of the world and the average football fan, we are best known for our conveyer belt of young talent, better known as the academy; a part of our club that with thanks to the appointment of Claude Puel, has been brought back to life.

Looking back on the 2012/13 season – the year of Southampton’s return to the Premier League – Nigel Adkins placed an unprecedented amount of faith in Southampton’s youth. He was not only responsible for giving James Ward-Prowse his Premier League debut on the opening game of the season against Manchester City, but he also handed a then 17-year-old Luke Shaw his Premier League debut soon after too.

Then along came Mauricio Pochettino in January 2013, and with him, came the rapid development of our finest young assets. Over the next season and a half, Luke Shaw transformed from a raw talent, into one of the Premier League’s most in-form and sought after fullbacks – earning him a £30m transfer to the Theatre of Dreams later that summer.

This was all whilst Pochettino helped James Ward-Prowse to become a key asset to the first team, Harrison Reed was finding opportunities during the absence of first team players, and of course, Calum Chambers was battling with Nathaniel Clyne for a starting place in the side. This was an achievement that Arsene Wenger deemed so impressive, that at the end of the 2013/14 season, the 19-year-old transferred to Arsenal in a deal worth £16M.

But on the 27th of May 2014, Southampton had to handle two gut wrenching departures; firstly, there was Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to leave for Tottenham Hotspur, and unknowingly at the time, there was also the destruction of the pathway between the academy and the first team.

With the appointment of Ronald Koeman, Southampton went on to record back-to-back record breaking seasons, with qualification to the Europa League also achieved over both years. However, there was a price to pay for this undeniable success; whilst dreams of European football were being achieved, Koeman was continuing to completely disregard the young talent available in the academy.

During Koeman’s two year reign at Southampton, the Dutchman failed to even significantly develop one academy talent, turning to experience over youth at any possible opportunity.

In fact, Koeman not only avoided promoting young talents, but also opted to slander them in the press, once stating how he wasn’t impressed with the standard after watching an U21 match.

Koeman stated “I look to the development of young players and they still have a lot to learn and they are still not on the level that is needed for the Premier League.

“For some of them it is a long way, maybe too long. Only Matt Targett is ready for the the first team. Harry Reed is also close, but the rest not so much.”

Koeman was adamant that the talent in our academy simply wasn’t good enough, but with Southampton Football Club now under the control of Claude Puel, Koeman’s comments have been made to look rather foolish.

Since the start of the season, Southampton fans have been treated to the attacking talent of Josh Sims, the bite of Harrison Reed, and even the creativity of Jake Hesketh. Not to mention that James Ward-Prowse has also shown improvement in his awareness on the field too, but perhaps the most impressive integration of an academy star has been the introduction of Sam McQueen.

The 21-year-old spent his years in the academy as a direct winger, but under Puel, McQueen has been transformed into an expressive and attack minded wing back.

Many at this point may say that such a decision by Puel was only made due to Bertrand’s injury, but I would heavily disagree. At the time of Bertrand’s absence, left back Matt Targett and versatile centre half Maya Yoshida were still available for selection, yet still, Puel wanted to analyse the entirety of his squad to see what was at his disposal.

To me, finding a first team left back in the form of an academy winger shows just how willing Puel is to provide opportunities to our young talents. Best of all, these young players haven’t been handed such opportunities out of desperation either. These academy players have been given opportunities ahead of established first team players, and it shows on the field just how much faith and confidence Puel has given these youngsters.

In short, Puel respects what Southampton Football Club is all about. He understands that to us fans, we of course expect attractive football, but that we also love to see products of our own academy out there in the red and white stripes.

We are still in the early days of Puel’s tenure at Southampton Football Club, and therefore, there are still questions to be answered as to whether he can meet the clubs demands of annual progress. However, in just his five months at the club so far, Puel has without a doubt proven his burning desire to create attractive football and develop young talent; two components that fit perfectly with the ideologies of Southampton Football Club.

The future is bright for Southampton’s midfield

Ah, ‘the diamond’. A term that I’m sure many of us Southampton fans are quite frankly growing sick of.

We had the initial ‘will it work?’ Followed by the ‘how long will it last?’ And now, after a spell whereby all fans grew a salty tasting love for it, there is once again doubt. But this piece isn’t a tactical analysis of the formation, or even how I want to see the side altered, this piece is here to appreciate the components themselves within Claude Puel’s aforementioned diamond.

To be precise, I believe that Southampton Football Club have one hell of a future in store for themselves in the middle of the park, and here’s why…

First are foremost, we have the balance and ability of the midfield itself. As we look to the future, there are three players that standout to me; Oriol Romeu, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and James Ward-Prowse.

With the combination of these three players, Southampton have an exceptional spine to their side, but let’s start with the base of the midfield. Throughout this season, Romeu has without a doubt been Southampton’s most improved player, and it could be argued by many that he’s challenging Virgil Van Dijk to be our top performer.

Romeu has now proven himself to be a monster in breaking up play, winning more tackles per 90 minutes (2.88) than Nemanja Matic, Ngolo Kante, Jordan Henderson and Francis Coquelin this season. He has also shown his quality in possession too, recording an 88% pass completion rate over his 12 Premier League starts.

Romeu is key in recovering the ball, maintaining possession and helping to pin back the opposition; with his latest role in the side allowing him to carry out these strengths most effectively. Whilst he plays a simple game, carrying out the role is far from simple. Considering that experience is one of the most important factors in becoming a top level defensive midfielder, Romeu is an exciting project at the age of 25.

Romeu acts as the foundation of Southampton’s possession based play, and it’s his deep positioning in the side that allows his two fellow midfield partners to flourish. One of which is a new found fan-favourite, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. The 21-year-old arrived at Southampton in the summer and since joining, every Southampton fan has come to recognise what he is all about.

Højbjerg is a central midfielder with a persistent positive approach to the game. At any given opportunity, Højbjerg looks to push Southampton forward and place pressure onto the opposition; be that through a cutting pass into Dusan Tadic, or a daring run from deep in the midfield. His technical ability is undeniable, and whilst his biggest negatives have been his fitness and sometimes wasteful nature, this can easily be worked with.

Then we come to one of our very own in James Ward-Prowse. In my opinion, the England U21 captain currently has a fantastic opportunity to cement himself as a starter for Southampton FC. Ward-Prowse boasts an unbelievable passing range, an incredibly dangerous delivery on set pieces, and holds the intelligence required to dictate the tempo of a game.

But I am by no means bias, and therefore, I am able to recognize that he often lacks the intensity needed in a Premier League match, and that his ability to finish is needing urgent attention. This has seen Ward-Prowse receive plenty of criticism in recent years, which in my opinion, most of which is unjust. He is still only 22-years-old and I believe that due to his great maturity on the field, so many fans forget that he still has plenty of time to improve.

With Romeu sitting deep to sweep up, Højbjerg looking to penetrate the opposition, and Ward-Prowse controlling the tempo of the game, Southampton have a wonderful balance in the midfield.

This leads us nicely into my second point; the fact that Southampton have two Pep Guardiola educated midfielders within their ranks. I’m of course talking about Romeu and Højbjerg. Admittedly, both possess two totally contrasting styles on the field, however, both share the same tactical understanding, willingness to learn and specifically to the training of Guardiola, an easily recognisable education in body orientation.

If you’re familiar with the demands that Guardiola holds over a player, then you will know just how important these characteristics are, and how deeply drilled these traits are into so many who have worked under the Spaniard.

The tactical understanding that both Romeu and Højbjerg hold is remarkable. They are able to naturally adjust to changes mid-game, possess the ability to greatly enhance their physical ability with their extensive tactical knowledge, and are able to absorb tactical concepts with ease. Perhaps explaining why both players were able to make such a seamless transition into their new formation and role.

Romeu and Højbjerg aren’t just switched on tactically either, they are also switched on mentally. Both players boast the same desire to learn and work on the training ground, often leaving manager’s helpless in admiring their mindset. A player can have an abundance of quality, but without the desire and willingness to learn more, they are significantly lowering their ceiling of potential growth – thankfully, the Southampton due possess both. Such keen learners of the game are easy to develop and progress.

Then we come to a trait that is as mentioned before, a must-have for players who wish to work under Guardiola; body orientation. To those who are unaware of what body orientation means in footballing terms, it is all about positioning your body so that you are able to see the pitch (hunting for space), your opponents, and of course, your teammates.

In a possession based side, this is vital for maintaining control of the game as each player constantly knows where and who they can pass the ball to. It sounds like a simple skill to adopt, but it fact, it takes years to integrate into a player so that the skill becomes second nature.

Next time you’re watching Romeu and Højbjerg play for Southampton, just watch the way that they position their body when receiving or turning with the ball – they always know what their next move will be, and the positioning of their body allows them to do it as fast as possible.   

Third and finally, we have the style of play that Puel is implementing onto Southampton’s midfield. Since arriving at the club, Puel has given the Southampton midfield far different demands to that of seasons gone by with Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman.

When in possession, Puel wishes to see his midfield control the ball in a composed manner, waiting for the opposition to open up in a bid to find that perfect opportunity to attack. This places great emphasis on the midfield to be assured in their short passing, composed on the ball, to remain patient, and to have belief in their ability. Notice anything? All of these demands match the strengths of Romeu, Højbjerg and Ward-Prowse…

Understandably, fans are a little worried about the side after that horrendous showing against Sparta Prague last Thursday, but how can we be so quick to forget so many of those dominant performances? We are so early into Puel’s reign, yet we have still been treated to some of the most composed midfield performances that i’ve seen from Southampton in recent years. Besides, what else can be expected from a side that is learning how to play an entirely different concept of football?

With all of these factors considered, it leaves me certain that with the same patience, education and belief given to so many talents at Southampton FC in years gone by, us Southampton fans have every reason to be excited for the future of our midfield.

After all, there are few better in the business at turning potential into performance.

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.