Matches

Southampton FC vs AC Sparta Praha: My starting XI

So, here we are again. Southampton Football Club are back in the Europa League, but this time, they come bearing a new manager, new players, and the desire to right the wrongs of last season. With the first game of Southampton’s Europa campaign kicking off tonight, I gave my view regarding who I believe should make the starting XI against Sparta Praha. 

Fraser Forster – given the confidence that the 6ft 7-inch giant installs in the defence, selecting anyone else would cause outrage. 

Cedric Soares – at times like this, playing Pied would have been a very useful option; but with the Frenchman out for up to nine months, Cedric has to start again. In addition, It seems that Martina hasn’t impressed Puel either.

Jose Fonte – despite a number of mistakes in recent showings, Fonte is our leader at the back and simply must start in such an important game for the club.

Virgil Van Dijk – for me, Van Dijk is without doubt Southampton’s best defender. Keeping the Fonte and Van Dijk partnership is key.

Ryan Bertrand – despite only just returning from injury, Bertrand’s impact on the left flank is too strong to possibly drop him. We must start the Europa League as we mean to go on, even if that means considering the possibility of starting Targett this Sunday.

Oriol Romeu – the Spaniard was my man of the match against Arsenal last weekend and we must reward him for such a passionate performance. Romeu will be up for this game and provide that much-needed protection in front of the backline.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg – after being dropped to the bench last weekend at the Emirates, Hojbjerg will now be raring to continue his exciting start to life at Southampton. From what we’ve seen so far, Hojbjerg ensures that the midfield continues to take up a positive and expressive approach to the game. He’s a player that places the fans on the edge of their seat.

James Ward-Prowse – the England U21 captain has not only been rested well since the International break, but he has also shown promising signs that he can form a partnership alongside Hojbjerg in central midfield. Firstly, I would start Ward-Prowse over Davis as he has so far struggled to adapt to this new central midfield role – this has seen Davis get dragged out of position on numerous occasions and prove wasteful in deeper areas. However, whilst I believe that we would currently be a stronger XI with Clasie starting, the Dutchman has recently been showing fine form and I wouldn’t want to burn him out. Small and effective use of rotation is crucial when playing on both Thursday and Sunday

Dusan Tadic – he is not only our most creative spark, but he’s also coming off the back of scoring against Arsenal last weekend (albeit with the help of Petr Cech) – we can’t afford to bench a player who gives us our bench chance of carving open the opposition defence.

Nathan Redmond – whilst Redmond has so far been lacking the drive and aggression needed from a forward, I believe that It would be idiotic to start him on the bench. In European football, those tight margins matter all the more and the extra pace/movement that Redmond provides will be key if we go on to win. He’s also one of the few players that we possess who can naturally operate in the channels too.

Shane Long – it goes without saying that Long had a shocker against Arsenal last weekend after missing three fantastic opportunities, but to tell the truth, I think that Long has to start again. Not because of form and certainly not because he deserve’s it right now (he doesn’t), but because he is the only striker in Southampton’s ranks who understands Puel’s system. Long has been well below par over the start of this Premier League season, but provided he can at least carry out his demands in the system, the performances of others will be raised. 

Three is the magic number

As the final stages of Southampton’s clash with Arsenal came to a close last Saturday, I was left with two overriding positives from the gut-wrenching defeat – the return of Ryan Bertrand, and the complete midfield performance from Oriol Romeu. Since signing for the club, the pair have most definitely forged their way into the hearts of the Southampton fans, but it’s the way in which these players were sourced by the club that has left me excited.

If you look at the signing of Bertrand in 2014, Romeu in 2015 and even Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in 2016 (admittedly, on a bigger scale) Southampton Football Club appear to have found themselves a new transfer strategy, and I’ve got to say, I like it. I like it a lot.

Quite simply, Southampton have placed their focus on scouting and securing third tier talents from Europe’s big clubs. When Bertrand signed for Southampton on loan in 2014, he had just come off the back of a loan spell at Aston Villa – his eighth loan move away from Chelsea. Similarly to Bertrand, Romeu had also fallen out of favour at the Blues and spent two seasons out on loan in Spain and Germany, before Southampton came calling. Then we have Hojbjerg, a player who despite being labelled as the next Sergio Busquets, found first team football at Bayern Munich a premium to come by – two loan moves over two seasons was the end result.

A top tier player is one that the manager believes should always be in the starting XI. A second tier player is one that the manager often uses to change the game, to replace a player, or is a young project. Then, we have a third tier player; at a big club, this player was most likely filled with much promise at one point and had stages of greatly impressing onlookers, only to be cast away from the teams first team plans along the line (often due to a ludicrous amount of quality in the top two tiers). Simply take a look at the numbers below to see why I categorised Bertrand, Romeu and Hojbjerg in the third tier at their previous club…

Ryan Bertrand: appearances for Chelsea – 28

                         Loan appearances – 183

Oriol Romeu: appearances for Chelsea – 22

                         Loan appearances – 40

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg: appearances for Bayern Munich – 17

                         Loan appearances – 39

What must be said however is that there is no shame in being a third tier player at a club like Chelsea or Bayern Munich – Southampton and the players themselves have certainly proved just that. In fact, Southampton have come to realise that there is many benefits in snapping up such players.

Firstly, and perhaps one aspect that us Southampton fans can appreciate most, their attitude is spot on. Due to previously only being handed first team minutes when they were a young star, others were injured or whilst out on loan, Bertrand and Romeu clearly value the trust that has been placed in them under both Koeman and Puel. Not to mention that the pair also have an exceptional relationship with the fans too. After so many years of uncertainty in their position, they are now eager to prove to everyone that they are the real deal – this can only benefit all parties.

However, whilst they were held back in not being rewarded with first team minutes at their parent club, Southampton are now reaping the benefits of all the training sessions that Bertrand, Romeu and Hojbjerg took place in. During their time at Chelsea and Bayern Munich, these three trained with some of the greatest players in the game and any football expert will tell you just how beneficial this can be. Training with these top tier players helps to raise the bar of the third tier players as they are forced into learning about how to handle and outsmart a stronger opposition at all times.

In addition to this, Bertrand and Romeu appear to have realised what they believe is important in football – gametime, appreciation from fans and feeling valued – and therefore, have no desire to leave. They have experienced life at a big club and don’t want that back. In turn, this builds a strong core in the Southampton side, helping to not only churn out more consistent performances, but also create a good feeling around the squad. This means that Southampton can continue to ship in those players who carry that extra special touch of quality – by that I mean the players who see us as a stepping stone and ensure that our club’s balance sheets are looking healthy in two seasons time. Continuing to strike a good balance between players that are here for the long run and those that are here for their big money move is key to Southampton’s success.

The final benefit is one that most certainly keeps in line with Southampton’s transfer policy; they are cheap. The simple reason for this is that the selling club will so often struggle to justify a large price tag if the player is struggling to get minutes for the club itself. The signing of Bertrand at £10M, Romeu at £5M and Hojbjerg at £12.8M is living proof of that. If any of these players were plying their trade at a mid table side, then you would have to expect the club to demand at least double the fee that Southampton paid to acquire their services.  

For me, there is no doubt that the club have placed a clear focus on snapping up gems from the big boys, and oddly, the position of all three of these player’s seems rather fitting with what Southampton have been about since returning to the Premier League. Despite the doubts, questions and pressure piled on from many, we are good enough and we will continue to progress.

 

Management and mannerisms

In the last few years, the Premier League has seen an influx of world-class managers, and in the modern game, we now know more about them than ever.  Their tactics are scrutinised and analysed until which point that every fan seems to know the intricate differences between Conte’s brilliant wing-back formation with Italy during the 2016 EUROs, and Brendan Rodgers’ three-at-the-back formation which took the Premier League by storm in 2013/14.

However, there is obviously a lot more going on than the “Average Joe” might believe, with regards to formations, player roles and managers pinpointing areas of weakness in their opposition’s team. What most interests me, however, is the way in which a manager can carry himself, both in the public eye of press conferences and in the privacy of the training ground. The way in which a manager asserts himself as the focal point of a football club after a move is of utmost importance.

The past three managers at Southampton FC – including the latest man at the helm Claude Puel – seem to have very different ways of carrying themselves. In pre and post-match press conferences they have all acted in very different ways and on the training ground they seem to have very different ways of getting involved.  Not to mention that if rumours are to be believed, they also have very different ways of dealing with player disputes. But how have their respective mannerisms altered results on the pitch? this is something that intrigues me greatly.

Firstly, we have Mauricio Pochettino – a man who came to England with little knowledge of the English language. But simply based on how many players followed him out of St. Mary’s to different clubs in the summer of 2014, we can infer that there was a true bond and sense of camaraderie among the players in his squad. He joined in with training sessions, taking a hands on approach and tried to teach the players everything he knew; both technically with their feet and tactically with their brains. He seemed to love the youth players, using many of them in all competitions; Luke Shaw was a regular starter for Pochettino and owes a lot of his development to the Argentine. Sam McQueen made his debut away to Sunderland in the FA cup, and Harrison Reed and Sam Gallagher made their competitive debuts under Pochettino too. He built an aura of trust and friendship with all of his players, which is why so many refused to stay when he left in 2014.

Pochettino has been described as working his players very hard; he will not tolerate anything less than 100% effort from his team.  Victor Wanyama claims that Pochettino himself was the main reason behind his recent move to Spurs – another indicator that players bought into him as both a football manager and on a human level. Wanyama also stated that Pochettino’s pre-season was a gruelling regime, which meant all players would be at peak fitness come the start of the season, but was an embodiment of the man himself and his philosophies and mannerisms; 100% effort or no playing time. I personally believe that Erik Lamela’s rebirth as a star in the Premier League can be attributed to Pochettino’s traits yet again.

With regards to Pochettino in the media, we as Saints fans are led to believe that he continued to use a translator to make sure that he was not misquoted in the media. He would always answer questions directly; giving pure truth and making sure that the general public knew exactly what he wanted to say. As a man, many respected him; he never seemed to shy away or lie, he instils bonds among his squads and he knows how to win, which led to his brilliant 8th place finish with Saints in 2013/14. In this regard, I personally believe that Pochettino will go on to have a brilliant managerial career, as he gets the best out of his players in every way.

Secondly, we have a vastly different character to Mauricio Pochettino; the former Saint Ronald Koeman. He came to England with an almost native-fluency of the spoken language, he played at the highest level under some of the best managers of all time and he was very tactically proficient. However, Koeman was a hard-headed individual and a stubborn manager who would not allow his players to undermine him in any regard. Every photo and video released by Saints’ media team of the training sessions held by Koeman show him, with arms folded, on the touchline, barking orders at his players. He never seemed to get involved with the training sessions and teach his players, despite being considered as one of the greatest defenders of his generation.

Quite simply, if we are to believe many rumours circulating Southampton F.C, it seemed that Koeman did not care for many of his players during his two-year tenure at St Mary’s. In the last few months for example, Sadio Mané was used as a scapegoat for Southampton’s poor form; during the 2015/16 season, Mane arrived 15 minutes late for a pre-match team meeting in an away fixture against Norwich City, and as a result, Koeman dropped him. This seemed like a fair punishment at the time, but soon after, confirmed reports stated that Mané believed he was perfectly on time. The mix-up was in fact on Koeman’s behalf, after  changing the time of the meeting without Mane being notified. This was the supposed beginning of the breakdown in the relationship between Koeman and Mane – one that led to Mané’s exit this summer. There are also murmurs that Tadić and Cédric would have left St Mary’s if Koeman stayed as they were tired of his dictator-like attitude. They were also reportedly made to feel like scapegoats during the team’s drop in form.

Finally, again if we can believe rumours, Koeman did not care for any of the youth team. He never bothered to watch their games, he refused to promote many of them to the first team and even went on a “foul-mouthed tirade” at a 20-year old Matt Targett during a training session, abusing him in front of many of his friends and colleagues. This again is a sudden misstep from what Pochettino had installed previously, and what Southampton F.C. want to promote in a football club.

However, in press conferences, Koeman embodied the word confidence; he nonchalantly ignored any journalist that he felt was asking unimportant questions, he blatantly lied about the Everton link and often made jokes at the journalists themselves. One thing we cannot doubt; Ronald Koeman is a winner, a disciplinarian who will most likely rise to the top and succeed in his managerial career, given his two record-breaking season in the dugout of St Mary’s. But Southampton fans should not be worried to lose him; he may have broken records and taken us to Europe, but he did not put emphasis on the club’s structure or philosophies, and his mannerisms suggest to me that he thought he was bigger than the club.

The 30th June 2016, enter the latest man to become Southampton manager; Claude Puel. With a wealth of experience in France and a history of promoting young players; including giving debuts to Yohan Cabaye and Eden Hazard, and being attributed with turning Thierry Henry into a striker from a winger, Puel seems to be an ideal fit for Southampton’s philosophies.

With regards to his personality and mannerisms, it is very hard to judge him based on his two months at St Mary’s, but I have personally seen encouraging signs. He seems to want camaraderie among his camp, constantly complimenting his players in the press and engaging with training sessions (if we can believe the Saints media team!). Nathan Redmond is a name that springs to mind; Puel has likened him to Henry already, saying that he could be a fantastic signing for years to come. Redmond then returned him with an equalising debut goal vs Watford.

Puel seems to engage the media very well, his knowledge of the English language has impressed me greatly already and he speaks in a very calm and collected manner, rather than giving a brash response. Puel himself claimed that it is very important to carry oneself well in the public eye; if he wants to scream at his players after a poor performance, then so be it, but once the cameras are on him, or as soon as the newspaper journalists start to take note, it is of utmost importance to stay professional and calm, so as to keep the aura and reputation of the club focused and pristine even in hard times. This is something I have admired greatly; I think it will enhance the attitudes of players too as they will most likely buy into his way of thinking if he continues to compliment them and keep their bond of trust private inside the club.

Finally, many former players under Puel have constantly praised his attitude towards his players; he buys into them and invests time into improving not only the club, but the players themselves, and they in turn reward him with performances and results. Thierry Henry has been full of praise for him and his way of acting on the training ground, claiming that he is the “perfect fit” for Southampton F.C.

I think it speaks great volumes that new club record-signing Sofiane Boufal rejected multiple offers to come to St Mary’s. Boufal’s agent himself even stated that had Laurent Blanc remained in charge at PSG, Paris would have been the destination for Boufal this summer. In his first interview as a Saint, he constantly attributed Puel as the reason for his move, which gives me a new sense of confidence about the new manager. His reputation in France precedes him; a brilliantly technical coach, with the level-headedness of a future world-class manager. Puel himself has attributed all of his characteristics to Arséne Wenger, and if Saints fans get even the slight taste of one of the Premier League’s and world’s best ever managers, they will be delighted with Puel’s appointment.

Personally, I am expecting a similar tenure to that of Mauricio Pochettino; Puel will start slow and steadily get the players onside, creating a bond and friendship between his backroom staff and players that will lead to stable and successful seasons in the future. Yet unlike Pochettino, I trust in Puel that if all goes to plan, he will stay loyal to Southampton F.C. and remain at the head of the club for many years, as he has done at his previous clubs.

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?

More than just a game

After yet another record-breaking year, Southampton are currently preparing to reap the rewards of their sixth place Premier League finish last season –  the opportunity to impress in the Europa League group stages.

The achievement was celebrated wildly on the South coast, and understandably so given that the club have yet another opportunity to go toe to toe with some of Europe’s biggest and greatest names. To the players of last season, it’s also seen as a chance to right the wrongs of their premature exit last time out.

After the disappointment of getting knocked out by an inferior FC Midtjylland team, many thought that this was the end of our European hopes, and that our chance to really make ourselves known amongst Europe’s elite football clubs had gone. Matters were made worse by the fact that had we defeated FC Midtjylland, Southampton would’ve been drawn alongside Italian giants Napoli in the group stage – this left fans wondering what could have been had we qualified and faced players like Gonzalo Higuaín.

But, despite all this, the 2015/16 season saw Southampton better their league position for the 7th year in a row. A remarkable achievement given the fact that we were continually written off and tipped for relegation by many “experts.” This trend of selling players, being written off and over-achieving has been repeated and repeated until we found ourselves in 6th place, and now, we have our reward. Just last week, the club was drawn into group K alongside Israeli Premier League champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the Czech First League runners-up Sparta Prague, and Italian super club Inter Milan: the 9th most successful football club in the world.

For many (myself included) to watch Southampton play at the San Siro against Inter Milan in a competitive football match is unimaginable. It’s something that I thought until recently,  we as Saints fans could only dream about. Whilst growing up, Inter Milan was always one of the superpowers of world football, and is it any surprise when they held such great players like Ibrahimovic, Figo, Eto’o, Ronaldo, Baggio and Matthaus amongst others.

Yet despite the history and power behind Inter Milan, we – Southampton Football Club – have found ourselves in this unbelievable position. This draw has acted as a reward to the fans, staff, players and owners. It’s rewarded those who shunned interest from other clubs to stay with us, and it has rewarded the fans whose support never wavered.  

This draw is for the fans who saw us hit the bottom of League 1 with minus 10 points, for those who made the Tuesday travels to Rochdale, for those who stood proudly at Old Trafford just last season, and for those who watched our relegation fixture against Manchester United in 2005.

On top of this, it signifies the influence of the Liebherr family who saved us from liquidation. When they took over, Southampton were on -10 points in the 3rd tier of English football. That year, we finished the season with a 3-1 win at home to Southend and gained a respectable 7th place finish. 12 days later, Inter Milan would beat Bayern Munich 2-0 to win the Champions League final with the likes of Diego Milito, Javier Zanetti and Wesley Sneijder all at their disposal. Yet 7 years down the line these two teams find themselves playing against each other in a competitive match. Imagine telling someone that after Southampton’s 1-1 draw against Millwall on the opening day of the 09/10 League 1 season.

For me, such an achievement epitomises everything great about our beloved club. This achievement was made possible by the unrivalled training facilities that we possess, the trust in our youth, the mysterious black box, those who know what it means to be a Saint, and every last player that has had the pleasure of putting on that red and white shirt.

But regardless of these achievements and the significance of it all, we have a game to play and a trophy to win. We aren’t in this tournament to make up the numbers, nor will we treat it any less than any other game. We aren’t going to the San Siro for a holiday, we’re going there to get 3 points, and along the way, we will have 5000 loyal Saints fans singing  around all four corners of the 80,000 seater stadium

Win, lose or draw, this will be one of the greatest nights in our clubs history. Many haven’t seen us come up against a team of this calibre before in a competitive match, and whether we will again remains to be seen. But to see our very own youth academy graduates walk through the infamous San Siro tunnel to play on that turf, standing where the greats of both Milan clubs have stood, you can only be proud of our achievements. And who’s to say this is the end of Southampton’s rise? we are fine being the underdogs and we embrace going against the odds. We’ve done the unthinkable before, why not do it again?

Ryan Bertrand – Southampton’s unsung hero

Southampton are now three games into the new season and still find themselves searching for their first win. But this situation is far from unfamiliar for Southampton FC, and with the return of a man who has captured the heart of every Southampton fan, history suggests that this slow start will soon be put to an end.

This same time last season, Southampton had played three games and found themselves with just two points on the table. Worry was beginning to creep into the minds of the onlooking Southampton fans, and with a further three fixtures, Southampton had secured just one win in their opening six. The papers were lapping it up with their early reports of a meltdown occurring on the South coast, but Ryan Bertrand had other ideas. Having been absent in Southampton’s opening six fixtures due to injury, Bertrand returned to the starting XI against Swansea City on the 26th of September – of course, Southampton won 3-1 and proceeded to go their next five fixtures unbeaten. So, with Bertrand once again missing from our opening three fixtures, is it any wonder that Southampton have struggled?

With the return of Ryan Bertrand, Southampton will once again have an outlet on the left flank that is capable of contributing to all phases of play. Few defenders in the League hold the defensive understanding, physicality, discipline, consistency and attacking mindset that Bertrand possesses in abundance. To those who have watched Puel’s system, they will know just how valuable a fullback of such quality can be.

Whilst in Bertrand’s absence I have enjoyed watching Matt Targett – a product of the Southampton academy – prove his worth, I would be lying if I said we weren’t a far weaker side without Bertrand. In situations where other fullbacks have that split second of doubt when looking to advance, Bertrand drives to the byline, and when other defenders are caught between two minds against an attacker, Bertrand has already put his body on the line. The England International fills all his surrounding teammates with confidence, helping the side to play the exciting and expressive football that they’re so capable of.

But whilst Bertrand’s ability has been above and beyond what any of us expected, there is a side to Bertrand that as Southampton fans, we have come to admire and appreciate – his attitude. Having joined Southampton in 2014 from Chelsea – after a rather underwhelming loan move to Aston Villa – it appeared that Bertrand almost instantly appreciated the joys of regular football in an organised side. Since then, Bertrand has jumped into every last 50/50, chased down any loose ball and can be seen applauding the fans at any possible moment. His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed either, having been awarded the Terry Paine MBE award, a spot in the Premier League’s 2014/15 Team of the Season and an all but guaranteed spot in the England squad.

What I find best about Bertrand’s humble and determined attitude however, is that it’s always focused on the bigger picture. Whenever he’s forced into making a sacrifice or putting those extra miles in, he’s doing it so that Southampton Football Club can continue to grow – nothing illustrates this better than his attitude regarding one particular demand from Ronald Koeman last season. After a barren run over the Christmas period, Southampton desperately needed change and stability. So, Koeman opted for Southampton to switch into a 3-5-2 formation. Despite the Euros taking place in just a number of months, Bertrand placed his own personal ambitions to the side and impressively operated as a centre back throughout January, February and March of 2016. Not a single complaint, worry or issue arose from the situation. In this modern age of the game, it would come as no surprise to me that if that same situation occurred to Bertrand’s England team-mates, numerous agents would have been put to work. 

Southampton gambled with the signing of Ryan Bertrand back in 2014, and in return, the club have been rewarded with a fine footballer who has been desperate to pay back that trust. Ryan Bertrand knows what it means to be a Saint, and after transfer windows of the past, we must ensure that he never forgets how much we appreciate it.

Sofiane Boufal: a man who can bring more than just talent to Southampton FC

Earlier this morning, Southampton Football Club announced the signing of Moroccan International, Sofiane Boufal, for a club record £16M fee. With this transfer, Southampton are acquiring one of the finest talents in Ligue 1 and with good reason, it’s left every fan of the South Coast club eager for the International break to end already.

Before we touch on anything else however, we must first look at the most obvious and important reason for signing Boufal, his immense ability. Over the past two seasons, Boufal has been linked to some of Europe’s greatest clubs – Barcelona, Juventus, and Chelsea amongst others – and with the following stats, it’s not hard to see why.

Over the 2015/16 season with Lille, Boufal managed to record 11 goals and four assists in just 29 appearances. Alongside this, he created 69 chances for his side, completed over 124 successful take-ons and found the back of the net seven times from his last eight shots on target. All of this was accomplished at the age of just 22 years old. But speaking in terms of his style of play, Boufal is similar to a certain Eden Hazard. Whilst it’s an easy comparison to make – due to Hazard once working under Puel and also playing for Lille – they both look to take control of the game in a similar fashion. Both players love to search for space between the lines of the opposition, can beat two-three players within a split second and have the ability to finish off a move with one final touch of quality. Boufal can single-handedly switch a game on its head during desperate moments and this will no doubt come to fruition at some point over the 2016/17 season.

But as I mention in the title, this signing holds far more value to Southampton Football Club than just procuring an exceptional talent, and I’m here to explain why.

The first reason why Boufal has proved to be so valuable is already at work. So far, Southampton are yet to win their first game of the Premier League season, and despite only being three games in, two of those fixtures were against Sunderland and Watford at home. Combine this with the fact that we allowed our two top goalscorers and first choice defensive midfielder to leave, and it’s understandable for some fans to be worried about what this season could be. But with the signing of Boufal, there appears to be excitement found in every last Southampton supporter. This signing has well and truly placed the trust of the fans in the board at Southampton, and given the departures in recent years, that is quite some achievement. Fans of Southampton have now seen outright proof of the ambition held at their club, and this will surely be shared by the players too.

Secondly, the signing of Boufal has given Claude Puel a comfortable option called “plan B”. Puel has come to Southampton with the idea to implement his tried and tested 442 diamond formation, but whilst this formation may prove to be a success and deliver some beautiful performances, this is football, and therefore, nothing is a given. With Boufal in the side, Puel possesses a player who can naturally operate on the left wing in a possession-based style that fits his footballing ideologies. Therefore, if Puel decides that his 442 diamond isn’t for the Premier League, he can switch into a 4231 formation that allows all 11 players to play in a natural position – without sacrificing Puel’s ideologies. Without Boufal, this wouldn’t be possible.

Finally, the signing of Boufal can be put to great use over the next 48 hours. The reason being is that with such a short time until the transfer window closes, a club needs to use everything in their power to pull each deal over the line in time. So, when the player is looking for an ambitious club that holds an abundance of talent, Southampton Football Club now looks like an ideal location to  develop their career after breaking their club record transfer fee for Boufal. Negotiations over an attacking talent in the coming days can certainly be aided by the prospect of that player starring alongside Boufal. It’s undeniable that this signing has now placed Southampton in good stead for the remainder of the window.

Boufal is yet to kick a ball for Southampton Football Club, but despite that, he’s already placed each and every one of us on the edge of our seats. From here, we can only hope that the world-class facilities and training at Boufal’s disposal will nurture him into the star that he has promised so many to be. If Boufal is willing to keep his mind focused and work hard, then Southampton will ensure that success and progression will shortly follow.

 

Southampton fans and the summer transfer window – a hate-love relationship

 

Hate – the summer Transfer Window opens.

Rumours fly around Twitter and the tabloids, even before it starts. We lose some big names straight off the bat. Fans fuss.

We get in a couple of lesser known players. Fans fuss.

Weeks go by and there’s no news of replacing all those goals we let go. Fans fuss.

Big rumours of big signings come and go, or, don’t come at all. Fans fuss.

The season starts and we don’t win both games. Fans fuss.

 

But then comes the love.

Saints will now go back to promoting from the academy. Fans Rejoice.

‘Confirmed’ leaks of big names coming in. Fans Rejoice.

‘Confirmed’ reports that Fonte will stay soon arise. Fans Rejoice.

Next up, the points are placed on the board. Fans Rejoice.

This is the ‘Hate-Love’ (chronological order) relationship that Saints fans have experienced each and every summer with the transfer window.

We are now in the final week of this annual rollercoaster, but the Hate-Love will continue. It’s inevitable that Southampton will continue to be linked to numerous players that won’t result in a transfer, and perhaps even more likely, we will sign someone straight out of left field that no one expected.

As it stands it seems highly likely that Sofiane Boufal will sign from Lille for a club record fee. He is an attacking midfielder or winger, depending on which YouTube expert you talk to. But what cannot be debated is that he’s highly rated, with rumours of Barcelona and Chelsea being interested earlier in the summer.

That still leaves us probably needing another out-and-out striker and maybe another centre back, depending on movements on the last day.

All in all however, it has once again been another one of those summers: lots to hate, lots to love and everything in between. But as all good Saints fans will attest, once that window finally slams shut, it is the boys who ARE running around in the Southampton stripes that we care about and that we must get behind.

Talking Nicolae Stanciu with Alecs Stam

With the departure of both Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle this summer, Southampton fans have understandably been left desperate for their club to bolster their attacking options in preparation for the 2016/17 season. But over the past 48 hours, reports from Romania are suggesting that Southampton Football Club have found their man in Steaua București’s, Nicolae Stanciu. Understandably however, few of us on the South Coast are avid followers of Romanian Football. So, we spoke to Alecs Stam – someone that most certainly is!

How would you describe Nicolae Stanciu’s style of play to someone that has never seen him play?

Stanciu looks dangerous every time he gets the ball, creates chances and knows how to make his teammates better, but he’s not afraid to take it on his own when the opportunity is right.

Do you believe that Stanciu has what it takes to cut it in the Premier League?

I tend to believe that Stanciu is from a different category than the Romanian players who left in the last years from the Romanian league and failed to adapt in Europe’s top leagues. He can be a solution and make the difference for many teams if he can cope with expectations. He is tipped to be the star and leader of the Romanian national team’s next generation.

How has he performed in larger European fixtures?

This season Stanciu qualified FCSB on his own against Sparta Prague scoring all three goals in the 3-1 aggregate win. Last season FCSB were eliminated quickly and he didn’t have time to shine. He scored four goals in his first five international games, quickly taking the number 10 shirt, and played at the Euros.

Reports suggest that he’s a versatile player that is able to play in central midfield, attacking midfield and right wing. Where do you believe he is best deployed?

His best position is attacking midfield.

Southampton are desperately needing a number ten that can find the back of the net. Could Stanciu be the solution to that problem?

He is an excellent finisher and has great vision. He is a player who can make the difference.

How would you value the deal if Southampton were to secure Stanciu for the reported £7M fee?

Nicolae Stanciu is the best player to come out of Romania in a long time and one of the most wanted players in Eastern European football. He was linked with many clubs this summer and it will be a big surprise if he doesn’t leave. The thing is that the owner of FCSB, Gigi Becali, is very greedy and he is asking too much or he is waiting for the perfect offer. He said a few days ago that the club received an offer of £7M from a Premier League club, but he wants £10M. He could be trying to force other clubs to pay more and act quickly so they don’t lose him to the mysterious “PL club”. Sport.ro claimed that the club is Southampton, but they’re not the most reliable source.

What’s next for Jay Rodriguez?

We all remember that heartbreaking moment. It was April 2014 and Southampton were on course to reaching their highest Premier League finish with the help of Jay Rodriguez’s immense goalscoring form; but upon Southampton’s trip to the Etihad stadium in search of yet another three points, Jay Rodriguez and his World Cup dreams came crashing down. The loyal and loving Southampton fans backed him with great pride during his spell on the sidelines – 13 months to be precise – but it’s now been 28 months since that injury and some would say that there has been little to suggest that we will ever witness that fine form again. With that, Rodriguez has been linked with a loan move away from Southampton and that has many fans talking.

Early yesterday morning it was reported that Hull City have enquired for the availability of Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez on loan, and this has truly been a topic of split opinion for Southampton fans.

But first things first, let’s think about this situation. At this present moment, it seems that Claude Puel has found his favoured attacking combination in Nathan Redmond and Shane Long – meanwhile, Austin appears to be the first call from the bench. For a forward who is in desperate need of game time, this can understandably be a worrying situation going into the new season. So much so that this link to Hull City may well be Rodriguez’s agent at work.

In addition, it must be pointed out just how tough of a summer those poor Hull City fans have been forced to endure – if anyone can sympathise, then it’s us Southampton fans. After such a summer, being linked with a player of Rodriguez’s calibre will most likely give the Tigers fans a much needed boost. And whilst I’m sure that Hull City would love to acquire the services of Rodriguez, they will know full well that it’s an optimistic move. A move that can only result in good PR for the club, regardless of the result in negotiations. If Hull City secure the deal, then their fans are delighted, and even if the deal breaks down, the fans will be left optimistic over who the next target may be.

But, if this deal were to go ahead, how could it benefit Southampton, and most importantly, Jay Rodriguez?

When you consider that the fan favourite had the entire duration of pre-season to impress and show his qualities to Southampton’s new boss, Claude Puel, Rodriguez clearly isn’t in the blueprints of the first XI. At a time when Rodriguez is reportedly “100% fit”, he needs to be playing regular football; anything other than that for the former England International is an act of willingly allowing his career to simmer out. It goes without saying that Hull City will be desperate for goals this season in their chase for Premier League safety, and if they were to acquire Rodriguez’s services, he would no doubt gain those valuable first team minutes and be used in his favoured role – an inside left forward.

With that move however, Southampton of course would be left one man lighter in attack, so what do they have to gain from this possible opportunity?

Firstly, Southampton would no doubt be able to receive a reasonable fee for the loan, and alongside this, the wage bill would also be freed up. This could present Southampton the opportunity to carry out a more stable loan move themselves or reinvest the small fee into some young/lower League talent.

Another benefit to this move could be that whilst Southampton carry out their season under Puel, Rodriguez can be progressing as a player at Hull with the aim to once again make his mark in the Southampton side over the 2017/18 season. A season of almost guaranteed football with less pressure on his performances may well reinstall the confidence that Rodriguez once thrived upon – this could only be seen as a benefit.

However, the obvious disadvantage to Rodriguez heading away from Southampton is that the moment an injury in attack occurs, Rodriguez will be needed as third choice. Not to mention that if two injuries were to occur (a perfectly plausible situation) then Rodriguez would be a sure starter.

For this reason, I struggle to see an agreement being struck with Hull City unless at least one attacker was shipped in to bolster Southampton’s attack. Only then could Southampton afford to take the gamble on allowing Rodriguez to find game time elsewhere.

But whilst we sit here discussing what is best for Rodriguez in his current situation, why exactly are we doing just that? If we think back to Rodriguez’s greatest qualities over the 2013/14 season, it was no doubt his ruthless physical approach in both attack and defence. Rodriguez used to drive with the ball in a fashion that would put fear into the oppositions defence, because they knew that even if they won the ball back, he would quickly be going shoulder to shoulder with them to regain possesion. Since then however, Rodriguez’s superb mentality has been replaced by someone who is now scared to put his body on the line, is reluctant in going for 50/50’s and doesnt charge into the box with his old effective approach.

Every last Southampton fan would love nothing more than to see the Jay Rodriguez of 2014 once again firing in red and white, but to tell the truth, the progress needed to make that happen simply isnt occuring right now. If Southampton manage to secure another attacking talent in the market and the interest from Hull is genuine, then maybe, just maybe, a deal that suits all parties can be met. Until then however, we must place faith in Puel’s selections, encourage Rodriguez at every opportunity handed to him, and most importantly, Rodriguez must push past the mental barriers that were placed before him in April 2014.