Saints

The early promise shown by Danny Ings

We may only be four games into the 2018/19 Premier League season, but the early signs suggest that Southampton Football Club and Danny Ings are meant to be.

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Cast your mind back to the summer transfer window. After the acquisition of Stuart Armstrong, Angus Gunn, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Jannick Vestergaard, Southampton had shown that they were willing to spend, and at least improve the squad that so nearly slipped down to the Championship last season. But while these signings provided depth and hope for the future, there was still one area on the pitch that desperately needed addressing.

Under Ronald Koeman, Southampton scored 120 Premier League goals across the two seasons that the Dutchman was in charge. And in the two seasons following his departure to Everton, Southampton have registered a measly 79 Premier League goals.

The departures of Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle’ left Saints lacking firepower upfront, and ever since, the club have failed to re-discover the goalscoring touch that they once had. Injuries to Jay Rodriguez and Charlie Austin denied each striker a chance to build any goalscoring momentum, while our big money signings Guido Carillo and Sofiane Boufal failed to adapt to life in the Premier League.

So after an impressive start to his career on the south coast, Danny Ings has the Southampton fanbase questioning whether we’ve finally found our starting striker…

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During Saints’ opening match of the season against Burnley, the Clarets were unfortunate not to be leading at the break, with Mark Hughes’ 5-2-2-1 formation proving ineffective.

As a result the Welshman called for changes in the 56th minute, and handed both Elyounoussi and Ings their debuts, in addition to switching to a 4-4-2 formation.

The introduction of Ings instantly gave our frontline a new look, as well as raising the intensity of others around him. There was no denying it, Hughes’ men looked dangerous in the second 45.

Both of the goals that he’s scored this season have been typical of his former Burnley self, and it’s somewhat reminded the fans what we’ve so desperately been missing over the past two seasons.

His first came at Goodison Park, where he displayed intelligent positioning to find space inside a crowded penalty area to tap home Mario Lemina’s flick-on at the near post. And his second came at Selhurst Park, where his quick reactions, pace and mobility allowed him to latch onto a through ball by Cedric Soares, and slot calmly below Wayne Hennessy.

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Following an injury hit career at Liverpool, many believed that Ings was a busted flush as he failed to make his mark for the Reds. However, when you take a look at the statistics from his first four games for the Saints, they suggest that he’s still an incredibly dangerous attacking outlet.

Ings isn’t afraid to let fly when he gets sight of goal, having registered 3.5 shots per game. In comparison to Southampton’s other attacking outlets this is the highest out of the squad. Austin has registered 1.8, Long has registered 1.0, and Nathan Redmond has registered 2.3.

In comparison to the rest of the league, Ings also ranks fourth in xG (expected goals), with a figure of 0.74 per game.

During his first four appearances, Ings has even regained possession of the ball 2.16 times per game, showing that he’s not only effective on the ball, but off it too. This is no doubt some of Jurgen Klopp’s influence shining through – and this proactive mentality can only be positive for our squad.

What was particularly pleasing against Crystal Palace, however, was the way in which Ings combined with Long upfront. In truth, many believed Long’s days were numbered at Saints following the arrival of Ings, but if they continue to work in the same fashion that they did at Selhurst Park, Long may prove to be a useful asset once again.

He’s no goalscorer, granted, but if Ings, Redmond and Elyounoussi can deliver, then he’s got a number of particularly useful assets that he can offer to the side.

What worked so well against Crystal Palace was that Long provided effective hold up play, which in turn allowed Ings to make ground behind the defensive line. They also complimented each others strengths and weaknesses. Long’s capable of playing the more physical game and peeling off out wide, while Ings is the more technical player and the better finisher.

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The only question mark that looms over the Englishman now is his injury record. At Liverpool, two long-term injuries saw him on the treatment table for a combined 498 days, making him unavailable for selection in 85 fixtures. During the 2015/16 season, Ings ruptured his cruciate ligament – and only five months after returning to full fitness, he had an operation on his knee which saw him miss the entirety of 2016/17 season.

But above all else, at a time when football fans feel more distant from the players and club than ever before, it’s nice to see a player on the pitch that seemingly cares for the club as much as those in the stands.

I’ve got a funny feeling that Ings could prove to be a real fan favourite.

Re-igniting Romeu

I’d like to discuss a player who, in my mind, was arguably the biggest victim of Mauricio Pellegrino’s managerial shortcomings: Oriol Romeu.

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It may be harsh to single out Romeu in what’s been a disastrous season for the Saints, but after his breakthrough into the starting XI last year when Victor Wanyama left for Spurs, I was expecting the gritty Spanish midfielder to stand out yet again. For him to become a leader in a relatively young squad.

It’s hard to deny his ball-playing qualities that were developed in Barcelona’s famed La Masia, and it’s certainly arguable that he’s one of the most effective defensive midfielders in the Premier League, with his monstrous physicality and crunching tackles.

But this season he’s been a passenger – something that’s really disappointed me. I expected him to be the first to grab others by the scruff of their neck and pull us out of this rut, especially when you look at his captain-like qualities and characteristics. However, those duties have been left to the younger players such as Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, James Ward-Prowse and Jack Stephens.

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Romeu’s simply not been good enough at breaking down play and shifting the ball in comparison to last season, and there are a number of games in which he’s gone missing. The same mind that was decisive and calculated last season is suddenly being affected by doubt and hesitancy. Something which I can only guess was installed into his game by Pellegrino, a man who spent his time at Staplewood and St Mary’s in constant fear of the opposition.

Over Pellegrino’s 30 Premier League games in charge of Southampton, we approached the vast majority with a negative and fearful approach to just about every passage of play.

Our slow and lacklustre approach to attacking, which would often just turn into a depressing game of keep-ball, forced Romeu into playing countless sideways and backwards passes, knowing that the manager would blast him for playing a risky ball. For over eight months he’s been told to be in constant fear of the opposition picking up the ball, and in turn it’s harmed the way in which he controls the midfield and views the opposition.

Then on the rare occasion that we did actually take the lead, Pellegrino would encourage us to take up a deeper starting position with the aim of shutting out the opposition. This means that not only is he being forced into defending in deep areas, where he’s less likely to make risky and game-changing tackles/passes, he’s also having to defend on the back foot. Romeu’s best when he’s playing instinctively and on the heels of the opposition. He has the talent to play one step ahead of his opponent, but Pellegrino’s shortcomings have forced him into showing all too much respect.

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Rather than imposing himself on the opposition and aiming to simultaneously play and bully them of the park, Romeu’s been forced into retreating, reacting and respecting. Having come through the ranks of La Masia, this mentality just simply isn’t in his DNA.

But in the form of Mark Hughes, I’m holding out hope that Romeu can turn his season around.  

In spite of being dropped for the FA Cup Quarter Final against Wigan, I can see Mark Hughes utilising a crunching defensive midfielder like Romeu further down the line. He’s got history of fielding a physically dominant midfield throughout his managerial career, and Romeu certainly fits the billing there.

Hughes hardest task will be encouraging attacking play and positivity throughout the entirety of the squad, so some fans will understandably ask why we would want to field a defensive midfielder.

But I feel like that’s selling Romeu short. Not only does the Spaniard boast an impressive passing range and a fair share of technical quality, but his defensive traits can help the side offensively too. Rewind to last season and I can remember countless interceptions and tackles from Romeu that initiated counter attacks and lifted the side. 

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Playing effective attacking football isn’t just as simple as fielding attack-minded players. If a defensive player can help our attackers to flourish by recovering the ball in dangerous areas high up the field, then I’m all for it.

As a manager who’s had to manage big-name players at Manchester City, and as a player, who’s won everything in the game at teams such as Manchester United, I’m confident that Sparky is capable of re-igniting Romeu and getting the best out of him.

Hughes has a huge task on his hand – getting the best out of Romeu is just one of a number of smaller tasks that will ultimately keep us from being relegated, or not, but I have the confidence that Oriol will return to form over the coming weeks.

Southampton’s ethos must take the backseat for their cruel reality

After eight long months of turgid football, abysmal results and mindless team-selections, Mauricio Pellegrino has at last been relieved of his duties as Southampton manager.

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But whilst the Southampton fanbase feel that their chances of survival have been given somewhat of a boost, the small matter of identifying the man who should steer us clear of relegation remains.

If reports from the Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson are to be believed, then it seems that Mark Hughes is set to become that man. The report claims that the former Stoke boss has been offered a contract until the end of the season, before any long-term decisions will be made on Pellegrino’s replacement.

My initial thoughts on this potential deal were that of disappointment and a distinct lack of inspiration. Going from Europa League football to chasing Mark Hughes in a relegation battle over the space of two years is a frightening thought.

It’s understandable for many Southampton fans to feel that they deserve more. That we’re better than this.

But the sad reality at this moment in time is that we’re not. Our recent history and current crop of players may be stronger than those around us, but if we’re unable to communicate and work together as unit, then it all counts for nothing.

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Those who still feel unsatisfied with the link to Hughes have blasted the direction of the club, demanding a ‘modern manager’ who fits in with our so-called philosophy to take the reigns. But what promising and forward thinking tactician would ever think of coming to Southampton in these current circumstances?

Southampton’s most successful managers in recent years (Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman) would have turned their noses up at the club if the board approached them in such a high-risk situation.

As for as I’m concerned with our next manager, we can forget about long-term planning, youth development and whether they’ve got a history of taking their previous club to the next level (Europe). The bottom line is that if we don’t nail this next managerial appointment, there’s simply no Premier League future to plan for.

The reality is that we’ve got eight games remaining to claw our way back to safety, with numerous sides around us gaining momentum as each game week passes.

Southampton’s only aim at this moment in time should be finding someone who’s capable of inspiring a depleted squad. Someone who can quickly install confidence, implement an identity and command respect; three things that Pellegrino failed drastically at achieving.

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Hughes is no revelation. We won’t be playing the expansive fast-paced football that many Southampton fans so desperately desire – let’s get that out the way. But knowing that Hughes has only got eight games to make an instant impact on our side, I’ll be willing to guarantee that he simply won’t allow a repeat of last Saturday’s performance.

He’s been known over his previous tenures for adding a gritty, physical and aggressive style to his sides. Something which in fairness, we’ve severely lacked since Koeman’s departure in 2016. We’ve been all too nice for far too long now – in the physical sense and in front of the opposition’s goal.

He’s also always looked to form a physical partnership at the heart of his midfield, which could be good news for Oriol Romeu and Mario Lemina, in addition to welcoming attacking flair in wide areas. Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal are desperately in need of a manager that understands and appreciates their qualities.

Many have jumped at the chance to criticise Hughes for his collapse with Stoke City earlier this season, and that’s certainly a worry to consider. But they conveniently chose to ignore the fact that he inherited an anti-football Tony Pulis side, and helped them on their way to three consecutive finishes in the top half of the table. All whilst showcasing the best football they’ve played since their return to the Premier League in 2007.

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So why have a number of fans shown so much resent to the idea of recruiting Hughes?

In my mind, fans are fearful of what such an appointment means for the club. That by recruiting Hughes, we’ve become just another Premier League side that fails to think for themselves.

Over the last five years, we’ve taken pride in the fact that we innovate and continue to buck the trend by way of player and manager recruitment. Since 2014 we’ve served as a model club for those in the Championship and those facing relegation.

But those players, leaders and managers that helped to form that reputation are no longer here. It’s time for us to come to terms with the fact that we’re no longer that same side.

Now by no means am I suggesting that we stop innovating and trying to push the boundaries of what’s possible as a mid-table side. Far from it. But what I am suggesting is that now is not the time to roll the dice in a bid to rediscover ourselves.

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We’re in grave danger. Crystal Palace and Stoke City remain just one point below us in the relegation zone, whilst Swansea City who were once considered down and out, now sit three points above.

I’m willing to welcome the physical, gritty and no-nonsense approach that Hughes offers, solely because this current Southampton side are in a downward spiral that’s shown few signs of slowing down. Let alone stopping.

When the players have talked about finishing this current season in the top half of the table we’ve criticised them for being naive. For thinking too far ahead while danger continues to stare them in the face.

So let’s not be naive enough to talk about the long-term future with regards to Southampton’s next managerial appointment.

Until we book our place in the Premier League for the 2018/19 season, putting points on the board must remain our only focus.

Painting Southampton’s season by numbers

Every last Southampton fan knows that this seasons performances simply haven’t been good enough. We’re lacking direction, identity, leadership, and belief, under the command of a manager who’s shown no evidence that he’s capable of steering us to safety. 

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But it seems that the higher forces at the club are currently refusing to see eye to eye with the fans. Instead they’ve opted to continually hold blind faith in Mauricio Pellegrino.

So given that our opinions alone clearly aren’t valued highly enough by the club, what do the numbers say about our season so far?

Glen Murray (11) has scored the same number of Premier League goals this season as Austin, Gabbiadini, Long and Redmond combined.

Southampton have won just three Premier League home games all season.

We’re without a Premier League win at home in over eight fixtures – a new club record.

Last season Nathan Redmond proved himself to be a valuable member of the Southampton squad, finishing the season as our top goalscorer in the Premier League with seven goals. Under Pellegrino, Redmond is still searching for his first goal of the season.

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Southampton have failed to beat the following sides at St Mary’s this season: Swansea, Wolves, Watford, Newcastle, Burnley, Leicester, Huddersfield, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Stoke.

Despite only featuring for 599 minutes, Charlie Austin still tops our goal scoring leaderboard with six goals. Two more than any other Southampton player this season. 

We’ve recorded just one Premier League win since November.

Despite boasting an xG of 32.52, Southampton have only scored 28 goals this season. Which in short confirms something that we’ve assumed for a while; we’re remarkably wasteful in front of goal.

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Mauricio Pellegrino has recorded the lowest Premier League win percentage of any manager in Southampton’s history (17.2%). Even cult hero Ian Branfoot managed to pick up a win ratio of 28.91%.

Southampton are yet to win a game against a side that are in the top half of the table this season, having recorded eight draws and nine losses from 17 fixtures.

Southampton have managed to drop 13 points from winning positions this season, after crumbling against Brighton, Arsenal, Huddersfield, Crystal Palace, Watford and Tottenham. 

Our only Premier League wins this season have come against sides currently placed 14th, 18th, 20th (x2), and 11th. 

Remember when Crystal Palace and Swansea City were considered down and out? Well, the former now reside just one point below us, whilst the latter sit two points above us.  

As teams around us continue to make changes in a bid to beat the drop, Southampton have remained stagnant and stubborn, by expecting a man who’s shown no signs of promise to deliver at the most crucial time of the season. The clock’s ticking, Mauricio.

Targett flourishing at Fulham under Jokanovic

Since making his debut for Southampton’s first-team back in August 2014, Matt Targett has wormed his way into the starting line-up on a number of occasions through injuries, rotation and systematic changes. But ultimately, he’s failed to ever truly cement his place in the starting XI, and is it any wonder with England International Ryan Bertrand as competition? 

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So with Targett being 22-years-old, and Southampton desperately struggling for form, the club came to the conclusion that a loan spell elsewhere would be best for his development.

Such a decision would only prove valuable, however, if Targett’s receiving regular game-time and playing an attractive brand of football, that fits in with Southampton’s ethos (even if our first-team are currently failing to do the latter).

His destination? Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham, and since joining on the 22nd of January 2018, It’s fair to say that this deal has worked out perfectly for all parties involved.

So join us as we speak with Fulham fan and sports journalist, Rhys Daly, to find out how Targett’s settling into life in London.

What were yours and the Fulham fan bases initial thoughts when Matt Targett joined?

All the fans were delighted when he signed. From the start of the window it was clear we only needed a left-back and a centre-forward, something the board listened to and achieved.

At the start of the season we signed Rafa Soares on loan from Porto and I had high expectations of him. To my disappointment, Soares failed to achieve match fitness and force himself into the side, which left Ryan Sessegnon as our only player comfortable playing in that position.

How have Fulham fans taken to Targett so far?

Despite only making five starts, Fulham fans love him. His role gives Sessegnon freedom to play on the wing with security behind him. Having said that, Targett has been far more than just a shield; he likes to get forward and deliver crosses and even got on the scoresheet away to Bolton.

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What have been his greatest strengths?

I’ve been particularly impressed with his 1v1 defending. Even though he is only 22, you can see he has experience at a higher level each time he plays.

Has he shown any areas of weakness so far?

The only weakness I’ve seen came against Bristol City last Wednesday. He wasn’t directly at fault but their goal but it did come down the left side. He limped off injured but the club are yet to announce the severity of it so I expect it’s just an impact problem.

What type of role and responsibilities has Slavisa Jokanovic handed Targett?

The combination of having a more balanced defence all while giving Sessegnon more freedom is already crucial to our chances of promotion. Jokanovic will have certainly told Targett how important he is and he will probably be thriving off being a key cog in the machine.

Given that he’s made over 20 Premier League appearances for Southampton since 2014, have you been able to tell that he’s plied his trade in England’s top division?  

His Premier League experience has given him so much confidence, I would say he isn’t far from being a regular in the top division and slightly unlucky to have not played more there already.

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And finally, from what you’ve seen so far, would you be interested in retaining Targett’s services? And if so, do you think it’s possible?

Fans would be ecstatic if we could sign Targett permanently. If we don’t go up and Southampton stay in the Premier League I would be very surprised if a deal would be reached. In the few appearances that he’s made for us he’s been in the WhoScored Team of the Week twice and the EFL Team of the Week over three successive weeks. As well as many other clubs, Southampton will be aware of just how well he is performing.

There’s no room for boos and abuse at St Mary’s

The first half of the 2017/18 season has been our least inspiring since our return to the Premier League. We’re lacking an identity, failing to entertain and there’s divide between the fans and board regarding Mauricio Pellegrino’s position.

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These views have been widely shared and voiced across social media, with plenty of fans providing reasoned and calculated explanations for their criticism.

But in recent fixtures there’s been a number of instances from a minority of Southampton fans, that I find mindless and counter-productive to the issue that they claim they’re fighting.

After Nathan Redmond played a howler of a pass-back at Wembley last weekend – allowing Spurs to counter and score their fourth goal of the afternoon – a chorus of boos and abuse began to pick up whenever the winger touched the ball.

In my view, no player in the side is immune from criticism. In the same way that you praise a fringe player for stepping up and earning their place in the side, you must also be able to recognise when first team stars aren’t pulling their weight – It’s only fair that there’s a set of rules that works both ways.

But these abusive actions are despicable, and quite frankly It’s something that needs to be targeted, discussed and stomped out as quick as possible.

There are ways of expressing dissatisfaction without throwing fuel onto the fire of the toxic St Mary’s atmosphere, that currently prevails. 

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I can’t believe I’m having to state this, but the bottom line is that Nathan Redmond is a Southampton Football Club player, and since arriving in the summer of 2016, he’s done nothing but embrace our club and its values at all levels.

He’s displayed professionalism throughout and has firmly cemented his place as a popular player in the dressing room – comments from teammates both past and present only further reinforce that.

History has shown that bad eggs get picked out at Staplewood, and not even as much as a whisper has suggested that he falls under that category.

Now at this point I must state that in no way am I defending Redmond’s performances this season. Three assists and zero goals under Mauricio Pellegrino is unacceptable, especially when you realise that he’s meant to be our second biggest goal threat beyond our centre forward.

But do you really think that Redmond wants to be in this situation? Do you think he’s enjoying his half-season goal drought? And relishing the fact that he’s having his worst season of his career to date? Of course not, so in what world would hurling abuse possibly help to change our fortunes.

He’s going to be hating this just as much as you and I – perhaps even more, considering that it’s his career on the line.

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So just think about this…

Had Redmond had fired home 15 goals this season and asked for a transfer, fans would be screaming for him to display some “much-deserved” loyalty.

But when we consider the current situation and Redmond’s poor form, the loyalty that these same fans would have demanded from him, is nowhere to be seen from them.

There’s no denying that Redmond’s performances have been well below par, and I certainly expect improvement. But for as long as Redmond represents our club with honour and the determination to be the best that he can be, not a single word of abuse that’s bellowed his way is justified.

Mauricio Pellegrino: are we right to be concerned?

As if firing blank for the fifth home game this season couldn’t possibly be frustrating enough, Southampton put the cherry on the cake last weekend by allowing Sam Vokes, a self-confessed Southampton fan, to snatch a late winner. The past week has been a tough one for Mauricio Pellegrino.

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But whilst these results will certainly be worrying the Argentine boss, his greatest worry should be losing the faith of the fans. Something that (if it hasn’t happened already) appears to be waiting around the corner of our next poor result.  

To neutral fans such a suggestion may be seen as premature or indicative of the modern game, and I can certainly understand that. But that’s a view from the outside looking in, and having watched Southampton week in, week out this season, there’s a number of issues that simply have to be addressed for the future of our club.

Just two seasons ago St Mary’s used to be a place of inspiration, where Southampton promised to give just about every and any challenger a true test. We weren’t a free-scoring phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination, but we had our own style and weren’t afraid to impose that on any opponent that made the trip down South.

As we know all too well, however, this is no longer the case. That identity has vanished, and ever since Southampton have been left in what feels like a transitional period.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem; except I’m not quite convinced we know what we’re transitioning into.

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Despite having over four months to install his own beliefs and ideologies into our players, I’m still none the wiser as to what Pellegrino is striving for.

Pellegrino arrived at the club claiming “with the quality we have we can play exciting, attacking football, taking the game to our opponents by playing a high-intensity game.”

But as time passes, this statement is growing increasingly untrue.

I know that managers need time to implement their own ideas and systems, and therefore I understand that the results won’t come instantly. Reforming the identity and style of a squad certainly isn’t an overnight job.  

However, It’s clear as daylight to see that the attacking intent Pellegrino promised just simply isn’t drilled inside our players. Once brave in the final third and willing to take risks, our frontline now fears the sight of goal, growing more and more paranoid as they cautiously enter the box.

On the odd chance that our players do take up a promising position in and around the area, it’s so often wasted as they seemingly begin to fret about their defensive duties and team shape. And whilst this may be the way Pellegrino liked to operate at Alaves or any of his former clubs, it isn’t what he was employed to do, and it certainly isn’t what he promised the fans.

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But what is it that’s caused us Southampton fans to lose faith so quickly in Pellegrino, especially compared to Claude Puel?

Whilst the Frenchman’s time on the South Coast didn’t prove to be successful, there was a clearly identifiable plan in place. There was a vision and at the very least we could see what Puel was striving for. We understood that his system would take time, and we bought into the potential of that.

But no identity, no entertainment, and no results? How can we as fans be expected to invest into that?

An effective method of judging a manager’s work is to identify players that have flourished or surpassed expectations under his management, and sadly, this is yet another worrying sign from Pellegrino.

Under Puel, there were a number of players that truly came into their own; Maya Yoshida and Oriol Romeu had their best seasons in a red and white shirt, Cedric Soares finally cemented his place in the starting XI, Nathan Redmond had his greatest goalscoring season to date, and Jack Stephens covered superbly for the injured Virgil Van Dijk.

As for Pellegrino, the only player that I’ve seen perform at a consistently high level this season is Mario Lemina. And even then, I’d say much of that has been down to individual quality and flair, rather than work on the training ground.

The bottom line, however, is that Southampton and Mauricio Pellegrino need to act fact; not only for the safety of the Argentine’s job, but also for the future of our club.

A future that at this moment in time, is failing to shine bright like seasons gone by.

Jack Stephens: the latest talent off our academy conveyor belt

Just over six months ago the sale of Jose Fonte was sanctioned to West Ham United, before Virgil Van Dijk was dealt a season ending injury blow just two days later. The following ten days proved to be even worse than any Southampton fan could imagine, with the board opting to stand still in the January market. An onslaught of panic amongst fans was well and truly beginning to settle in.

But when one door closes, another door opens, as the emergence of Jack Stephen’s has most certainly shown.

Should we have aimed to sure-up our defence up with an experienced defender? Were we right to let Fonte leave? And did we chose to work with what we’ve got, or was it simply poor planning?

These topics are all up for debate and will most likely divide opinion amongst fans, but there’s one thing that we’re all certain about; the undeniable talent of Jack Stephens.

We really shouldn’t be surprised to see another academy prospect benefiting from the opportunity of first team football, but I’m sure I won’t be alone in saying that I didn’t see Stephens breaking through in the manner that he has.  

So often in the past Southampton have aimed to gently integrate their promising starlets into the first team, ensuring not to hand them too much too soon. It’s vital to present a youngster with opportunities, but only when it truly benefits their development; this often requires having a leader alongside them, ensuring that there is capable back up to cover for them, and keeping responsibilities limited. There’s far more to developing a youngster than simply throwing them into the starting XI.

However, Stephens introduction into the first team as an academy graduate has been really rather different; quite the opposite in fact. Rather than being handed the opportunity as a reward for good form in the youth leagues, or even just to showcase the clubs future, Stephens was being used out of necessity. He had no natural leader by his side, no first-team standard back up to take his place, and was being handed all the responsibilities that Virgil Van Dijk took on before him.

Stephens was placed in a position whereby he simply had to deliver, and boy has he done just that.

The England U21 International has always held promise – there’s no disputing that – but it’s over the past six months where he’s truly come into his element.

Southampton Football Club as a whole have always promoted the idea of playing with an attractive style of football, and naturally, this creates a demand for a certain type of player; in this case, a certain type of defender.

With Virgil Van Dijk sidelined through injury, Southampton lost a vital cog in their approach of building from the back. Without a player of such a mould, Southampton heavily reduce the intensity of their attacking play, and there’s often a disjointed link between the defence and the attack.

In the form of Stephens however, Southampton are able to effectively maintain this approach to their games. Each and every time that he receives the ball, I’m astounded at his awareness of his surroundings, as he instantly knows who will next take charge of possession.

He holds the ball with great composure and plays his passes with real conviction. If there’s a full back free on the opposite wing, then you can bank on him to make that pass, and if the opposition’s midfield shows a gap, then you can be sure that he’ll drive into the space.

Dare I say it, but his qualities on the ball have an heir of Van Dijk about them…

Don’t begin to think that these technical strengths come at the cost of bread and butter defending however. Stephens is improving defensively on a weekly basis, showing that he can handle all the different challenges that the Premier League can throw at you – be that a nippy and pacey forward, or a physical and classic British number nine.

I’m yet to see him back out of a single 50/50, he’s brave enough to always put his body on the line, and he’s even adopted his own signature method of tackling; this involves sliding, then hooking his ankle around the ball from behind the player, before quickly rising to his feet and recycling play. It never fails to get a standing ovation from us Southampton fans…

However, I’m not wearing red and white tinted spectacles; Stephens does have his weaknesses.

In those all important moments against the big teams he boasts the tendency to switch off, and whilst he’s certainly not troubled physically, his aerial presence does need improving.

On top of this, having only spent half a season in the Premier League, Stephens can still be dragged out of his defensive line in those manic end to end fixtures. He can be guilty of over committing when the opposition overloads their attack, but with time on his side and plenty more challenges on the horizon, these shortcomings can be corrected.

At a time when everyone is talking about Virgil Van Dijk and the transfer window, it’s important to appreciate the talent of those who will proudly step out onto St Mary’s this season; especially when they’re one of our own.

The early promise shown by Mauricio Pellegrino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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