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Charlie Austin – the simple genius of a traditional number nine

Much to my confusion in the build up to the 2017/18 Premier League season, few fans believed Charlie Austin had a serious future in red and white – let alone that he’d be starting ahead of Manolo Gabbiadini.

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Yet here we are. With 18 games gone in the season so far, we find ourselves in a potential relegation dog fight, in desperate need of rediscovering our identity, confidence and goalscoring ability.

In the form of Charlie Austin, however, there’s at least a glimmer of hope that we’ve re-discovered the latter for the time being.

So why did we have to turn to Austin in the first place? And how has he found form in front of goal so quick, when others were being pardoned for poor service?

The demands of a Premier League forward are going through the roof as each year passes, particularly the further you go up the table. So many top six teams demand their forward to have a sharp turn of pace, the ability to play between the lines, and the technical skill set to be a competent ‘player’ before anything else.

So when Southampton sold their 6ft 4 target man, Graziano Pelle’, in the summer of 2016, I believe that those features were something the club were striving for with the acquisition of Gabbiadini.

That with a player of his style, we could cement our place as the ‘best of the rest’ in the Premier League, knocking of the door of the top six.

As we know all too well though, this hasn’t been the case and much to the frustration of every Southampton fan, there’s no way of knowing exactly why.

Could it be the overly defensive mindset that’s been installed by Mauricio Pellegrino? The boards failure to identify and sign another wide goalscoring threat? Or maybe even complacency within the squad? These are just a number of factors that are often discussed by fans.

The Italian International is a proven goalscorer at just about every club he’s played for, but football is a funny old game, and sometimes someone’s true ability can’t quite be transferred from club to club.

Gabbiani’s talent is there for all to see, but sadly something’s still missing. He’s yet to truly find his place in the frontline this season, failing to build a strong partnership with many of his teammates and often finding himself isolated from play.

But given that the former Napoli talisman is without a doubt our most technical forward, many feared that resigning him to the bench could only harm us.

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But when one door closes, another opens, and with that decision we’ve been able to enjoy Austin’s glorious return to form.

Despite starting just four Premier League fixtures this season (yes, you read that correctly) the Englishman sits at the top of Southampton’s goalscoring leaderboard.

And whilst were on the topic of goalscoring leaderboards, let’s not forget that Austin finished the 2016/17 season as our top goalscorer, despite spending months out with a shoulder injury.

He’s hardly an oil panting on the ball and he certainly isn’t an athlete. Watching the 28-year-old clutch his chest in pain with a stitch the other week was one of my season highlights.

But this is what makes Austin such a remarkable footballer; despite the worries mentioned above and the talk of him being unable to play in multiple systems, he’s got this beast inside of him that comes alive inside the penalty area.

Austin’s one of those players that doesn’t particularly fall under one style of football, but place him in a side that’s enduring a rutt or a dry spell infront of goal, and you can gurantee that he’ll put his body on the line to fashion chances out of nothing.

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I’d go as far to say that he seemingly flourishes when the rest of his team looks down and out. It gives him the opportunity to step up as their knight in shining armour, and my word does he love every last bit of it.

Whereas previously our midfield were hesitant to hit the frontline quickly, hunting for that perfect neat and tidy goal, we’ve seemingly embraced Austin’s more gritty and hard-hitting style. He’s brought us back to basics at a time when we lack an attacking identity.

On top of that, Southampton have now somewhat restored the physical edge that was lost with the departure of Graziano Pelle’ – someone that can take the pressure off the midfield with a simple ball into his feet, chest or head. Admittedly that side of his game is not nearly as effective as our beautiful Graziano’s, but it’s certainly a foundation to build upon.

These actions have helped him to average a goal every 105 minutes in the Premier League this season, with a total of five goals in just four stars.

Gabbiadini’s the more complete and skillful forward out of the two, but when you’re failing to dominate possession effectively throughout large parts of games, just how often can those skills be put into practice? At this moment in time it seems far less in comparison to Austin’s greatest strengths.

But this isn’t about trying to put one striker one-up over the other – far from it.

Our club currently appears to be covered by a blanket of negativity, where, justified or not, holes are being picked in just about every department of the club.

So this is just a gentle reminder that when all things seem doom and gloom, sometimes it’s worth taking a look around and appreciating the positives. 

Southampton haven’t had a better striker than Charlie Austin to ‘fall back on’ since returning to the Premier League.

Virgil Van Dijk: updates regarding Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City

As we edge ever closer to the January transfer window, more and more stories regarding Virgil Van Dijk’s future on the South Coast are making the headlines.

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So to save you the hassle of the searching through the endless ‘ITK’ reports on Twitter and online, we sieved through the latest updates and collated them all here. You’re welcome.

In the last 24 hours the Independent have claimed that Liverpool are cooling their interest in the Dutchman, unless Southampton are willing to lower their asking price.

The report claims that Liverpool are now being forced into looking elsewhere for defensive reinforcements, with Southampton showing no signs of giving in. It’s believed that Liverpool hoped to make their move in the January transfer window.

However, It’s not just the Reds hesitance to meet Southampton’s asking price that’s causing them to look elsewhere. Liverpool insiders are currently fearful that they simply can’t match the financial power that their Premier League rivals boast.

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Meanwhile, the Mirror believe Chelsea are now set to rival Manchester City for Van Dijk’s signature.

During a recent press conference Antonio Conte remained respectful when asked about Van Dijk joining his side, but the Italian didn’t hold back in urging numerous other top sides to challenge runaway leaders City, in the battle for Southampton’s £70M man.

Every team, every club, must pay great attention. Because if a club like Manchester City takes all the best [players], it will be very difficult for us to fight. Not only in England but in Europe.” said the Blues boss.

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Conte went on to defend City’s right to continue spending big, but insisted his own club and their title rivals must try to keep pace.

It seems that the race for Virgil Van Dijk is just as much about securing the talent of the man himself, as it is about denying your opponents of a world class talent.

There’s one consistency throughout all of these reports, however, and that’s that Southampton still appear to be standing strong with the Dutchman.

The club appear to be breaking no sweat over the future of the in-demand centre-back, and are happy to wait for their lavish £70m valuation to be met.

 

Basel’s Mohamed Elyounoussi on Southampton’s radar

According to Swiss newspaper Blick, Southampton scouts were once again watching over Mohamed Elyounoussi last Saturday, as the Norwegian winger scored Basel’s opening goal against Lausanne.

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The 23-year-old has been on Southampton’s radar for the past year, but interest appears to be growing ahead of the January transfer window. 

Elyounoussi, who plays on the left side of Basel’s front three, was in stunning form yet again last Tuesday scoring in a 2-0 win over Benfica, placing Raphaël Wicky’s side in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Elyounoussi has found the back of the net on four occasions in his last 15 league appearances – averaging a goal every 306 minutes – but it’s the creative side of his game that often receives so much praise. 11 assists from 23 appearences this season is sublime, and exactly the kind of numbers that Southampton could do with registering.

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Initially Elyounoussi has all the hallmarks of a typical Southampton signing; he’s performing at a high level in a lesser European league, has plenty of time on his side, and appears to be within their price range. 

However, the Saints aren’t the only Premier League club interested in Elyounnoussi. Blik say that severeal other Premier League clubs are monitoring the winger closely, including Claude Puel’s Leicester City.

Preview: Liverpool v Southampton

After falling to defeat against Burnley in their last Premier League outing, Southampton will be desperate to right their wrongs this weekend as they look to kickstart their disappointing season so far.

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Liverpool, however, come into this fixture in fine form, having recorded three back to back victories across all competitions – finding the back of the net 10 times along the way. Something Southampton could only dream of at this moment in time.

But In order to gain greater insight into our upcoming opponents, we spoke with Hari Sethi – the host of Anfield Index’s Premier League preview podcast.

How would you summarise your season so far?

Liverpool’s season so far has been wrought with frustration. Failing to address the defence in the summer was pure negligence from the club, despite the faith Klopp seemingly has in his current options. Though the Reds are capable of producing scintillating attacking spells and new signing Mohammed Salah has settled incredibly well, there’s the still the feeling amongst the fanbase that we’re building on sand and until that changes we aren’t able to invest ourselves in this project fully.

What would make for a successful season?

A successful season would be consolidating our place in the top four, securing CL football and perhaps, just maybe, improving the defence by replacing Dejan Lovren.

How do teams get the most joy out of your defence?

Targeting either our young options at RB – Gomez or Trent Alexander Arnold or Dejan Lovren who’s been very poor so far this season. Very often, however, teams won’t have to do anything special to get joy out of our defence, they’re especially generous and often gift goals through individual errors.

Which player has surprised you most by stepping up?

It’s not been a surprise to me, but Alberto Moreno has been great so far this season. Adding a great deal to our attack with well-timed overlapping runs, showing a more considered side when needed and also pressing effectively.

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You’re stranded on a desert island and can only be joined by one Liverpool player; who’s it going to be?

Roberto Firmino. One of the hardest working members of the team, a good laugh and he’d also be able to start a fire by reflecting the sun off his teeth.

Minus Virgil Van Dijk, which Southampton player would you take to join your side?

Lemina. A promising young defensive midfielder.

As an outsider looking in, which Southampton player needs to step up to help Pellegrino’s Saints?

Tough question as what you really need is a lively and ruthless striker. However, if Tadic could form a more effective partnership with one of your wingers or even take on greater responsibility this could provide some temporary respite.

And finally, what do you think the score will be this Saturday?

I think Liverpool will win 3-1 .

Southampton keeping watch on Manchester City’s Bobby Duncan

Southampton are reportedly interested in Manchester City youngster Bobby Duncan, who looks set to leave City in the near future.

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The report from The Times claims that Southampton aren’t alone in their pursuit of the 16-year-old, however, with both Arsenal and Tottenham keeping a close eye on the front-man.

After losing Jadon Sancho to Borussia Dortmund only earlier this summer, Manchester City now risk losing yet another one of their highly rated stars; one can only assume that such decisions are made in the pursuit of first-team opportunities, given the frightening squad depth at City.

Duncan, who is a cousin of Steven Gerrard, showed his talent for England’s U17’s only last week, scoring a late winner to beat Portugal 3-2 after initially going 2-0 down.

Duncan is yet to sign a professional contract, but City hope to pen the youngster down on a new deal before his 17th birthday next summer.

It’s been awhile since Southampton had a young English forward leading their front-line, and with Sam Gallagher’s career stalling at Birmingham, on top of Ryan Seager edging closer to 22-years-old, this signing could prove to be a smart investment for the club.

It must be noted, however, that City will be entitled to receive compensation should Duncan leave.

Preview: Stoke City vs Southampton

After a convincing victory over Roy Hodgson’s Palace, and an encouraging performance against Manchester United, it appears that we’re starting to see the foundations of Mauricio Pellegrino’s work. 

But whilst we know what we can come to expect from Southampton this weekend, just how much do we know about our upcoming opponents?

To find out more, I spoke to Stoke City’s very own club journalist, Jon Sidaway.

How would you summarise Stoke City’s season so far?

We’ve had a tough start, but we have picked up a satisfying four points from games against Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea at the bet365 Stadium prior to tomorrow’s match as well as drawing at West Brom – who have become somewhat of a bogey team in recent seasons. We played ok on the opening day against Everton and were unfortunate to lose in my opinion, while our other defeat at Newcastle was a little disappointing. That said, I think a lot of people are happy with our return of five points from six games, particularly against quality and stubborn opposition who we failed to take many points off last season. Performances have genuinely been ok, although I feel we haven’t truly threatened or punished teams enough in the final third despite seeing much of the ball in most games. We’re a side that is perhaps still gelling after several summer signings, so I’ve no doubt that things will click and come to fruition when the season starts to pick up pace. Overall, I would say we have had a promising start whilst seeing some encouraging signs.

Who has been the brightest light from last summer’s transfer business?

We signed some top players in the summer including the experience of Darren Fletcher who has made a massive difference, while Maxim Choupo-Moting arrived as an unknown quantity on a free transfer but has impressed in the games he’s played. For me though, Kurt Zouma has been the brightest signing for us and it’s a massive shame we only have him on a season-long loan from Chelsea. His physical presence is outstanding and he has a surprising amount of pace for a big guy! He has certainly helped strengthen things at the back and he has quickly become a favourite amongst players, staff and supporters alike. He’s a bright young player who you just know will go on to have an impact at a bigger club. His reading of the game is very good, he’s not scared to put a foot in and he excels in confidence on the ball when looking to play out from the back.

Who do you think could be your star man this season?

It’s a big season for Xherdan Shaqiri, both on an individual and Club level. He will obviously want to have a good campaign and be in the best form possible heading into next summer’s World Cup while he has had to become the main marquee man for us following the departure of Marko Arnautovic to West Ham. That’s nothing new for him though because he’s the face of Swiss football and played for Bayern Munich and Inter Milan who are elite clubs, so he will thrive under that added bit of pressure like all top-class players do. He arrived back from pre-season in good shape and has certainly looked up for it ever since. The main objective for ‘Shaq’ is to stay fit and get a run of games under his belt because that was a burden for him last season and when he’s out of the team you really do miss his presence. If he can do that, then he will thrive and be our biggest threat in attacking areas. If you could pick any Southampton player to join The Potters, who would it be? Southampton

If you could pick any Southampton player to join The Potters, who would it be?

Southampton are notorious for having top quality players, as well as nurturing youngsters from their academy into the first team, so it’s quite difficult to choose just one player. I look at players like Virgil Van Dijk who is strong and composed alongside James Ward-Prowse who really is an exciting talent. Then there’s Shane Long, who I really rate, he’s a workhorse and is constantly looking to chase down defenders and cause a problem. If I were to assess our current situation, then I would have to choose someone like Ryan Bertrand. We’re crying out for an experienced wing-back, we currently have Mame Diouf playing that role who – to his credit – has performed admirably, but that’s not his natural position. Bertrand has pace and strength alongside vital top-flight and international experience. He’s exciting and is at the prime of his career and although I would class him as a fullback – with how popular the 3-5-2 wing-back formation is lately – he has all the attributes to be a success in that role.

What would make for a successful season?

The manager’s aim is to always better the previous season’s finish, so ending the 2016/17 campaign in 13th was a disappointment, especially after three successive 9th place finishes in the Premier League. The primary aim is to better that this season and cement ourselves in the top 10 at the very least. We’re ambitious and we want to do as well as possible, so if we can pick up positive results and remain consistent then there is no reason why we can’t push for 6th place and potentially bring European football back to the Potteries. To do that, we need to top our recent positive results against Arsenal and Manchester United by taking as many points off the likes of Southampton and other clubs who share the same ambition. There’s no reason why we can’t because, on our day, we can really punish teams. The biggest blow is that we’re out of the Carabao Cup, a competition we wanted to do well in. It’s been a long time since this football club won a major trophy so hopefully we can get the luck of the draw and perform well when we kick-off in the FA Cup in January.

You’re stranded on a desert island and can only be joined by one Potters player; who’s it going to be?

We have a quality dressing room and there are some good characters, but most importantly they’re all very good people. But if I were to choose just one it would have to be Crouchy! He’s a great guy to be around and has a very witty, yet chilled personality. He has time for everyone and I can’t imagine there are many people out there who dislike him. Plus, on a desert island, he would come in handy if ever there was a coconut too high on the tree!

And finally, what is your prediction for this Saturday?

As I said, it’s important we follow up our results against Arsenal and Manchester United by recording a positive scoreline in these types of games. It will certainly be a tricky contest and I think it will be a very close encounter. Either side has the potential to nick it, so it’s pivotal we look to control the game from the word go, especially at home. When the crowd are behind us, there’s no sound like it and you can see it really spurs the team on. I also think after the last week, we will be eager to get back on track so I’m going to go for a hard fought 2-1 Stoke City win.

Shane Long ready to “kick on” under Pellegrino

After a dire and gutless 2-0 home defeat against Marco Silva’s Watford, Mauricio Pellegrino knew that his side needed change. The return of Mario Lemina in the midfield was desperately needed (whilst inevitable), but it was the curveball decision to start Shane Long which helped Southampton to find joy in attack.

The Irishman failed to score on his return to the starting XI, but his fine back-to-basics performance will have no doubt impressed Pellegrino.

Southampton have lacked a presence up top in recent weeks, with Italian International Manolo Gabbiadini continually being starved of service. Long’s re-introduction to the side however added a new found urgency to the frontline, with each loose ball and centre half being chased and hurried at every available opportunity.

Long’s goalscoring and technical ability is certainly there to be questioned, but it’s undeniable that he’s proven himself to be a nuisance up against any type of centre-back.

It seems that even Long himself is aware of the his own strengths and weaknesses.

“What he (Pellegrino) wanted from the striker was to test in behind by stretching their defence. It creates holes in the pockets for Redderz, Davo and Dusan to get on the ball and I think I am the man for that job,” Long said, speaking on the 1-0 win over Palace.

“But if it’s going to be a deep lying defence and he wants someone to come to the ball he wants different options. It depends on who we’re playing against and as I said I thought I played well today and everyone seemed happy with how I did”

Regardless of whether you’re a 6ft 5 unit at the heart of a Tony Pulis defence, or a ball player in the Barcelona back-line, there’s not a single defender that enjoys being pressed and forced back to their goal.

But with hot competition on his back, Long knows that this form has to follow through into next week…

Speaking to the Daily Echo, Long stated “It’s been frustrating. The gaffer’s got a few options up front with me, Gabbi and Charlie.

“He likes to play one striker so someone will be frustrated, but I’ve just kept my head down, trained hard, and tried to prove my point. I’m just waiting for my chance to come.

“[Against Palace] I feel like I played well but I didn’t get that goal, so the next game I’ll try and put that right and kick on.

“For me it’s all about game time. Goals come with game time. I remember my Reading days even I think I scored one in 13 but finished with 25 goals by the end of the season,” he said.

“Hopefully [Pellegrino] will be happy with me today and I can now get a run of two, three, four games in the team and the goals will come.

“I feel like I’m playing well and the chances will come. I’ve been scoring in training, I’ve been flying on the pitch. It’s just a matter of time.”

Match preview: Southampton vs Hull City

Southampton are coming off the back of two consecutive Premier League defeats, having faced Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. But with Hull City travelling to St Mary’s Stadium tomorrow afternoon, Southampton will be looking to right their wrongs of the last two fixtures. 

What can we expect from our upcoming opponents? I spoke with Rick, an avid Hull City blogger, to find out just that. 

Firstly, what are your thoughts on Hull City’s season so far?

I think to call it up and down would be an understatement. We’ve had times of utter despair, long runs without a win but also pulled off several shocking results and since the change of manager we’ve been on an upward trajectory.

A day before the season started, we had 13 fit players and no hope. Then we beat Leicester. A week before the end of the January transfer window, we’d sold two of our best players and signed no-one, then we brought in half of Europe on loan and we’ve played really well since. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Who has been your player of the season?

Sam Clucas. We’ve had some really good performers this year, in spite of results, but Clucas has been the pick for me. We signed him from League One Chesterfield in the summer of 2016 and that was his third step up in as many seasons. He had a good year in the Championship and showed his was full of energy and versatile but he’s been outstanding this season. Playing at an elite level and showing the technical ability and composure he has in central midfield as well his usual determination and incredible workrate is exceptional. His goal last week is probably goal of the season too!

As an outsider looking in, what is your perception of Southampton this season?

It’s been a good season overall. To finish in the top half, which you should do, and reach a Cup Final is never a bad season for anyone outside the biggest 5 or 6 clubs. Some of the players signed in the summer don’t look up to your usual standard but Gabbiadini was a great buy. Going out of Europe from that group was a big missed opportunity and Saints probably could have finished higher up the league without being involved but not enough to make a difference.

If you could take any Southampton player, who would it be and why?

I’ll resist the temptation to say Shane Long, who I still adore, or Charlie Austin, who slipped through our fingers once upon a time. I think I’d go for Gabbiadini. He’s a funny looking striker but is intelligent and just has the knack of scoring goals. We’ve needed someone like that forever.

Just how big of an impact has Marco Silva had on your season?

Huge. Mike Phelan was a good guy and was let down by the owners but he was out of his depth and we’d be down already with him in charge. Silva is a breath of fresh air. He’s had an impact like Pochettino had at Saints and is making pundits look stupid in much the same way. Even before he made signings, he was getting excellent performances out of the team and certain individuals and has changed the way we press, how we squeeze up from the back and how we break at speed. Most impressively, he changes games that we’re behind in with his subs and tactical tinkering. That’s even a step up on Steve Bruce.

If you were preparing to face Hull City, what would your game plan be?

 Just play at home. The fixture list hasn’t been kind to Marco but we’re just a different team away. We counter attack well but don’t take chances and we make defensive mistakes that we don’t make at home. It’s utterly frustrating.

Do you think you have what it takes to beat the drop?

We probably need a result from one of our two home games but I think in giving ourselves a chance from an awful position – we’ve shown we’ve got what it takes. The fixtures are neither good nor bad so it’s in our hands. As usual with City though, it’s the hope that kills you.

And finally, what do you think the score will be this Saturday?

Being ultra-optimistic, I think we’ll get only our second point on the road this year! 1-1.

Preview: Southampton vs Manchester United

In less than four days, I will have the joy of watching my beloved Southampton FC march out onto the field of Wembley. But sadly, standing strong in our way of cup glory is Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United; a team that are unbeaten in their last 16 Premier League fixtures, having scored 24 goals, with just six goals conceded. In terms of form, there are few better in the Premier League than the Red Devils at this moment in time, but as we all know, football is a funny old sport and over 90 minutes, anything is possible. 

So, to find out more about what we can expect from our upcoming opponents, I spoke with Elliott from United Report.

How does this seasons performances compare to the showings under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal?

Our performances under Mourinho have been the complete polar-opposite to Moyes and Van Gaal’s. We’re still somewhat building from the back but we’re doing it with a lot more intent and pace, something we lacked majorly under the previous managers. We’re now creating a lot more chances than before but are sometimes lacking that end product. Finishing seems to be one of our only weaknesses at the moment and that can be worked on.

As an outsider looking in, what is your perception of Southampton this season?

I’m a huge admirer of Southampton. The fact that the club are constantly selling their best players (unfortunately) and somehow managing to replace them with equal talent is very impressive. Saints have a nice looking spine now – players of note are Van Dijk, Romeu, Redmond and Gabbiadini. I am however surprised at Saints’ position in the league. The current crop of players have a lot of potential and it’s a shame they’re not fulfilling that. However, I do think Southampton will climb the table towards the end of the season.

What do you make of Luke Shaw’s current situation at Manchester United?

Luke Shaw’s current situation at Manchester United – it’s nothing more than tough love from Mourinho. It worked with Mkhitaryan and seems to be working with Martial, and I’m 100% sure it will work with Shaw. The difference is that Shaw is still recovering from a career-threatening injury. Mourinho has already confirmed that he has no intention to sell Shaw and that he is very fond of the player and his potential. It’s all paper talk.

If you could take any Southampton player, who would it be and why?

It’s got to be Virgil van Dijk. The guy’s been one of the best defenders in the league this season and he has definitely changed my opinion of him. I use to have the image of Martial helping Van Dijk with cramp at St Mary’s lodged in my head after the Frenchman put two past Southampton last season and that set my negative view of the player. In a defence that is lacking solidarity at the moment, I’m taking Van Dijk all day.

Who has been your player of the season?

It’s between a few players. My shortlist is Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Valencia is arguably the best right-back in the league at the moment – he’s unbeatable in a 1v1 and is an absolute monster going forward. As for Pogba, the world’s most expensive player, everything good goes through him. On his day, he’s unmatchable and he could have had a lot more goals and assists this season if it weren’t for the woodwork and our poor finishing. Ibrahimovic has to be included due to the pure amount of goals the Swede has scored. He’s already got 24 in all competitions and we’re only in February! The scary thing is, he could have had a lot more…

What area of the Southampton side do you feel that United should exploit this Sunday?

The absence of Van Dijk is huge for United. He’s probably one of the only players that could’ve dealt with Ibrahimovic’s physicality meaning this factor could be decisive at Wembley.

Who do you expect to be your key man this Sunday, and which Southampton player scares you most going into the game?

If Pogba shows up then we’ll play well and have a good chance of winning, it’s as simple as that. Not only will he need to be pin point attacking wise, he will need to deal with Romeu – who does not lack fight in the middle of the park. In the form he’s in, Gabbiadini is frightening. We can’t afford to give him an inch of space otherwise he’ll showcase his favourite ‘spin & shoot’, which he recently showed vs Sunderland.

And finally, what do you think the score will be this Sunday?

Full-time score: United 3-1 Southampton. I think our amount of quality will shine through and pinch the win. It will be a good game nonetheless!

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.