Being a football hipster is serious business with knowledge about the young starlet making waves for a non-mainstream mid table side often a prerequisite rather than a feather in the cap. To further enhance your, perhaps, burgeoning reputation as a true hipster, Outside of the Boot is on hand to provide an in-depth guide to some of the less celebrated teams around Europe. In this edition of the series, Ross Bramble has a look at Southampton.
THE PREVIOUS CAMPAIGN
Another summer, another Southampton overhaul. Or is it meltdown? I can’t tell the difference any more.
Yes, with the arrival of another end-of-season break came a managerial switch, three big name departures and some shrewd and hipster acquisitions, as well as a hat-load of morale boosting contract renewals down on the south coast of England. The thing is, this summer was never meant to be so colourful. This summer was meant to be different.
After another recording breaking season for the Saints, which saw the red and white army finish in an astonishing sixth place with guaranteed Europa League qualification, a mere three points from the Champions League places, too, Ronald Koeman’s Southampton were determined to make this summer is a more settled one. The itinerary was simple – tie Koeman down to a new contract, move on want-aways Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle, most likely to Tottenham and the highest bidding Italian outfit respectively, fend off interest for Sadio Mane and build on another successful season. That, unfortunately, unravelled quickly.
There is not nearly enough time for me to recount the steps, twists and betrayals that led to Ronald Koeman’s departure to Everton, but suffice to say a bloody political battle between the Dutchman and his employers ended with the Barcelona legend’s acrimonious and hugely shocking move to Merseyside. With that came the expected departure of the Mighty Kenyan Victor Wanyama, to Tottenham as predicted. Soon after came the loss of Sadio Mane – disappointing but not altogether surprising. Graziano Pelle sprung a surprise of his own with his move to China, capping off a summer storm that had also seen the appointment of a new head coach – Claude Puel, formerly of Nice. With Nathan Redmond and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg recruited from Norwich and Bayern Munich respectively, Southampton have once again hit the refresh button, and a face a new season of even greater challenges, with a new sense of uncertainty and caution among the fan base. But are those feelings justified?
After Koeman’s move to Everton started to gather momentum, the smoke signals emanating from the Southampton FC chimney began to attract a lot of interest across the globe. Among those mooted for the role were Andre Villas Boas, Frank De Boer, Unai Emery, Paco Jiminez, Rudi Garcia, and the recently dismissed Manchester City manager, Manuel Pellegrini. Of all the names linked, however, the most obscure, least well known and perhaps even unbelievable, was Claude Puel.
Puel is not a name known around the world, and certainly most casual fans weren’t aware of his resume. I don’t consider myself a ‘casual’ fan, but I confess to not knowing him from Adam myself. However, the former Nice, Lyon and Marseille boss has grown a strong, local reputation in his native France for a fast paced, counter attacking style, incorporating a heavy focus on youth development with maximising the resources available to him. Puel’s Nice side ended the season in fourth place in Ligue 1, and were widely credited as the best team to watch outside of the indomitable champions PSG. Puel had taken a band of misfits, kids and not-good-enoughs, and turned them in to a side capable of qualifying for Europe. It’s a CV that appeals directly to the hierarchy at Southampton FC, and it came as no surprise to see the Frenchman brought on board – once we’d all done our research, at least. His European experience will be a big bonus for the team this coming season, but Puel will have to acclimatise to the English game, which has reached a level of competition and ferocity that he has never known before.
At the time of writing, this is a tricky one to try to call. With the window still open, Southampton still active and with the club’s two highest scorers over the last two seasons (Pelle & Mane) now out the door, anything could happen to alter the formation of the new Southampton side. However, we can still extrapolate trends from the friendlies the Saints have played so far.
In terms of tactical approach, Claude Puel does not seem to be a manager who differs from what Southampton have become accustomed to over the last few years. Puel’s Nice were lauded for their fierce pressing style and swift counter attacks, all the while retaining a rigid and unbreakable backline. Puel almost seems to unite the best of both Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, who both implemented these traits during their spells on the South Coast. However, where Puel differs from his predecessors, is in his strikers. Rickie Lambert featured as Pochettino’s target man, as Graziano Pelle did for Ronald Koeman, but Puel has made no such signing at the time of writing. It seems the days of target men at Southampton have been shelved, for now at least – and who can complain when the new front three is as pacey, direct and potent as it now looks?
That leads us kindly to formations – from what we can see early doors, Puel is ready to make a 4-3-3 his standard, go-to game plan. While that appears to be the priority formation, Southampton have also been seen to implement a simpler 4-4-2 during pre-season, and I’m sure a 4-5-1 variation will be on display (or at least under construction during training) within that time thanks to the swell of midfield talent the side now features. Predicting a starting eleven seems an impossible task from where I sit at the time of writing, but the best educated guess I could make would probably feature something similar to:
PREDICTED ELEVEN (4-3-3-): Forster; Cedric, Fonte, van Dijk, Bertrand; Romeu, Højbjerg, Ward-Prowse; Rodriguez, Austin, Redmond
TRANSFER MARKET ACTIVITY
Nathan Redmond – Norwich, £11m: It’s not a Southampton transfer window until we’re linked with Nathan Redmond. The young England winger has been on the radar at St. Mary’s for a number of seasons now, but after Norwich’s relegation two seasons ago, Redmond elected to stay and fight for the Canaries in their bid to return to the top flight. Despite their promotion, Norwich found themselves relegated once more, and finally Southampton were able to make a move for their man. He comes in to replace Sadio Mane, and while he will be given all the tools and time to do so, Saints fans may need to be patient with him in the early part of the season.
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg – Bayern Munich, £15m: Setting aside for the minute that Southampton just bought a Bayern Munich player, Højbjerg is a very Southampton signing. Enough talent to fill a bath tub and young enough to realise it, the Danish midfielder comes with a great reputation from Germany, and a hat load of expectation. His pacey persistence will endear him to the fans under Puel’s pressing style, and with a few seasons to develop, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg could prove himself an incredibly astute signing by the Saints.
Gaston Ramirez – Free, Middlesbrough: In a move that shocked absolutely no-one, Gaston Ramirez’s tortuous time on the South Coast finally came to an end with the conclusion of his contract this summer. The Uruguayan had been living a charmed life at Southampton for more than just a few months by this stage, and his impressive loan spell at Middlesbrough made the Riverside a brilliant alternative for all parties.
Victor Wanyama – £12m, Tottenham Hotspurs: After his fallout with management last summer over his readiness to leave St. Mary’s, it was obvious that Wanyama was only here for one more year – just as Morgan Schneiderlin had done us the courtesy of staying another season before his move to Manchester United. Thanks to his understanding and foresight, Wanyama leaves Southampton with a great deal more admiration and well-wishes than he might otherwise have done. The £12m figure quoted by the press seems to discount the add-ons which will carry this deal a little higher, but it still represents good business for Tottenham. The Kenyan might not have the best footballing brain, but he certainly has the brawn.
Sadio Mane – £34m, Liverpool: There were stories about an impending move for Sadio Mane the day after his record breaking hat-trick, so it came as little surprise to see them resurface this summer. With Klopp’s revolution in progress (I for one look forward to seeing him pioneer his apparent 1-1-8 formation, if his transfers are anything to go by), Mane became a prime target for the German, and for good reason. £34m will be seen as great market play by Southampton, judging by his current ability, as well as great investment by Liverpool, judging by his potential. Although it was disappointing to lose him, Sadio Mane now costs more than St. Mary’s Stadium, and his sale alone could have cleared our debts back in 2009 before the Liebherr takeover. Not bad, eh?
Graziano Pelle – £12m, Shandong Luneng: It was no surprise to see Graziano Pelle leaving Southampton this summer, since his readiness to move on and return to Italy had been well publicised since early 2016. However, the move to China did come a little from left field. The Italian target man clearly showed enough to Shandong Luneng to convince them to make him the world’s fifth highest paid footballer, earning a reported £13m a season, which buys a lot of hair products. Despite how much I’ll miss singing “It’s magic, you kno-o-o-w, Tadic to Grazia-nooo!”, it’s a good move for all parties, considering his age and contract status.
THREE KEY PLAYERS
Jay Rodriguez: This a very tough trinity to select, but I can’t look past Jay Rodriguez for my first pick. The injury-ridden England striker rose to fame a few seasons back with Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, before an injury put pay to his World Cup hopes. After a protracted period on the sidelines, Jay-Rod found himself on the treatment table once again for most of last season. With a full pre-season under his belt and a system that seems to promote his direct running in much the same way it did with Rickie and Adam, Rodriguez will be chomping at the bit to show people he hasn’t lost a step and get back to his goal scoring best.
James Ward-Prowse: Ward-Prowse is a talent seconds away from exploding. The youngster has always been well admired, if for nothing else other than his set piece delivery, and is highly regarded both at St. Mary’s and by the England national set up. However, due to Ronald Koeman’s partiality to dropping him last season, JWP has still yet to set the world on fire with his talents. Under Claude Puel, who venerates the youth, hopefully Ward-Prowse can begin to add more goals to his game and get more exposure. With the Europa League to contend with as well, this could be his big break out season at long last.
Cedric Soares: Having won the European Championships with Portugal, and of course his club captain Jose Fonte, Cedric is set for an important season at Southampton, both for the team and for his career. The right back found life hard at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, accumulating injuries and making a few too many mistakes for some people’s liking. However, when he was on song, he was a vital part of Southampton’s attacks. Koeman didn’t appear to have enough faith in him for the latter part of the campaign, but after an impressive outing with his national team at the summer championships, Cedric will be expected not only to raise his game back in the domestic league, but will certainly have to show the big names who may have been impressed by his tournament displays that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
TALENT RADAR KEY YOUNG PLAYER
Yan Valery: This is always a tough category for Southampton, with so many youngsters in the pipeline. While the board were left frustrated by Koeman’s apparent closure of the pathway between the under 21s and the first team, as well as his public criticism of the level of talent on offer to him, Puel has made it priority number one. The pro-youngster rhetoric from the club is inspiring stuff for the kids and for the fans, who always pride themselves on supporting a club who invests in the future. To that end, be prepared to see more members of the youth teams featuring in the Southampton side this year, as they prepare to battle on four fronts.
While it is tough to nail down just one possible break out star this season, certainly from what has been seen during pre-season so far, young French-born right back Yan Valery seems the most heavily favoured. He’s been supremely impressive in his appearances so far, and with only Cuco Martina competing against Cedric, right back is a prime area of concern for Southampton. If links to Kieran Trippier and whoever else may be touted before August 31st are false, young Valery will find opportunities to compete. Another shout out should be offered to Olufela Olomola, the Nigerian born striker who has been a live-wire for the Saints during pre-season.
CONCLUSION AND EXPECTATION
It appears another tough season is ahead for Southampton, who will need to incorporate a new manager with new ideas with new players, new formations and new tactics in to a campaign filled with a hyper-competitive domestic league, a European campaign that the board are keen to make a success of, and two cup competitions that fans are hungry to finally make a fist of. These are combustible elements, and after so many seasons of progression and record-breaking moments, it will be hard to accept a mid-table finish if it were to come about. However, all things considered, if you were to tell me that Southampton would finish somewhere around 8th-10th, above Ronald Koeman’s Everton, having escaped the Europa League group stages and made a mark in the FA Cup, I’d be more than happy.
To summarise, Southampton are in for another interesting season with mixed expectations across the fan base. If we can be sure of one thing though, it’s that Southampton will once again be a fascinating team to watch for neutrals, both as a team and as a case study, as we wait to see if the Saints can endure another summer of upheaval. I certainly don’t see a reason why they can’t.
Written by Ross Bramble
Read all our 2016-17 Hipster Guide articles here.