English football is finally back!
With the new season looming large, it is time to start looking back on the summer to see how the Premier League sides have fared during the break.
One of the most interesting cases in England’s top division is once again, Southampton. Ronald Koeman has had another incredibly busy transfer window (and are not finished) and now have European football to contend with.
Can Southampton maintain their dark horse status and shock the Premier League for a second year in a row? Let’s take a look at how things stack up for the Saints.
As Koeman predicted, Southampton have had to endure a second team-rebuilding process in as many seasons, though not nearly to the extent of the previous year.
Southampton’s biggest loss has come in the form of Morgan Schneiderlin as Manchester United capitalized on the Frenchman’s desire to play in the Champions League.
The departure of Southampton’s 12/13 player of the season always seemed highly likely ever since Schneiderlin’s Twitter debacle last summer.
6 years of an amazing journey #saintsfc DESTROYED in 1 hour !!!
— Morgan Schneiderlin (@SchneiderlinMo4) July 29, 2014
However, the Saints received a cool £25million and have duly reinvested that money.
Koeman’s other big sale which seemed like an inevitability came from star right back Nathaniel Clyne.
Liverpool, Southampton’s most loyal customer, agreed a £12.5 million fee for one of England’s most promising full backs.
Though Southampton are now without another defensive powerhouse of theirs, Koeman has stuck true to his transfer philosophy and has found an adequate replacement in an attempt to smoothly transition his side into the new season.
The Saints have had to endure losses of a different nature too, as three important loan deals expired forcing significant talent away from St Mary’s. Toby Alderweireld, Filip Đuričić and Eljero Elia have all departed Southampton, unlikely to return.
Alderweireld will be a big blow for the Saints, especially with Florin Gardoș now potentially missing more than half a season through injury.
Both Alderweireld and Southampton seemed interested in rekindling their relationship through a permanent deal for the 15/16 season.
However, with all the confusion regarding the option to buy him from Atletico Madrid, Tottenham managed to step in and sign the Belgian instead. Again, Koeman has found an adequate replacement but may still be a touch light on fit centre backs now.
The losses of both Đuričić and Elia will set the Saints back somewhat but mainly in squad depth. With a long season ahead for the boys from the South coast, a large squad will be vital in allowing the possibility of a successful year, especially with Europe on the horizon.
As a result, Koeman may need to further his pursuits in the transfer market and look for more depth on the wings.
The shrewdness of Koeman and his scouting team at Southampton has been proven time and again with this window being no different. Though the Saints’ transfer activity has appeared to be more reactive than proactive, given how well the team did last season as an example, that may not be an issue.
Though it may be debatable, Koeman’s biggest addition to his squad this summer has been 24-year-old central midfielder, Jordy Clasie. As a direct replacement for Schneiderlin, the young Dutchman – labeled the next Xavi – may just have what it takes to fill in those large boots.
Clasie and Koeman already have a working relationship having spent time together at Feyenoord. Koeman had great faith in Clasie when he arrived by slotting him straight into the starting XI back then and the same will almost certainly occur here.
Though Clasie appears to be slightly more of a creative midfielder than Schneiderlin is, the Dutch midfielder should slot into the Southampton side easily. Pairing Clasie up next to the powerhouses of either Victor Wanyama or Harrison Reed should provide adequate balance to the center of the park.
Southampton’s other direct permanent replacement comes in the form of Cédric Soares, a young Portuguese right back who replaces Clyne. The 23-year-old comes with a decent amount of expectation despite only having five years of professional experience, all of which was in Portugal.
Despite the lack of experience in England, the youngster has shown promise and appears to play in a mould akin to Clyne. With a team as defensively astute as Southampton, the right back will be expected to perform.
Regardless of the pressure, history is on Soares’ side. Koeman’s other relatively unknown signings have been great successes for the club and Soares will only look to follow. If his performance against Vitesse is any sign of things to come, the Saints should be over the loss of Clyne very quickly.
On top of these two key signings; Koeman has made two very smart loan deals in Steven Caulker and Maarten Stekelenburg.
Having made close to 100 Premier League appearances across various clubs, Caulker comes with the experience necessary to fill Southampton’s back line.
As a tall, yet quick defender, Caulker will look to further his defensive abilities with more first team action in 15/16 following QPR’s relegation last season. It is likely that he will start ahead of Maya Yoshida as the young Englishman will look to solidify his starting place before the return of Florin Gardos from injury.
In another smart piece of business, Stekelenburg was signed on loan, tasked with the starting goalkeeping role while Fraser Forster recovers from his long-term knee injury
The Dutchman is of great stature and has had successful spells, particularly at Ajax and was Holland’s starting goalkeeper at the 2010 World Cup. While regular team football has eluded Stekelenburg for over a year now, a spell at Southampton could rejuvenate his career and place him back into the Dutch national side.
Finally, Koeman has brought in two new versatile squad players in Cuco Martina and Juanmi – two youngsters who have been brought in to provide defensive and attacking depth respectively.
While Martina will initially provide cover for the injured Ryan Bertrand, he has the versatility to move into the middle of defence while Gardos recovers from his long-term knee injury.
The Curaçaoan has spent time playing under Southampton assistant coach Erwin Koeman (Ronald’s brother) who has noted him for his versatility – something that will definitely play a big part in Southampton’s long season.
Juanmi on the other hand, is a versatile forward who can play as striker, attacking midfielder, or left wing. While Southampton are not short on striking power up top, they will need cover down the flanks and as a replacement for Đuričić and Elia, Juanmi should be adequate.
Despite all the transfer activity, Koeman has stated that he would still like to make two more signings. Due to the versatility of this Southampton side, the type of player that Koeman will be looking for depends solely on how he wishes to use his current players.
If Koeman were to focus Martina and his versatile midfielders more centrally then naturally the two new additions would be wingbacks or dedicated wingers.
Given his history throughout the past few transfer windows though, Koeman will rely on his scouting team to find players that are just as versatile as the rest of his side with an added bonus if they have worked with Koeman in the past.
Expect at least one more signing before the window closes in September but ideally, two more would be necessary to ensure enough depth to see the season through (barring injuries).
Aspirations for 2015/2016
Southampton must be realistic in their aspirations given the vast history of the performances of non-regular top six English teams in Europe. Having said that, most people’s expectations for Southampton last season included fighting to avoid relegation and look at how that panned out.
While the Premier League won’t be of lesser importance for the Saints this season, it will be difficult to replicate the 7th place finish of 14/15. A top ten finish for Southampton will be seen as a success given the increased workload of the Europa League.
However, a top ten finish will only be seen as a success given that Southampton make at least one strong cup run.
They are a team capable of cup success after all. On their day, they can topple just about any Premier League team. Just ask Arsenal & Manchester United who felt the power of the Saints last season.
It would not be beyond the realm of possibility to see Southampton reaching the final of an FA or League Cup. With that ability, they could even have have a long healthy run in the Europa League.
If Koeman and his Saints side can combine those two performances into his 15/16 campaign, then they will receive deserved plaudits. This will only be achievable if his new signings adjust well to their new surroundings and if the team stay out of further injury trouble.
Having said that, the signs are positive for the Saints this year. If there was any doubt for a potential dark horse this season, look no further than Southampton FC.