Premier League 2014-15 preview No14: Southampton
After a summer of disruption, a mid-table finish would represent a successful campaign for new manager Ronald Koeman
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 15th (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 8th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,500-1
Watching Southampton being reminded of their place in the food chain has been a dispiriting experience this summer and unless you support Portsmouth, it is hard not to feel sorry for them. In another era, they might have been able to use their brilliant youth system to build something special and make a proper challenge to the bigger clubs. A team who have grown up together might have been allowed to develop into a genuine force. But not now. Their best players have been pilfered, their manager has gone and it is enough to leave one questioning what the point of all this is if a team is dismantled as soon as it threatens to smash the glass ceiling.
When speculation was building over the futures of several players last season, Les Reed, the club’s executive director, promised that “any enquiries we get will probably be met with a ‘no – not for sale’” and the chairman, Ralph Krueger, also said that sales would not be required to pay off Southampton’s debts. However when Ronald Koeman, Southampton’s new manager, insisted that they are a not a selling club when he was introduced to the media last month, that claim was rather undermined by the fact that they had already lost Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Luke Shaw and that more were seeking moves.
“We sold three players,” Koeman said. “That’s good enough. Enough money. Now we will keep the rest.” A few weeks later, he was tweeting a picture of an empty pitch at Southampton’s Marchwood training ground. “Ready for training!” the Dutchman wrote.
Koeman is not the first manager to put on a defiant face in public and will not be the last, but no one was taking those comments seriously and it was not long before an increasingly rebellious Dejan Lovren had forced through a move to Liverpool, Calum Chambers had joined Arsenal and Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez were itching to link up with Southampton’s previous manager, Mauricio Pochettino, at Tottenham Hotspur. Naturally supporters questioned the club’s ambition and whether the owner, Katharina Liebherr, who took over when her father, Markus, died in 2010, is in it for the long haul. Suspicion is understandable. Ever since Liebherr fell out with Nicola Cortese in January and brought in Krueger in February, there has been uncertainty. Pochettino, who was close to Cortese, could not be convinced to stay and the wheels were in motion.
Yet it was risky to judge too soon. For some, the sales were a sign of weakness, for others, a sign of business acumen. Southampton finished eighth and have brought in £88.5m from the sale of five players, a figure which will rise to over £100m if Schneiderlin and Rodriguez leave. Many clubs will envy them. Not many would say no to Arsenal when they were offering potentially £16m for Calum Chambers, a 19-year-old right-back with only 23 first-team appearances, while Lallana, Lovren and Shaw were expected to leave. Only Lambert’s exit was a surprise and he signed for his boyhood club.
Reed asked for patience. The time for judgment comes at the end of the transfer window and while there are still a few holes to fill, Southampton have calmed supporters’ nerves by signing Fraser Forster, Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle and bringing in Ryan Bertrand and Saphir Taider on loan. A deal for the Steaua Bucharest centre-back, Florin Gardos, is also imminent. Further signings are expected and when it is put like that, it is not much of a crisis.
Fears that Southampton are going to be dragged into a relegation battle are misplaced, even though Koeman is essentially building a new side. Southampton have not ceased to exist. They remain in a better position than a lot of clubs, not least because of their academy, and looking at it positively, these can still be exciting times, a chance for a new manager to make his mark. It will certainly be fascinating to see how Koeman implements his ideas and whether he will make tweaks to Southampton’s high-energy pressing style. He has divided opinion during his managerial career but he is a multiple title-winner, does not lack confidence, can be expected to make good use of Southampton’s academy and his Feyernood side have been credited with providing Louis van Gaal with the inspiration for the 3-5-2 system used by Holland at the World Cup.
In any case, Pochettino was not perfect: there were times when Southampton relinquished leads or handed over the initiative to inferior opponents, while his bizarre and unnecessary decision to field a weakened side against Sunderland in the FA Cup attracted derision. Given that Southampton were comfortable in mid-table at the time, there was no need and a place in the final would have been within touching distance if they had beaten Sunderland. Instead they limped out meekly.
Absorbing the loss of Lallana will be difficult. The midfielder joined the club when he was 12 and while his progress was slower than Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott, Lallana rose through the divisions with Southampton and was always improving. Whenever it appeared that he had reached his peak, he would find another level and he was exceptional last season, scoring 10 goals, dictating the play and making the side tick. Yet Southampton have found a replacement in Tadic, and will hope the Serbian international can replicate the form he showed for Twente, for whom he scored 16 goals last season. Nathan Redmond could also arrive from Norwich City to give Southampton more width.
Predictably Koeman is looking to exploit his knowledge of the Dutch market and has also filled the gaping hole in attack left by Lambert by signing Pelle from Feyernoord. Inevitably there are suspicions about any striker signed from the Eredivisie – blame Afonso Alves and Mateja Kezman – and Pelle, a 29-year-old Italian, will be under pressure. He was prolific for Feyernoord but his record in Serie A was unconvincing.
Koeman appears to know how to get the best out of him but Southampton still need another striker now that Dani Osvaldo has joined Internazionale on loan. Sam Gallagher, a young forward, is promising but raw, while Rodriguez is sidelined until October with a serious knee injury. Tempting Javier Hernández to the south coast would be a coup.
Other areas of the squad are more solid. Artur Boruc managed to quell his erratic nature last season, other than a comedy attempt to dribble past Olivier Giroud that ended in disaster during a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, but he will probably lose his place to Forster, whose arrival for £10m from Celtic suggests that Southampton’s ambition remains strong.
Losing the efficient midfield energy of Schneiderlin would be a blow but Southampton have added Taider, an Algerian international, as part of the Osvaldo deal and already have Jack Cork, Victor Wanyama, Stephen Davis and James Ward-Prowse in central midfield. Harrison Reed is also on the verge of breaking into the first team and Koeman is thought to be interested in Feyernoord’s Jordy Clasie.
However there is slight concern about the defence. Southampton have more than doubled their money on Lovren and there is little admiration for the way that he left, but the Croatian shone last season and formed a solid partnership with Fonte, who improved alongside him. Southampton cannot rely on Jos Hooiveld and Maya Yoshida and will hope that Gardos acclimatises quickly to the Premier League, if he does indeed sign.
Nathaniel Clyne, who was outstanding last season, will ensure that the departure of Chambers will not be felt too keenly, while the signing of Bertrand on loan from Chelsea fills the void left by Shaw on the left. There is also a belief that this could be a breakthrough year for Matt Targett, who is another product of the youth system. Other youngsters like Jack Stephens and Lloyd Isgrove will also hope to be involved.
Realistically Southampton might struggle to hit last season’s heights and a mid-table finish would represent a successful campaign after all the disruption. They are heading into unknown territory but if Koeman embraces the challenge and the new players settle, everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. If not, the consolation is that the stripes are back and at least no one can buy them.
By Jacob Steinberg for the Guardian