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1) Review of Last Season
It can be said that the 2012-2013 Premier League season was shaped by two key moments for Southampton.
The first was on a cold mid-November afternoon in West London. A match dubbed ‘El Sackico’ between Saints and fellow strugglers QPR, resulted in only the second win of the season for Nigel Adkins’ side, and a first on the road. Southampton produced a superb performance to relieve the pressure on their manager, and heap further misery on the under-fire Mark Hughes and QPR.
From that game, Saints pushed on, going two games unbeaten against Newcastle and Norwich. They signed off for 2012, with two fantastic away draws at Stoke and Fulham – teams with notoriously good home records.
The second key moment involved perhaps the most unjust sacking of a manager in recent times. On 18th January – after leading his side to back-to-back promotions from League 1 – Nigel Adkins was sacked as the club’s manager following a remarkable comeback at the home of the European Champions, Chelsea, to earn a point.
He left Saints 15th in the league; 3 points clear of the relegation zone, with a far superior goal difference. After finally seeming to get to grips with the top division in England, Southampton’s Premier League future was plunged back into uncertainty.
Fan favourite Adkins’ replacement was announced the same day. Little-known Argentinean, Mauricio Pochettino took the reigns having been sacked as manager of Espanyol in late November, with the Catalan-based team bottom of La Liga with 9 points from 13 games.
And so the Mauricio Pochettino era began with a solid 0-0 draw with Everton in front of a relatively subdued St. Mary’s, on a bitter Monday night down on the south-coast. With only Vegard Forren – who didn’t make a single appearance – added to the squad in January, Pochettino’s task was simple. Continue what many thought Adkins was successfully doing – picking up the points necessary to stay up.
But after 7 games and only one win – albeit a 3-1 home victory over the champions Manchester City – Pochettino’s side sat precariously close to the relegation zone. This all changed as an inspired last minute penalty save from Artur Boruc against Norwich preserved a precious away point and sparked Pochettino’s players into life.
11 points from the next 5 games followed, including home wins against Chelsea and Liverpool. By mid-April, Southampton’s Premier League survival had all but been confirmed. Despite the season fizzling out with flat performances, 14th place was extremely respectable for a side enjoying their first campaign season back in the big time after a seven year break.
Talismanic striker Rickie Lambert finished as the joint top English goal scorer with Frank Lampard as he contributed 15 goals to Saints’ cause, along with 5 assists. Without a doubt, however, Morgan Schneiderlin was the club’s top performer, leading the league in tackles and interceptions, as well as having an exceptional passing success rate.
With his five goals not to be forgotten as well, it was one to remember for the 23 year old Frenchman.
2) Changes for the Upcoming Season
A host of players who’d served Southampton admirably during their rise through the divisions were released at the beginning of June, including defenders Frazer Richardson and Danny Butterfield. Midfielder Richard Chaplow – who spent the end of last season on loan at Millwall – also departed after his contract was mutually terminated.
Another defender, Norwegian Vegard Forren, was bizarrely sold back to Norwegian club Molde, whom he had left to join Saints in January. Forren didn’t make a single first-team appearance for the club.
It has become a recurring theme with Saints in recent transfer windows to be linked seemingly to every player under the sun. And when news of an official bid finally does emerge, one can expect it to take up to a month before any deal is confirmed. This is the case with Kenyan Victor Wanyama, signed from Celtic for a reported fee of £12.5 million. From news first breaking of a Saints bid for the 22 year old midfielder, it took over a month for the parties to thrash out a deal.
In addition to Wanyama, Southampton have also signed 24 year old Croatian international centre-back, Dejan Lovren from Lyon, for a fee reckoned to be in the region of £8.5 million.
Both of these signings have delighted Saints’ fans, and will be seen as massive statements of intent by other teams clubs rivaling the south coast club for a top-half finish.
3) The Strengths and Weaknesses
With the record addition of Kenyan defensive midfield player, Victor Wanyama, Southampton’s midfield looks to be the strongest for a while on the South Coast. Morgan Schneiderlin, 23, and Wanyama, 22, look set to play as the two deep-lying midfielders, with Jack Cork, 24, providing a more than capable backup.
Any three from Gaston Ramirez, Adam Lallana, Jason Puncheon and Jay Rodriguez will sit ahead of them, and at an average age of just 24, the future is bright for Southampton’s midfield and fans are licking their lips at the prospect of watching the sextet in action.
Ask any Southampton fan what their Achilles’ heel was last term, and they will reply without pausing to think: the defense. Early on in the season, Saints struggled, as comical defensive errors became almost synonymous with the then manager, Nigel Adkins’ side. By the time they had kept their first clean sheet, on 25th November, with a 2-0 home victory over the underachieving Newcastle, Saints had already shipped 30 goals in 12 games – a league high.
Despite improvement later on in the campaign, the defense remains a problem. The £8.5 million addition of Dejan Lovren plugs a hole, but the lack of depth still concerns many. The first choice back four of Nathaniel Clyne, Maya Yoshida, Dejan Lovren and Luke Shaw looks strong on paper, but if injuries were to strike, frailties would again be exposed.
As it stands for instance, Nathaniel Clyne is the only recognised right-back in the squad.
4) Key Players
More will be expected of Uruguayan attacking midfield player, Gaston Ramirez, who was signed on deadline day in August for £12 million. The 22 year old struggled to make his presence felt at times last year as he struggled with form and fitness throughout the campaign. But the former Bologna player will have a point to prove this term after his season ended disappointingly after being sent off for lashing out at Irishman Shane Long in the 3-0 home defeat to West Brom.
Ramirez has already stated this summer that he wants to repay the trust shown in him by the club, and after some average performances in June’s Confederations Cup for Uruguay, the attack-minded midfielder will be looking to show that he isn’t all talk and no action.
Expect him to shine, as he continues his acclimatisation to life in England and the relentless pace of the Premier League. It is easy to forget that Ramirez is only 22.
5) Prediction for the Upcoming Season
One can never tell with Southampton. The years between Gordon Strachan’s departure in early 2004, and the launch of the Liebherr-Cortese era, in 2009, were not happy ones for Saints’ fans. Consistently average League performances led to relegation to the third tier of English football.
Couple that with the hardship of administration while in League 1, and one can forgive and understand why the ever-pessimistic Southampton fans remain as surprised as anyone at the club’s meteoric rise from near going out of business in League 1, to having aspirations of a top half finish in the Premier League merely 4 years later.
The ambition of Nicola Cortese, Southampton’s Executive Chairman, is admirable. The transfer window still has over a month to go, yet Croatian defender Dejan Lovren, and Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama have already been added to the ever-growing list of international stars that manager Mauricio Pochettino has at his disposal. At an estimated combined worth of £21 million, it is clear that Pochettino and Cortese mean business as they look to push Southampton up the Premier League and into Europe.
Combine the eye-catching spending with the ambition of Cortese and one has the recipe for a successful season on paper. With one or two more signings looking probable – notably Argentinean international midfielder, Ever Banega from Valencia – the surly Italian won’t want anything less than a top-half finish. Cortese would consider a placing in the bottom-half a failure.
After a disastrous start in the Premier League last term, a solid start this year could set the Saints up for a memorable campaign. Providing the defense remains injury free, the goals will flow for a naturally attacking side. Expect attractive, free-flowing football when going forward.
While in defense, Pochettino encourages his side to employ the style of pressing made famous by Marcelo Bielsa, notably at Athletic Bilbao – the basic aim of which being to win the ball as high up the pitch and as soon after losing it as possible.
Although it can be a hazardous technique, when perfected it can be devastating, as demonstrated with Athletic Bilbao’s impressive run to the Europa League Final. The home wins against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea towards the end of last season all undoubtedly came about because of the tireless work done by the midfield and attack in pressing their opponents, wreaking havoc in the opposition ranks.
I personally think Southampton will finish upper mid-table – maybe 9th – and firmly believe this would represent a massively successful season. Home form is key and even though Saints are historically weak on the road, Pochettino’s side must pick up more points away from home.
6) Rate the Current Squad and Manager
SQUAD: 7/10 – Strengthening required in defense, and a quality striker is needed to achieve Cortese’s aspirations.
MANAGER: 8/10 – Remains to be seen how he performs over a whole season, but early indications show that Pochettino could be the man to lead the Saints up the table.
Written by Ben Higlett
Follow Ben on Twitter @BHiglett
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