Nickname: The Saints
Home Ground: St. Mary’s Stadium
- 1 FA Cup Trophy
Manager: Mark Hughes
Southampton have barely managed to avoid the relegation from the English Premier League in a chaotic season which saw their manager Mauricio Pellegrino fired as the team was sitting in the relegation zone. His replacement Mark Hughes did manage to keep the Saints afloat and secure another season of top-flight soccer.
The new season offers a great chance for redemption for Southampton side that was playing in European club competitions just a few seasons earlier. I have prepared an overview of main Southampton storylines and a short preview for the upcoming English Premier League season.
Previous Season Summary
Mauricio Pellegrino was supposed to help Southampton transition into playing more modern and attacking soccer and better utilize the strengths of their roster. Pellegrino has spent more than GBP 55 million on players in the offseason, trying to bring in the right players for his system.
The Saints even got off to a decent start as they won 2 games, drew 2 and lost only 1 game in the first 5 games of the season. Still, Southampton wasn’t playing well and they really struggled to score goals and fans were growing a bit unnerved with the way the team was playing.
As the end of October started approaching, Southampton have lost their way and the results started to cause a concern. What followed nobody could’ve predicted, as the Saints went on to win just 2 games in the next 24 matches in the English Premier League. Southampton did manage to draw 10 and lose 12 games in the same period.
This terrible run of form was the end of Mauricio Pellegrini as the manager of the Saints. He was fired by the Southampton Board of Directors and a replacement, Mark Hughes, was brought in to motivate the team to fight and avoid relegation into English Championship.
With the team placed 18th and in the relegation zone, Mark Hughes got to work and try to install a more attacking mentality into the side.
This was just enough to move out Southampton from the relegation zone and into 17th place, where they finished the season. Mark Hughes was a success as the replacement manager and he managed to transform a losing side into something that shows promise for the upcoming season.
The Southampton Board of Directors was pleased with Mark Hughes role in saving the club from the relegation to the English Championship and they have signed him to a 3-year extension, secure the club’s future at the position.
Key Additions and Departures
Southampton have quickly entered the transfer market in the effort to rebuild parts of their roster in the effort to be more competitive in the upcoming English Premier League season. The Saints, in general, have been one of the best Premier League clubs in terms of the development of talent in the last few years, but almost all of their key players have left the club and joined bigger clubs.
Such a development pressure is impossible to maintain in the long term, so it was expected that Southampton will sooner or later end up with a difficult season as they try to connect the dots and rebuild. The Saints hope that this season was last year and that they can now move forward with higher ambitions and improved results.
Southampton have already added 4 new players to their roster and there are rumors that they are still note done expanding their roster.
Was the transfer of 25-year-old center back Jannik Vestergaard from Borussia Monchengladbach for a GBP 22.5 million fee. The Danish-German center back should easily slide into the rotation at Southampton.
The second addition to the Saints roster was the signing of left winger Mohamed Elyounoussi from FC Basel for a GBP 16.2 million fee. Elyounoussi is a versatile winger that brings pace, dribbling and scoring to the Southampton squad which really struggled in this area last season.
Another area where Southampton have struggled in last season was the goalkeeper position. In order to remedy that, the Saints have added 22-year-old goalkeeper Angus Gunn from Manchester City for a GBP 10 million fee. Gunn is a supremely talented young goalkeeper that should be the long-term solution at the position for the Saints.
Finally, Southampton have addressed their midfield as well by adding central midfielder Stuart Armstrong from Celtic on a GBP 7 million deal. The 26-year old Scott has been spectacular for Celtic in the last few years, scoring 27 goals for the club in the process. He should bring an attacking mentality to the Saints midfield and a player that will always look to come forward.
With their roster already depleted from many lucrative transfers over the last few seasons, Southampton didn’t have much to offer on the transfer market. The only key player to leave the club this summer was Dusan Tadic, who made a GBP 10.6 million move from Southampton to Dutch side Ajax.
In addition to that, only two smaller departures are worth nothing. Experienced goalkeeper Stuart Taylor and right-back Jeremy Pied have left the club on a free transfer. There are further rumors of departures, with the right-back Matt Targett being one of the main wishes of newly promoted Fulham.
I don’t expect Southampton to make a huge splash in the transfer market before the transfer deadline arrives. The core of the team is more or less set and the Saints will probably focus on developing the talent they already have on the roster.
Style of Play
Mark Hughes is a versatile manager that has employed a variety of systems depending on the type of club he was managing. He has proven several times in his career that he is able to take a club which might be lacking in individual talent and turn it into a something that is larger than the sum of its parts.
When he took over for Mauricio Pellegrini, Hughes mostly employed a 3-4-2-1 formation at Southampton in order to maximize the potential of his roster. It is not the first time that Hughes is employing a 3-back defensive line since he prefers his wing backs to have a lot of freedom on the flanks.
The 3 central backs have to be able to successfully close down any offensive movement through the middle and towards their goal. The middle center back is usually a physical specimen with height and aerial ability, so he can be a key player in both offensive and defensive set pieces.
Hughes does not prefer regular fullbacks in his formation, rather opting for wingbacks that can cover the whole flank, which he has at Southampton in Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares. When attacking, the wingbacks push into the wide space on the wings and participate in the attacking moves. When defending the 3-4-2-1 actually transforms into 5-4-1, as the wingbacks pull back to fill in the space left open by the central defenders.
Up front, a single striker acts as a target man for the long ball and direct passes. He must be sturdy and powerful to be able to play with the defenders at his back, win aerial duels and distribute the ball to other attacking options that are participating in the attacking move.
The center of the field is covered by 4 midfielders, 2 of which are tasked into more of a defensive or box-to-box role, while the other 2 are more flexible in their position and are part of the most attacking moves of the Saints. Hughes’ system focuses on stuffing the middle of the field with players and suffocating the space where the ball should move.
Southampton do not employ a heavy pressing scheme, but rather press only when close to the center of the field or in their own half. They transform from their standard 3-4-2-1 formation into a 5-4-1 formation in the low block. With such a congested space, they start pressing the ball and make it hard for the opponents to progress.
The counter-attacks are easily generated from that low block, as both wingbacks will fly into space on the wings, while the center midfielders are using long balls and direct passing to get the ball as quickly as possible into the danger areas.
There is nothing tricky or exotic in Mark Hughes’ system but rather just a solid and simple play that is focused on keeping the ball out of the Saints net. Sure, there are obvious weaknesses in the system, like the lack of goalscoring, since Southampton do not have elite strikers that can handle the load that they are tasked with and still score goals.
Still, Hughes has managed to stabilize Southampton and now they can look forward to improvement in the upcoming English Premier League season.
2018/19 Season Expectations and Predictions
Before last season, Southampton were one of the most stable clubs in the English Premier League and have constantly fought for the title of “The Best of the Rest” outside of the Big 6 clubs. Last season has been a tough pill to swallow for the Saints Board of Director and fans and they expect more from their club in the future.
The hiring and extension of Mark Hughes has been a positive development as Southampton enter a new season. Hughes was able to stabilize and motivate the squad in the middle of the relegation battle in the English Premier League. He is a favorite among the players who feel that he has their back no matter what.
The expectations for this season are for the Saints to stay clear of the relegation zone and finish in a respectable mid-table position. This will not be an easy task to achieve, as this year’s competition in the English Premier League is expected to be as fierce as ever.
Southampton roster is still a work in progress and there are still areas of the team that need to be addressed. One of such areas is in the attack, where Southampton’s finishing has been consistently one of the worst in the whole Premier League. The trio of Shane Long, Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini have been abysmal in goalscoring form and that can be seen in team’s performance.
The schedule will turn brutal for the Saints in December, when they will be playing against Tottenham Hotspurs, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea. Such a run of fixtures can often be discouraging and damaging to team morale. If Mark Hughes can weather that period and manage to keep the club above the relegation zone, they have a chance for a successful season.
Since the Saints have not finalized their roster yet and we can expect more players to arrive, it is safe to say that the current roster doesn’t have a lot of potential for a top-half finish. Still, there is enough talent for Southampton to stay clear of the relegation zone.
I like the early schedule but I see problems in the Saints being able to regularly score goals, so I pick the Saints to finish 17th in the English Premier League, same as last season. That could improve if they are able to add a difference maker or two at the key positions.