It’s been something of a transitional season for Southampton. We’ve seen a new manager take the lead, some new players added to the mix, some young blood utilised and a plethora of different tactical approaches and systems put into place.
Saints are currently sat in ninth place heading into this weekend’s fixture away at West Brom, and have had quite a mixed 2016/17 campaign. The league form has been inconsistent but Claude Puel’s side aren’t in too bad a position, but the team and fans alike will look back ruefully at their failures in the FA Cup and Europa League. Saints did reach the EFL Cup final in what was a wonderful run in the competition, but fell short to Manchester United at the final hurdle.
Puel has settled the team down now after what was a turbulent first three quarters of the season, operating with the orthodox 4-2-3-1 formation having come under fire for deploying a 4-3-3 for a large chunk of the season, much to the disdain and anger of Saints fans who were understandably bored of the laboured football being played. Although consistency is the clear issue for Puel’s men, they’re playing a far more attractive brand of football and are looking much more confident going forward. Given the lack of changes made to the team in the last couple of months, you’d assume that the Frenchman has finally found what he perceives to be his favoured starting line-up.
However, down to this newfound continuity and consistency in selection, it could quite easily be argued that Puel isn’t making the most of some of the talent at his disposal, with a number of quality players only featuring in cameo appearances.
In the new system, we’ve seen a regular midfield two playing consistently. Oriol Romeu and Steven Davis have partnered each other for the last six games in a double pivot, but this will of course change course now given Romeu’s two-game suspension and Davis’ knock to the ankle.
The pair have been in good form, with Romeu especially going from strength to strength with every game that passes. However, this has led to the likes of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Jordy Clasie being overlooked and excluded from the starting line-up, with one of the two often failing to even make the bench. Now, although neither midfielder has particularly flourished this season and they have both underwhelmed, they are still good players and can still offer something to Saints.
Despite the poor form of Hojbjerg particularly during the middle course of the season, he wasn’t really given all that much of a chance despite making a considerable amount of appearances. During the Christmas period, Saints were matched with a game every three days for a number of weeks and this therefore prevented the Danish midfielder from putting together a string of consecutive starts. He’s been unable to form partnerships, settle in when playing and perform to the best of his ability, despite him not being as effervescent as we were expecting.
However, although the midfield poses plenty of questions to Puel, the attacking talent at the club is now impressive and there are some massively exciting talents failing to get sufficient game time, through no fault of their own nor of Puel’s, really. It’s a selection headache for the Saints boss.
Josh Sims has emerged as one of Southampton’s brightest young talents after bursting onto the Premier League scene this season, showing a fearless attitude and a relentless desire to take players on and create for his team. However, he’s lucky to even make the bench nowadays and his displays have probably warranted a greater opportunity to kick on.
There’s a similar situation with Sofiane Boufal. The club-record signing has shown glimpses of real quality this season but has somewhat underwhelmed, failing to nail down a place in the starting line-up and struggling with some niggling injuries. Dusan Tadic has been starting as the number ten recently and Puel will be keen to see him carry on his decent form in recent times, clearly at the expense of restricting Boufal’s game time. They’re both game-changing players that cannot play together.
So, when we look to the future, it can’t be doubted that Saints have a galore of talent that can be nurtured and developed. All of the squad are important, but the future needs to be considered. Hojbjerg, Sims and Boufal are a trio of exciting, young players all under the age of 23 that we’d have liked to have seen more of this season, but it’d also be hard to justify dropping those ahead of them in the pecking order to make room for opportunities.
Claude Puel has questions in his mind, and could well find the answers in pre-season.
When the former Nice boss arrived on the scene at Saints, he was chucked straight into the pre-season preparations at the end of June. He had very little time to assess his options and was probably unable to cast a reasonable judgement of the tools at his disposal.
However, he certainly did make his mark early on and it was clear that he was looking to put across ideologies and new ideas to the squad. He made it abundantly clear that Saints were to use possession-based football in a diamond formation, which was altered. These are two aspects that we’ve seen from the team this season, so pre-season really did come across as a building block in hindsight.
Puel wanted to work with positional versatility too. Sam McQueen was tested as a left-back, Oriol Romeu was tried out as a sole pivot in the middle, and Nathan Redmond was utilised as a striker. Two out of three of those worked well, and I’ll let you figure out which one didn’t…
It was an interrupted time though. Puel was still new, Saints had fresh faces still to arrival and international players were yet to return. People often forget that the likes of Cedric Soares and Steven Davis returned to the club late on after their Euro 2016 campaigns with their respective countries, and were subsequently hindered in the opening stages of the season.
However, there won’t be any distractions or restrictions for Puel this time around. The group will be all together, new signings will come in to join up and he will have had a full season to assess his squad and deal with them accordingly.
Changes could very well be made, and we could see a sign of things to come. Perhaps Hojbjerg will be integrated next to Romeu ahead of the season, and maybe Boufal will be given the chance to assert himself in the mix. It’s an opportunity for those struggling this season to prove to Puel that they deserve to be in that starting line-up on the first day of the season.
Saints will also benefit from the fact that the previous signings will have their first full pre-seasons with the club. Many forget that the likes of Alex McCarthy, Jeremy Pied, Sofiane Boufal and now even Manolo Gabbiadini haven’t really had the opportunity to settle themselves ahead of a full campaign. This will help the players to develop as a collective and understand exactly what Puel wants from them.
It’s a good opportunity to exercise the youth academy, which is something that Puel will undoubtedly look to do. The likes of Sam Gallagher’s development will be tracked and assessed ahead of the season, we’ll be able to see if Ryan Seager’s ready for first-team action, whether or not Sims can stake a claim for senior football next season, if Harrison Reed needs a loan to secure first-team football and also if Jake Hesketh is now prepared to take on the Premier League. It’s an exciting prospect and pre-season should be something that is looked forward to with anticipation.
All in all, this current season has been experimental. Saints aren’t realistically going down, they’re not securing European football, they’re just drifting in mid-table obscurity. While it’s important to focus on securing maximum points in the remaining fixtures, we’re always informed that it’s a long-term project with Claude Puel, and perhaps we’ll see that in the coming season.
Pre-season will give us a fairly solid idea of how Puel’s ideologies are coming across to the squad, and it’s going to be interesting.