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Are lessons being learnt at Saints?

Lucy Highnett shares her thoughts on Saints’ recent transfer policy, and whether it’s showing signs of returning to the strategy which bore so much fruit… 

‘It’ll all go tits up next season 2019-20 when Hughes spends even more, gets you into a huge crisis and ends up getting you in trouble with FFP’ was the embittered predictions of yet another Stoke fan on Twitter the other day.

There can be little doubt that Mark Hughes has a somewhat chequered past when it comes to recruitment, particularly as things spiralled at Stoke and his disastrous tenure at QPR. His relationship with agent Kia Joorabchian also led to many questions about the motives of those players involved. But should Saints fans be worried?

Transfers were my major concern when Hughes was made our permanent manager, particularly as some investment in the squad seemed imperative if Saints were to avoid another relegation threatened season. This concern was intensified by the club’s disastrous recruitment of Carrillo in January, which seemed to suggest the board had surrendered control of the direction of the transfer policy. Following his loan departure to Leganes, that now looks like £19m that Saints will be lucky to see even a third of further down the line. However, aside from this, the early signs from this window are encouraging.

From what can be read from various interviews, Hughes is having input in transfer selection from pre-conceived lists. He told the Echo that the recruitment selection ‘was a good process, it was encouraging for me because I understood that a lot of work’s gone on before they actually present to me as the manager… Hopefully I don’t have to get my hands dirty in that regard’. The implication was that Hughes had learnt from his transfer involvement in the past, referring to being ‘spread too thin’. It seems, at least in the glow of Premier League survival, Hughes is happy to take a backseat.

All of the signings have referred to being impressed by the way Saints had pursued them. Jannik Vestergaard said ‘the club has followed me for quite some time and done a lot of scouting, which is a good sign to me’, reflecting the way long-term analysis has informed recruitment this summer, in a way which seemed so unlikely in January. Beyond scouts and analysts, Dave Watson had persuaded Angus Gunn that Saints would provide ‘a great environment to come and work’, suggesting that the club are willing to draw on the knowledge and expertise of other coaches in a collective effort.   

Moreover, the players bought in seem to be the kinds of signings Saints were making when the going was good. Three of the four recruited (so far) have Champions League experience of some kind and the other is a well-fancied prospect from the champions of England. Two of the four, Elyounoussi and Armstrong, come from relatively minor European leagues but have been, at least at some point, stars in their team. All four play in positions Saints desperately needed to strengthen. After Dusan Tadic’s expected departure, Armstrong and Elyounoussi were immediately brought in, to avoid the constant lag in transfers that has been seen recently, particularly where centre backs have been concerned. No doubt, the assured finances of January’s dealings will have helped, but there seems to have been a genuine attempt to plan for the demands of the window.

Of course, transfer windows can change quickly. A great concern for Saints fans was that Ryan Bertrand, Cedric Soares, Mario Lemina and Manolo Gabbiadini may all depart this summer. That is still absolutely possible. But if these potentially key players are retained and Saints are able to recruit one or two more, this will have been the best window for quite a while and one which is true to overarching recruitment philosophies.

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