Jake Tee gives us his thoughts on the work ahead this summer for the Southampton FC boss
The curtain has now closed on another demanding season for everyone connected to Southampton Football Club. Two consecutive seasons has seen the Saints avoid relegation in the closing weeks and manager Ralph Hasenhüttl now faces a challenging summer to ensure that the south coast club do not face similar struggles next term.
Southampton look a completely different team since the arrival of the 51-year-old following the sacking of Mark Hughes in December 2018, however form towards the end of the season highlighted the size of the task the former Red Bull Leipzig manger faces. This article takes a look at potential comings and goings and some of the positives from the previous campaign…
The Summer Clear Out
One of the problems highlighted by Hasenhüttl after his appointment was the size of the squad he had inherited. The January transfer window saw players such as Manolo Gabbiadini, Steven Davis and Cedric Soares (initial loan) moved on but Hasenhüttl is expected to wield the axe again this summer.
Fraser Forster, the clubs’ highest earner, is expected to leave as he now finds himself behind both Angus Gunn and Alex McCarthy in the goalkeeper pecking order. Striker Guido Carrillo, who has spent this season on loan at Spanish side Leganes scoring six goals in 31 league appearances, is not expected to be in Hasenhüttls’ plans and looked desperately off the pace in his handful of appearances for the club.
Another expected to be on their way is striker Charlie Austin who has fallen out of favour at St Mary’s. The 29-year-old does not suit the new, high-pressing system in place and so both parties appear to agree it is best to cut ties. Sam Gallagher is another that could be on the way after he failed to prove to Hasenhüttl that he’s able to cut it at the top level. The 23-year-old enjoyed fruitful loan spells at Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers and so it may be wise to offer him to a lower league club where regular game time is more likely.
It isn’t clear yet whether Sofiane Boufal will be given another chance in the Premier League. The Moroccan was capable of individually producing remarkable moments but struggled for consistency following his move from French club LOSC Lille in 2016. The winger has spent this season on loan at struggling Spanish side Celta Vigo, scoring three and assisting a further four across 34 La Liga appearances.
Midfielder Jordy Clasie and defender Wesley Hoedt are out on loan at Feynoord and Celta Vigo respectively, however neither look likely to still be at Southampton next season following underwhelming careers on the south coast. Clasie failed to hold down a consistent starting position and has not played for Saints since the 2016/17 Season so is one to get off the books. Hoedt looked off the pace in the Premier League and quickly lost the backing of Saints fans and so a permanent return looks unlikely.
Hasenhüttl has stated that funds will be restricted this summer and so the squad nears trimming in order to free up more spending money. What does not seem clear is why funds are so limited. Chinese businessman, Gao Jisheng only bought his 80 per cent stake in the club in 2017 and is yet to splash money on any big signings.
Since 2016, Saints have the lowest net spend of any other Premier League side (based on 2018/19 teams), which sits at -£10m. Of course the club have received significant money from selling players such as Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool for £75m, but it is important some big money is invested in genuine quality this summer to ensure Southampton are pushing towards the top half of the table.
Other players that are set to return from loan spells include Sam McQueen and Jake Hesketh, both of which look to be surplus to requirements.
Positions To Strengthen and Potential Signings
The main aspect Saints have struggled with over the past two seasons is consistent goal scoring. During Mark Hughes’ reign the team found the net just 20 times in 22 Premier League games. Danny Ings was brought in last year on an initial loan- the permanent £18million deal set to be completed this summer- but due to injuries has not been able to provide the reliable firepower Southampton desperately need.
A striker is definitely needed, especially following the exit of Gabbiadini, the inconsistency of Shane Long and the inexperience of Obafemi alongside the constant injuries that hindered Ings’ debut season at St Mary’s. There have some forwards linked to the club but nothing more than rumours.
Birmingham striker Che Adams was linked to Southampton in the January transfer window with Blues unwilling to sell at that time. The Englishman has scored 22 goals as well as providing five assists across 46 appearances in the Championship last season and at 22 years old would be a welcomed addition if Hasenhüttl decides to go back in for him. It could be an option to offer Gallagher plus cash, as he is already known to the St Andrews faithful.
Another that has been linked to Saints is Everton winger Ademola Lookman who has failed to hold down a starting position under Toffees manager, Marco Silva. The 21-year-old can also play as a second striker and so could be someone Hasenhüttl brings in to provide both pace and a goal threat alongside Ings and Nathan Redmond.
The other pivotal area that Southampton must strengthen in is the centre-back position. Saints have had a leaky defence since the departure of van Dijk and conceded 65 goals during the last campaign- five more than Brighton & Hove Albion who finished one place below them. No centre-back rumours have surfaced yet but if Hasenhüttl can find a strong central defender to pair up with young talent Jan Bednarek then Jannik Vetergaard and Maya Yoshida provide more than sufficient cover.
Bednarek was definitely one of the highlights of last season and whilst he was barely given a chance by Mark Hughes, he went on to produce some fantastic performances under Hasenhüttl.
The Polish international completed four dispossessions, 30 blocks and 35 interceptions in 12 Premier League games. Compare that to PFA Players’ Player of the Year van Dijk who completed three dispossessions, 26 blocks and 37 interceptions across 24 league games. This provides a clear indication of the meteoric rise Bednarek has made in such little time having been given the chance to prove himself.
Whoever Southampton bring in over the next few months, they need to inject some mental strength into this squad. No team threw away more points from winning positions (29) than Saints last season and that is a worrying statistic for any side. Hasenhüttl has shown that he can motivate this group of players but leaders are needed on the pitch.
Not All About Spending Money
One of the most impressive changes Hasenhüttl has made is reinvesting faith and trust in the fantastic youth academy at Staplewood. Some of the team selections made by previous managers Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes dented the faith the fans had in them as they often selected senior players who were failing to perform.
During the second half of this season under the Austrian, we have seen the emergence of full-back Yan Valery, 20, who went on to win First Team Young Player of the Year, 18-year-old striker Michael Obafemi who scored his first senior goal away at Huddersfield Town, and the return of winger Josh Sims, 22, following an unsuccessful loan spell at Reading.
It is clear the new manager is keen to take full advantage of the youth setup at his disposal. Defensive midfielder Harrison Reed has performed fantastically for Blackburn Rovers this season having scored three and provided six assists in 33 Championship appearances. Whilst he is now 24 years of age, he came through the academy at Southampton and it would be well deserved for him to be given a chance under Hasenhüttl.
Key Players for Next Season
The first half of the season under Hughes was largely uninspiring, however the appointment of Hasenhüttl was followed by vast improvements from various players like the aforementioned Bednarek. Certain players proved that the team should be built around them and that a squad so disappointing in the early stages of last season does have the ability to compete with most teams in the league.
Nathan Redmond’s revival under Hasenhüttl has been nothing short of spectacular and whilst Saints fans and the player himself knew the ability was there, he struggled for form under the previous two managers. The manager has made it clear in recent days that Redmond is set to be a centrepiece next season and the winger’s improved form also earned him a call-up to Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the UEFA Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands.
Following his arrival Hasenhüttl appointed Pierre-Emile Højbjerg captain, which appeared to be due to the absence of Ryan Bertrand through injury. However, this appointment is far more permanent for the 23-year-old and the Danish international shows maturity way beyond his years. He is a born leader and provides a fantastic core for this young team.
The importance of players like Yoshida and Shane Long should not be underestimated in a squad already full of inexperience. They’ve both been at the club for a number of years and the former has already declared his desire to remain at the club for as long as possible.
Long may not score as consistently as other strikers but the Republic of Ireland international seems a popular figure in the dressing room. His tireless running is a nightmare for teams that will try and play out from the back and he finished the season scoring four goals in seven games. With only a year left to run on his contract there should be some consideration over offering him a one-year extension.
It is a crucial summer for Southampton Football Club both for buying and selling players as they look to avoid another relegation battle next term. Hasenhüttl has proved he can get results against some of the best teams in the English top division but from the start of April Saints took 6 points from a possible 21 (1W, 3D, 3L), giving evidence that this team needs some fresh, talented additions.