A full season with Kyle Walker-Peters
Many positive deals have been secured by Saints over recent weeks; Ralph Hasenhuttl and James Ward-Prowse signed new long-term contracts along with other rumoured extensions set to be finalised while promising centre-back Mohammed Salisu arrived from Real Valladolid.
However, perhaps the one that pleased me the most, mainly because I feared we may not get this over the line, was the permanent capture of Kyle Walker-Peters from Tottenham.
The right-back was mightily impressive after arriving on loan in January, particularly during Project Restart where his performances helped Saints to the third best record in the league during that congested period.
Right-back was a problem area for much of last season with Cedric’s departure to Arsenal coupled with Yan Valery’s substandard showings leaving us short.
However, Walker-Peters’ infectious confidence along with his supreme ability provided the side with some much-needed balance, both offensively and defensively.
His assured outings also meant that Stuart Armstrong was more effective in front of him due to the Scottish international not having to help as much defensively.
It was therefore vital that Southampton got this completed and I for one am rather excited about seeing how Walker-Peters and the team around him manage for a full 38-game season rather than the short nine-fixture burst that we were treated with.
Competition at centre-back
One of the stories of last season was the new-found centre-back partnership of Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens.
I was one of many who didn’t see a long-term future for this duo but was also gladly proved wrong with the pair putting in excellent performance after excellent performance.
Add new-signing Salisu to the mix and Saints now have some healthy competition in this position.
We are now heading into a new season not knowing who the Southampton centre-back pairing will be, not because they’re struggling for options as has been the case in recent years, but because Saints now have three strong contenders for those two positions.
This point does come with a warning though; there were equally high hopes for Wesley Hoedt, Jannik Vestergaard and Kevin Danso when they arrived at St Mary’s with none of them living up to the expectations placed on them, so patience may be required with Salisu before he seriously starts to challenge Stephens and Bednarek.
A Che Adams with renewed confidence
To say that Che Adams’ first 12 months at Saints was a struggle would be somewhat of an understatement.
The striker, signed from Birmingham City for around £15 million last summer, failed to break his duck in his first 24 appearances in red and white.
However, his 13th month on the south coast showcased why Hasenhuttl bought him in the first place and why he then denied Leeds United signing him in January.
Following a superb opening goal in the fantastic 1-0 win against Manchester City, Adams then went on a bit of a roll, scoring a late goal at Bournemouth before a double on the final day of the season against Sheffield United.
Not only was he starting to find his scoring boots, but his all-round play was improving as well with the partnership alongside Danny Ings upfront showing glimpses of real quality and telepathy.
A somewhat kind fixture list
Now I know every team has to play each other twice, but that still doesn’t detract from the fact that the fixture list can play an impact on a campaign.
Having trawled through all 38 of Saints’ games when they were announced last month, it became apparent that there is rarely a spell where Hasenhuttl’s side have to face a tough set of games in succession.
The toughest period seems to be over Christmas where Saints face Arsenal, Manchester City, Fulham, West Ham (who they have a rotten record against) and Liverpool between the 15th of December and the 2nd of January.
However, the Christmas schedule is normally a time where shocks can occur so this may not even be the worst of scenarios.
Aside from that, there are clear periods where positive runs can be achieved in order to gain some momentum towards a successful season.
Possible Europa League push?
It feels like a lifetime ago that Claude Puel’s side bombed out of the Europa League following a 1-1 draw at home to Hapoel Be’er Sheva in 2016.
Since then, Saints have finished in 8th, 17th 16th and 11th with none of those campaigns threatening the European places.
However, next season seems the most likely since then for a Europa League push with the club seemingly finally finding the right formulae.
The main evidence we have for this is the post-lockdown form with only the two Manchester clubs accumulating more points during this time.
Southampton were simply excellent towards the end of last season and have already showed signs that they are more than capable of adapting to the empty stadiums and new regimes that are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
When you consider that Burnley and Sheffield United both finished in the top-half last season, coupled with Leicester’s poor form prior to the campaign concluding, there are places that could certainly be gained to at least finish in the top-half and make it a fourth straight league position improvement in the process.
There will still be plenty of competition when you throw the likes of Everton, West Ham and Wolves into the mix, but it makes a nice change for Saints to be looking up rather than down.
Home-grown talent given even more chances
With Saints seemingly not overly active in the transfer market following their two arrivals so far, this could give a great opportunity for some academy graduates to stake a claim for regular places in the side.
Hasenhuttl doesn’t seem to be on the hunt for a left-back this summer which leaves Jake Vokins as Ryan Bertrand’s backup. After a couple of impressive performances last season, most notably against Huddersfield in the FA Cup and Brighton in the league, the 20-year old could see this as the campaign to showcase why he could be Saints’ long-term left-back.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s departure also leaves a hole in the middle of the park for someone to impress. That person could be Will Smallbone who would certainly describe last season as a breakthrough year for him.
The youngster was being relied on regularly towards the season’s conclusion and is likely to get even more appearances next year; that being said he is likely to need to improve his physicality if he is to partner James Ward-Prowse in the two-man midfield.
Other names to keep an eye out are Nathan Tella, Alexandre Jankewitz and Will Ferry who could all make a name for themselves over the coming year.
Possibility for fans to be back inside St Mary’s
This is perhaps the thing I’m most looking forward to.
While the Project Restart form from Saints was exemplary, there was one glaring omission: the supporters.
There were moments during these matches that would’ve felt so special if the team had the opportunity to celebrate with their supporters.
Che Adams’ stunner against Manchester City along with the whole defensive masterclass to keep out Pep Guardiola’s side had the potential to be a famous St Mary’s occasion while no one was also in the stadium to witness Danny Ings’ 20th Premier League goal of the season.
So many of the greatest footballing moments are made even more memorable with the reaction of the fans and their return will be more than welcome when it eventually arrives.
Pilot events that have been taking place, including Brighton’s recent friendly against Chelsea, indicate that this could be a possibility later in the season.
And while it seems clear that the stadiums will still be far from full as well as the likelihood that away supporters won’t be permitted at all, it’s still a step in the right direction back to the sport that we all remember and love.