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Saints-end of season awards

It’s been a strange old season.

350 days after opening their 2019/20 campaign with a disappointing 3-0 defeat in Burnley, Southampton finally completed the season by beating a Sheffield United side guaranteed to finish in the top-half 3-1 on Sunday.

Even without the three-month hiatus from competitive action, this season has been a complete rollercoaster with there being a fair few lows but firmly ending on a high with an 11th placed finish.

It’s that time of the year – about a couple of months later than usual albeit – where we look back on an extraordinary year with our Saints end of season awards:

Most improved: Jack Stephens

There was a moment in the 2018/19 season where Jack Stephens made a costly mistake in a 2-0 defeat against Arsenal that left Southampton in the relegation zone and led to mounting critics of the central defender.

Over a year on and Stephens’ turnaround has been quite remarkable with the centre-back being one of the standout performers of this campaign.

Having started the season as a bit-part player, often featuring in a back-three but rarely being trusted in a back-four, Stephens’ opportunity to impress came after the dreaded Leicester defeat, originally playing in a back-three before partnering Jan Bednarek for the first time at Arsenal.

I’ll admit to being one that thought this defensive partnership would never work but I was delighted to be proven wrong as the pair of them went from strength to strength and have continued to partner each other for the rest of the season.

As well as his improved defensive attributes, his incisive balls forward, either through midfield or up to the striker, to kick-start dangerous attacks was an incredibly useful aspect to his game while his dribbling runs from defence has also been fantastic to watch.

The 26-year old was even nominated for the January Player of the Month award and we can only hope that he can continue this form into the new season and beyond.

Best match: 1-0 win at home to Manchester City

This is a tough one because there have been many impressive and memorable matches for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side this season, particularly away from home.

I wanted to put the revenge victory at Leicester but the performances of the Foxes since the new year have perhaps proven that beating Brendan Rodgers’ side may not be as difficult as it proved at the time.

Other contenders were the 4-0 thrashing at Portsmouth, the comprehensive 2-0 win at Crystal Palace and the wholly impressive 2-0 triumph at Chelsea on Boxing Day.

However, I’ve gone one that actually occurred at St Mary’s in one of the most committed performances I’ve seen from a Saints side in many years.

Facing a Manchester City side in lethal form in a stadium that Southampton have struggled in all season seemed like a horrifically tough ask, especially given that City beat Liverpool 4-0 previously and thrashed Newcastle and Brighton 5-0 each in the two matches immediately after.

Che Adams finally broke his duck with a sublime lob over Ederson to give Saints a shock lead before the whole team had to put their bodies on the line countless times to protect a famous three points in a result that the entire second-half of the season had been building up to.

What made this match even better was that it was live on the BBC and attracted a record TV audience for a live Premier League match with 5.7 million people witnessing a Hasenhuttl masterclass.

Worst match: 9-0 loss against Leicester

Do I need to say any more?

Moving on…

Turning point: November international break after 2-1 loss to Everton

Although many people will point to the Leicester defeat as being the turning point for Southampton, it would be more accurate to pinpoint the moment where things changed for the better as their equally poor 2-1 home defeat to Everton.

The Saints were completely outclassed and were fortunate not to lose by more against a side who were in a dismal run of form away from home themselves.

This match preceded an international break and a rethink for the manager and playing staff.

The back-five that was used against Everton, and much of the early matches in the season, was abandoned with Hasenhuttl’s favoured 4-2-2-2 system reintroduced with some new personnel.

Southampton’s first game utilising this new look came at Arsenal where they came so close to a famous win before a 96th minute equaliser, but it was a performance to be proud of and the Saints have never looked back with that outing the springboard that they needed to climb the table.

Defining moment: 2-1 win at Leicester

I didn’t put it as the best match but this win is still worth a mention as the defining moment in Saints’ season.

This was the match where the whole team was able to prove how far they have come in such a short space of time by claiming revenge for the reverse fixture.

It wasn’t Saints’ best performance of the campaign but it told the story of their season that so many people like to tell by illustrating the remarkable turnaround in such a short space of time.

Best individual performance: Danny Ings vs Portsmouth

This was perhaps the match that really kick-started Ings’ brilliant season.

The Saints striker only scored once in their first seven matches of the season in all competitions and was even left out of the side all together for clashes against Sheffield United and Bournemouth.

That was until they made the short trip to Fratton Park to face arch-rivals Portsmouth in the League Cup when the boyhood Saints fan really came into his own.

After a slightly sluggish start to the match, Ings inspired his team with a man-of-the-match display, the kind that we would get used to seeing as the campaign went on, and a brilliant double against the League One side.

Ings never looked back and can point to this sensational showing as the moment that his season truly ignited.

Best goal: Che Adams vs Manchester City

Before the season restarted, Nathan Redmond would’ve been a strong favourite for this award with a special solo effort at Crystal Palace as well as finishing off a brilliant team move in another 2-0 win at Chelsea – perhaps one of the best team moves we’ve seen from Saints in a very long time.

Moussa Djenepo also scored two superb away goals in early victories at Brighton and Chelsea that were strong contenders.

However, that was before Che Adams struck in a worldie in the stunning 1-0 win against Manchester City that was without doubt the best goal scored on the south coast this year.

Having gone the entire season without breaking his goal duck for his new team, Adams put that right by ending this run in remarkable fashion.

Having clearly done his homework on City goalkeeper Ederson and with the appearance of a man who certainly wasn’t lacking in confidence despite his draught, Adams lobbed the ‘keeper from all of 40 yards out to give the hosts a shock lead.

There has rarely been a goal that was greeted with such jubilation from fans and players alike for a player who deserved that special moment.

Unsung hero: Ryan Bertrand

Although Jan Bednarek, Stuart Armstrong and Shane Long also fit this brief, I’ve gone for the ever reliable but often under-appreciated Ryan Bertrand.

During the early stages of Saints’ season where the side was struggling for performances and results, the full-back areas were a big reason as to why Hasenhuttl’s side was struggling.

The manager was often experimenting at left-back with Kevin Danso, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Moussa Djenepo all having a go in this position.

However, the side often lacked balance and opposition teams found a way past whoever was playing there too easily; all of these factors led to Bertrand finally solidifying his position as first-choice left-back.

Ever since, the Saints have looked far more solid with the 30-year old rarely putting in a sub-standard performance.

In fact, ever since Bertrand arrived at St Mary’s in 2014, he has consistently put in at least a six or seven out of ten week in week out, and it’s about time that fans appreciate how lucky we are to have him.  

Pantomime villain: The concept of a full-back

While Wilfried Zaha, Leicester City, Saints’ home form and broadcasters who couldn’t stop mentioning the 9-0 result are potential contenders, I’ve gone for the concept of a full-back that plagued the early stages of this season.

Having to watch Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, James Ward-Prowse, Moussa Djenepo and Kevin Danso amongst others attempt to play at either left-back or right-back was a painful experience at times.

This has made me appreciate Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker-Peters even more in this latter part of the season.

If Hasenhuttl had solved this problem earlier, who knows where Saints may have ended up – although I think it all worked out alright in the end.

Biggest disappointment: home form

As good as Southampton’s away form has been this season, (only Liverpool and Manchester City had better records on the road) one of the biggest disappointments of the season was their record at St Mary’s.

This should be something that Hasenhuttl will look to address for next year although it seems to be easier said than done to translate the away form onto the south coast.

Only Norwich, who finished bottom of the table, had a worse home record, the manager will look to take the 1-0 win against Manchester City as a starting point to rectifying this unusual enigma.

Best signing: Kyle Walker-Peters

In truth there wasn’t a huge amount of competition for this award.

I’ve excluded Danny Ings as the deal to bring him to the club permanently was arranged at the start of the previous campaign following an initial loan deal.

That leaves Che Adams, Moussa Djenepo, Kevin Danso and Kyle Walker-Peters to fight it out and we’ve gone for the January loan signing.

Although Djenepo, earlier in the season, and Adams, mainly since the restart, have shown glimpses of their quality, Walker-Peters’ impact was immediate and consistent.

After coming on for Yan Valery at half-time against Arsenal, the 23-year old ensured the side was a lot more balanced and his confidence was palpable.

These impressive showings continued and Saints will now hope they can make this deal permanent over the summer with the side looking much better with him in it.

Breakthrough star: Will Smallbone

One thing I’m looking forward to seeing over the coming years is the progress of Will Smallbone who will always look back on the 2019/20 season as his breakthrough campaign.

There had been lots of talk about this young midfielder who was dubbed as one to watch from the Saints academy.

Having made his professional debut in the FA Cup win against Huddersfield in January, Smallbone went on to make 10 appearances in all competitions and showed glimpses of his quality during those outings.

If he can improve on his physicality over the course of this reduced break between seasons, then the 20-year old could be trusted as the man to replace the wantaway Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and partnering James Ward-Prowse in a midfield two.

Player of the season: Danny Ings

Was it ever going to be anyone else?

In his first full season at the club, Ings defied all expectations with a sensational campaign that consisted of him breaking countless Saints records.

The 28-year old scored an incredible 22 league goals, just one shy of Golden Boot winner Jamie Vardy, with only Matt Le Tissier and James Beattie scoring more Premier League goals in single campaigns for the Saints.

He scored against 16 of Southampton’s 19 opponents in the Premier League this season, with his only blanks coming against Manchester City, Manchester United and West Ham, and he scored in 20 different Premier League games this season, the most by any Southampton player in a single Premier League season, overtaking James Beattie’s 18 in 2002-03.

It’s not just Ings’ goals that makes him the worthy winner but his incredible work rate and commitment to the cause was equally impressive and must be something that all aspiring young strikers should look to and admire.

I could go on eulogising about Southampton’s number nine, but we all know that he has been a cut above the rest and you’ll struggle to find anyone who disagrees.

And that just about draws a close to a remarkable season in more ways than one and one that the Saints end on a positive note as we can now await the 2020/21 campaign with a fair amount of optimism.

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