Southampton is in the middle of yet another rebuild.
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Manager Ronald Koeman left for Everton over the summer and key players Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle all departed as Frenchman Claude Puel has arrived to take charge at St Mary’s. It gets to a point where you ask yourself: can Southampton really keep flourishing despite constantly having to rebound from losing players and managers season after season?
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After recording higher finishes in seven-straight seasons since they were saved by the Liebherr family as third-tier team in 2008, Saints have been on a dramatic journey which culminated in them finishing sixth in the Premier League last season (their best-ever PL campaign) and qualifying for the group stages of the Europa League.
With a rich history of bringing through talented players from their academy (Gareth Bale, Luke Shaw, Matt Le Tissier to name a few) Puel’s task will be to mastermind another top 10 finish for Saints in the PL and also have a good go at the Europa League and the domestic cup competitions. For many, this season is a step too far in terms of player sales at Saints. It’s up to the players and manager they have to prove everyone wrong, once again, but judging on their preseason performances there is still plenty of work to be done.
Saints will stun everyone, once again, a make a serious challenge for the top four: They came very close to doing this last season and only finished three points off the top four. If Puel’s side hit the ground running and find form early in the campaign, who knows? Not much has to change. The only starters they really lost were Wanyama and Mane but only the latter feels like a monumental blow. A team full of internationals, Saints are up for the challenge of kicking on again.
Most likely they will battle relegation and Puel will be gone by January because… That’s just the vibe coming out of St Mary’s from afar. You get the sense that Puel is taking a while to adapt to managing in England after 20 years coaching in France. With no new marquee players to replace those who left, if the Frenchman doesn’t get off to a good start he’ll be under pressure.
Best Possible XI
—– Forster —–
— Cedric — Fonte — Van Dijk — Bertrand —
—– Romeu —– Clasie —–
—- Redmond —- Davis —- Tadic —-
—– Long —–
Transfers out: Sadio Mane ($45 million, Liverpool), Victor Wanyama ($14 million, Tottenham Hotspur), Graziano Pelle ($15 million, Shandong Lenung), Gaston Ramirez (Free, Middlesbrough), Juanmi ($7 million, Real Sociedad), Kelvin Davis (Retired), Will Brit (Released), Jason McCarthy (Loan, Walsall), Paulo Gazzaniga (Loan, Rayo Vallecano)
Last season: The 2015-16 season was Saints’ best-ever finish and points tally in the Premier League. Under Koeman they finished sixth, surging up the standings in the final weeks of the season. Despite a wobble around the festive season which saw talk of a relegation battle emanate from management, Saints turned things around to become the form team in the final few months of the season. Only Leicester won more points than Southampton in 2016. Their club slogan rang true: We March On.
Star player: Virgil Van Dijk – The imposing Dutch center back has it all in his locker. A stunning debut season in the PL saw VVD rewarded with a new contract at St Mary’s and he’s their most important player. So cool and calm on the ball, he could be the next big name to move on. Alongside Jose Fonte he will hold this Saints team together.
Coach’s Corner: Puel is a likable, experienced coach who has an excellent track record working with youngsters. He helped nurture Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet at Monaco, Eden Hazard at Lille and Alexandre Lacazette at Lyon. He played under Arsene Wenger at Monaco and won a Ligue 1 title in his first season as a manager. He has experience of managing in the UEFA Champions League and that is ultimately where he wants to take Saints. He’ll have a tough task to do that, or to better the sixth place finish from last season. Time will tell but Puel is under pressure from the get-go at a club which has ambitious plans.
Speaking to ProSoccerTalk during preseason (Saints are unbeaten through five games) Puel spoke about the players adapting to the new diamond formation he wants to implement in midfield.
“They begin to take themselves to this formation and they correct it between them,” Puel said. “It is important to give a detailed plan for the players and after that it is the player on the pitch that gives the good solution and life for this way of playing.”
PST predicts: It could be a season of struggle for Saints. Having to balance Thursday night games in the Europa League is never easy and couple that with a new manager who is still learning the English game, regression is likely for Southampton. That said, talk of a relegation battle is too extreme and they will likely finish in midtable and have a good run in Europe and the domestic cups. Not a disaster season but we may see signs that their policy to cash in on star players has gone one step too far.