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Premier League 2016-17 season preview: Southampton

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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.

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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 in: Nathan Redmond ($15 million, Norwich City), Pierre-Emile Hjolberg ($13 million, Bayern Munich), Alex McCarthy (Undisclosed, Crystal Palace), Jeremy Pied (Free)

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.

OLDENZAAL, NETHERLANDS - JULY 27: Virgil van Dijk of Southampton runs with the ball during the friendly match between Twente Enschede and FC Southampton at Q20 Stadium on July 27, 2016 in Oldenzaal, Netherlands. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

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.”

GRONINGEN, NETHERLANDS - JULY 30: The team of Southampton poses prior to the friendly match between FC Groningen an FC Southampton at Euroborg Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Groningen, Netherlands. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

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.

LIVE — MLS Cup Playoffs begin; Atlanta, Seattle at home

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Reigning champs Atlanta United kick off a four-match docket as the MLS Cup Playoffs begin Saturday around North America.

[ FOLLOW: MLS Cup Playoffs live, box scores, stats ]

Pity Martinez starts on the bench for the Five Stripes, who are without injured USMNT back Miles Robinson.

Two other recent cup champions, Toronto and Seattle, are home later in the day, while Utah is the scene for the final match of the night.

Schedule

Atlanta United v. New England Revolution — 1 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders v. FC Dallas — 3:30 p.m. ET
Toronto FC v. DC United — 6 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake v. Portland Timbers — 10 p.m. ET

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Bournemouth and Norwich in stalemate

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Bournemouth and Norwich City played out a tense 0-0 draw at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday, as the Canaries dug deep for a point on the road as they secured their first clean sheet.

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The Cherries and Canaries both had decent chances in the game but neither were clinical and both Aaron Ramsdale and Tim Krul had some decent outings in goal.

Bournemouth sit in ninth on 12 points, while Norwich are 19th on seven points.


3 things we learned

1. Teemu Pukki is struggling for support: He scored twice for Finland over the international break, but he hasn’t scored for Norwich since that big win agains Man City on Sept. 14. Pukki didn’t get much support and Norwich have scored just once in their last four PL games.

2. Norwich much happier with the point: Daniel Farke has been plagued with injuries all season long, especially defensively, so he will be delighted his side kept a clean sheet on the road against a very dangerous Bournemouth side. At times Norwich rode their luck, but they looked solid enough and Todd Cantwell kept things ticking over in midfield. Tim Krul stood tall too, as the Canaries head home happy.

3. Bournemouth improving defensively: Every could has a silver lining, and for Eddie Howe that will be another decent day defensively for the Cherries. Going forward they disappointed but at the back they’ve only conceded five times in their last five PL outings. That is very good for Bournemouth. Ake and Cook have a strong partnership and Ramsdale is finding his feet. Yes, Bournemouth will have hoped to score three or four against this Norwich defense, but at least they’ve improved at the back.

Man of the Match: Tim Krul – Tough to pick a player of the game but Krul was solid when called upon and organized this banged up Norwich defense well. Used all of his experience.


Bournemouth pressed Norwich back early on and Tim Krul then denied Dominic Solanke.

Norwich had a half chance as Teemu Pukki delayed his effort and Steve Cook cleared, with neither side taking the game by the scruff of the neck.

In a tight, tense game both cancelled one another out in an uneventful first half.

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At the start of the second half Norwich lost yet another defensive player to injury as Ben Godfrey, just back from a hernia operation, was replaced by Tom Trybull.

Pukki’s shot was deflected by Cook as it looped up close to the goal, while at the other end Bournemouth went close as Wilson and Adam Smith combined but the ball was just off target.

Both teams tried to push for the win late on but held back a little as Norwich in particular were happy with the shutout and point on the road given all of their defensive issues.

Grealish leads Villa past 10-man Brighton

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Jack Grealish‘s star turn helped Aston Villa take advantage of 10-man Brighton and Hove Albion in a 2-1 comeback win at Villa Park on Saturday.

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Adam Webster‘s early goal gave Brighton a lead but Aaron Mooy‘s twin first half yellow cards put them under the knife.

Aston Villa moves 11th with 11 points. Brighton’s nine points seat them 16th.


Three things we learned

1. Touchy red helps undo Brighton: Aaron Mooy’s first yellow card was silly, so he know there was a need to play careful the rest of the way. He didn’t, and a soft yellow doomed the Seagulls to more than a half without the full complement of players.

2. Villa finally catching breaks: Dean Smith‘s men have had their fair share of bad luck come from good performances, so it was nice for them to follow up a blowout defeat of Norwich City with a little nudge from the Seagulls. Matty Targett’s winner came after plenty of time playing 11v10, and Villa’s standing of 11th now reflects its performances.

3. Grealish a monster: A sliding finish to make it 1-0 and clever feed to Targett for the winner. The Peaky Blinders’ haired man turned in a performance worthy of a BAFTA, with five dribbles and plenty of good moments in keeping possession moving for the victors.

Man of the Match:


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Brighton was knocking on the door early, but you’d be forgiven if you failed to predict the man to break it down.

Promising center back Webster’s stock continues to rise as he did to nod Pascal Gross‘ free kick into the goal.

A silly first yellow card for Mooy’s blocking of a free kick became egregious when he was shown another for knocking down Grealish, who would then score a sliding goal — they all count — to bring Villa level before halftime.

Solly March saw a shot through traffic go wide in the 51st as the Seagulls worked to overcome their disadvantage.

But Villa got the win through Targett at the death, a deserved-enough win although Brighton will feel hard done by.

Wolves grab draw against stubborn Saints

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Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton battled to a 1-1 draw at Molineux on Saturday, as Danny Ings‘ goal was canceled out by a Raul Jimenez penalty kick.

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After Jimenez had two goals correctly ruled out for offside in the first half, Saints took the lead as Ings made the most of a defensive mistake. However, VAR then confirmed a penalty to Wolves and Jimenez scored amid controversy to grab them a point.

Nuno Espirito Santo‘s side have 11 points, while Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s Southampton have eight and they’ll be happier with a point than Wolves.


3 things we learned

1. VAR drama gets two correct, one wrong: Jimenez’s two goals in the first half were correctly ruled out by VAR, but a big call in the second half went in Wolves’ favor. The referee awarded a penalty kick when Matt Doherty went down in the box but it looked harsh as Yoshida and Hojbjerg did their best to stay out of the way of the stumbling right wing back. It was harsh on Saints and VAR should have overturned the decision.

2. Ings in fine form for Saints: Danny Ings is perfect for this system under Hasenhuttl. He has now scored goals against Spurs, Liverpool and Wolves by pouncing on defensive errors and Saints’ high-pressing game now had someone who can deliver an end product. Yes, Saints and Ings won’t be happy with not holding on to win this game, but Ings has five goals in his last four games and six for the season. If Ings stays fit, he will keep Southampton in the Premier League.

3. One step forward, two back for Wolves: After beating Watford and Man City back-to-back ahead of the break, Wolves finally got their first wins on the board this season. But they huffed and puffed against Saints and were a little lucky to nick a point. Just like last season, they play better against the big boys and struggled to break down more defensive-minded teams at the bottom of the table. That has to change if Wolves are going to challenge for European qualification once again.

Man of the Match: Raul Jimenez – He got his goal from the penalty spot, had two others disallowed and his constant clever movement, dropping deep and holding the ball up caused Saints many issues. Mexico’s striker ended his mini-drought and played superbly well.


It was all Wolves early as Joao Moutinho fired just over and Saints couldn’t get going as an attacking force.

Raul Jimenez thought he had given Wolves the lead but he handled the ball when controlling and then scored, but VAR was then used as he was handed a yellow card.

Wolves’ Ryan Bennett had to come off injured and Jesus Vallejo replaced him, as Nuno Espirito Santo was forced to reshuffle his defense.

Saints improved as the first half wore on with Danny Ings and Nathan Redmond causing Wolves problems, as the former was played in by the latter but Conor Coady blocked.

Wolves thought they had taken the lead once again just before the break as Jimenez scored after Cutrone’s flicked effort goalwards was pushed away by Angus Gunn. Despite Wolves’ celebrations, VAR again denied the goal in what was the correct decision.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

At the start of the second half Saints had a great chance to take the lead as Vallejo gave the ball away and Ings was through on goal but his low shot was tame and Rui Patricio saved.

Ings did then put Southampton ahead, as the in-form striker finished well after Vallejo and Coady got themselves in a mess and Saints made the most of it.

But Saints’ lead didn’t last long, as Wolves were awarded a penalty kick as Doherty went down after a tangle with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. After VAR was used, the penalty was given and Jimenez scored to make it 1-1, but Southampton were far from happy with the decision.

James Ward-Prowse saw a free kick saved well and neither team pushed too hard for the win late on as a draw was probably a fair result.