Southampton at a glance:
Premier League (and old First Division) titles: 0 (best finish: 2nd, 1983/84)
FA Cups: 1 (last: 1975/76)
League Cups: 0 (best finish: runners-up twice, last 2016/17)
FA Community Shield: 0 (runners-up 1976/77)
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It is very difficult to gauge what an acceptable season would be this year at Southampton. The Saints finished 8th, 7th, 6th, and 8th four consecutive Premier League seasons before last year’s shock to the system, avoiding relegation by just one place and three points.
So what is the goal this season? Should they target the top 10? Is it simply to stay up? Or can it be both, with the team shooting for a top-half slot but satisfied with safety if they fall short of the former?
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Much of this will take shape as the season trudges along. The squad theoretically has the depth needed to compete at this level, and while this summer’s haul hasn’t exactly jumped off the pages, it’s been enough to plug some big holes. With Mark Hughes at the helm, there are plenty of unknowns headed into 2018-19 with the Premier League’s most mysterious enigma.
Southampton will finish top 10 because…the squad depth is enough to secure results. Every team deals with injuries over the course of a long league season, and Southampton is well-equipped to handle it. With five natural center-backs on the roster and four natural strikers, the team is deep from top to bottom.
Southampton will struggle through a relegation battle because…the squad doesn’t have the star power necessary to make noise. Gone are the days of Sadio Mane, Virgil Van Dijk, Graziano Pelle, Jose Fonte, and the rest of the players who have filtered out after finding steps up. Even Dusan Tadic departed this summer after struggling to maintain his form last year. Hughes will need to figure out his best eleven players soon, or too much tinkering will bring the team down. Hughes’ biggest test will come at the back…three center-backs played over 2,300 minutes last season across all competitions, and the team brought in another in Vestergaard for a high price. Someone will need to step up and earn the right to be deemed a star, or the team may find itself rudderless.
Best possible XI:
Soares – Hojbjerg – Romeu – Armstrong – Bertrand
Transfers In: Jannik Vestergaard ($28.9 million, Borussia Monchengladbach), Mohamed Elyounoussi ($20.8 million, FC Basel), Angus Gunn ($13 million, Manchester City), Stuart Armstrong ($9.2 million, Celtic).
Transfers Out: Dusan Tadic ($13.3 million, Ajax), Florin Gardos (Free, CS Universitatea Craiova), Sofiane Boufal (Loan, Celta Vigo), Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord, Loan).
Ranking their offseason: B-
Bringing in Vestergaard is a solid move, but strengthened a position of strength for Southampton. Elyounoussi hasn’t been great in preseason, so he has work to do to crack the starting lineup. The acquisition of Gunn was a quality move with Fraser Forster likely to leave. The biggest problem with Southampton’s offseason was the sale of Dusan Tadic at the lowest his value’s been maybe in his entire career. The electric playmaker had raided Premier League full-backs for years, but struggled last season. Now, at age 29, Southampton bailed after one bad season. They not only dumped Tadic, but failed to adequately replace him, at least until Elyounoussi proves he can compete on this stage. Still, the Southampton squad didn’t have a ton of holes to fill, and their summer has been at least promising. Saints transfer policy hasn’t been strong in recent years, with the acquisitions of Clasie and Boufal not panning out, with both loaned out this summer.
Star player: This is tough. There’s no true superstar on this roster, and nobody stands out among the rest. That is a positive from the standpoint that no one injury could take down this team, but from a negative, obviously the club will want someone to fill that role. At this point, Ryan Bertrand is probably the closest thing this team has to a star. The likely captain terrorizes opponents down the left flank, and has improved his defensive capabilities. Still, he’s nowhere close to a true “star” and Hughes will need him to step into that role this season.
Coach’s Corner: Nobody more embodies where Southampton stands right now than Mark Hughes. While it’s impossible to figure out just where this Southampton squad fits in the Premier League, so too is it impossible to truly judge how good or bad Mark Hughes is as a manager. He had mixed success in charge of Manchester City, was critical to Fulham’s success before abruptly resigning, failed miserably at QPR, led Stoke City to its best Premier League years ever before inexplicably becoming completely inept, and saved Southampton from relegation. It’s difficult to get a bead on just where Hughes stands in relation to his Premier League compatriots, but this season will be a true test of his abilities.
PST Predicts: This is one of the toughest calls of the entire 2018-19 table. Who knows what Southampton will show up this season? It’s hard to imagine they reach top 10 unless a true star emerges. On that note, a 12-13 finish seems appropriate for a team with few weaknesses but also few strengths. Much depends on how well Mark Hughes does in his first full season at St. Mary’s.