The Season Just Gone
Southampton’s 2018-19 was a season of two halves. For the first, for which Mark Hughes was manager, the Saints were among the most abject, disorganised, flimsy and downright awful sides the Premier League has seen in many years. For the second, under new boss Ralph Hasenhüttl, they were suddenly a different proposition, much closer to the innovative, exciting, high-pressing outfits we have become used to seeing under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman.
In the first fourteen league games of the season, the Saints won only once and shipped 26 goals. They went on a five-match goalless run and failed to win a single home game. As bad as those stats are, the performances were even worse. Hughes, already something of a laughing stock having done terrible jobs at QPR, Fulham and Stoke City, surely saw his career as a Premier League manager ended by his sacking at the start of December.
With a competent coach in charge and a clear style of play defined and implemented, Southampton escaped relegation more comfortably than was expected, beating Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham and Wolves at St Mary’s and ending the campaign five points clear of danger. The likes of Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse and Yan Valery found their talents much better suited to Hasenhüttl’s methods and they came into the 2019-20 season expecting to kick on.
The Transfer Window
Goals have been a long-standing problem for the Saints, so Ché Adams was signed after filling his boots in the Championship and Danny Ings’ loan from Liverpool was made permanent. Exciting winger Moussa Djenepo came in from Standard Liège to add some spark to the attack and he’s started the season by scoring two special goals.
With so many managers passing through the hotseat at Southampton, a lot of players have been brought in and discarded along the way. This summer was more about selling the deadwood and clearing the decks than building a new team. Only four players left on permanent deals, but a further sixteen were loaned out. The slate is not quite clean yet, but Hasenhüttl will be much happier with what he has to work with now.
The Season Ahead
So far, Southampton’s season has been a story of injured players frustrating Hasenhüttl’s plans. He has only been able to use his preferred 4-2-2-2 system three times, being forced to use a back three in every other game. Additionally, they’ve been unlucky to lose against Burnley, Liverpool and Bournemouth, having created more chances and better chances in each game. Predictably, their finishing has let them down once again.
The encouraging thing going forward is that the performances are there — surely their luck will turn at some point and they’ll get the points the numbers suggest they deserve. On the downside, the defence still looks light on quality, particularly at centre-back. Since the departure of Virgil van Dijk, Southampton’s defence has been populated by Championship-quality players. As long as the opposition find the Saints so obliging, their issues in attack will cost them double.
Hasenhüttl is at the front line of tactical progressivism and Southampton’s style of play is eye-catching and adventurous. Their pressing is high and well organised and their aim is to cut and thrust through the opposition as quickly as possible. If quick passing combinations aren’t on, their attackers simply dribble towards the goal in the most aggressive manner possible and shoot on sight — this is how Djenepo has scored both of his goals so far this season.
For a long time, James Ward-Prowse’s set piece delivery has been described as among the best in the Premier League but he’s never proven a productive source of shot-assists until this season. While yet to register a goal-assist, he’s one of Southampton’s most productive creators, behind Sofiane Boufal, the winger who is finally looking like coming back to his best after a frustrating spell of inconsistency, and Nathan Redmond, an attacker who can do everything to a close to world-class level except shoot.
Fundamentally, Southampton are a good side. They have a defined and progressive system of play and, thanks to Hasenhüttl’s expertise on the training ground, they’re very good from a tactical point of view.
Their attack is multi-faceted and much more dangerous than the Goals-For column suggests — eventually, they’re going to absolutely destroy someone. Only five Premier League sides have taken more shots on goal this season; only seven have had more shots on target; only five have created more chances in open play; while only four have been more dangerous from set plays; only four teams have higher Expected Goals (xG) figures.
Individually, they’re mostly impressive: Ryan Bertrand needs no introduction to Chelsea fans, while Oriol Romeu has kicked on in the way Blues fans wish he had at Stamford Bridge. James Ward-Prowse, Nathan Redmond and Danny Ings are established Premier League players who will only get better under their manager’s tutelage. Central midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg may be the most underrated player in the division.
As ever, finishing is their biggest weakness. Despite having the division’s fifth highest xG figure, they have the sixth lowest Goals-Scored tally. Only Watford have been more wasteful in front of goal this season. Ché Adams has had a very rough start to life at the club — goalless after six games despite his xG suggesting he should have scored a goal every other game.
At the back, they’re as flimsy as ever. Once teams play through the initial press, there’s little in the way of serious opposition to stop them making good quality chances. None of the centre-backs are anywhere near convincing at this level and goalkeeper Angus Gunn remains a work in progress. It would be a shock if Chelsea didn’t score here.
With full-back Cedric Soares still out injured, Hasenhüttl will again be forced to use the back three. Moussa Djenepo has a thigh problem and is out.
Frank Lampard has a variety of options at his disposal and predicting his starting XI is hard, even with rotation likely after the midweek win in Lille.
Southampton 1-3 Chelsea. Abraham, Pedro and Alonso with the goals.