With the new Premier League season well underway, Southampton fans will be hoping for a much better start to the 2020-21 campaign than their opening to the 19/20 season.
The Saints, in Ralph Hassenhuttl’s first full season, finished strongly but started with just 2 wins in their opening 13 league games and a record-breaking (albeit for all the wrong reasons) 9-0 defeat at the hands of eventual fifth-placed side Leicester City.
Their post-lockdown form was enviable, losing just one of their nine games and claiming some impressive results against the Manchester clubs and Sheffield United too. They are now on their longest unbeaten run in the top tier since November 2013.
With Saints fans hopeful that this post-lockdown form is going to return, we look at their transfer activity throughout the window.
Saints needed to make a statement of intent in this window by signing some solid defensive players. Whilst their defending was commendable post-lockdown, the 60 goals conceded during the season is something they will want to improve on if they want to mount a serious European challenge. The permanent signing of Kyle Walker-Peters, on a 5-year deal believed to be for a fee of around £12m. This seems like a real coup for Ralph Hassenhuttl; Walker-Peters put in some fantastic performances during his loan spell at St Mary’s, keeping several clean sheets in the ‘Project Restart’ period. Combined with the signing of Valladolid’s young centre-back Mohammed Salisu for a reported fee of £10.9m, the Saints have shown a clear focus with their transfers during this summer window. The 21-year-old joined on a four-year deal after making 31 La Liga appearances last season – Valladolid finished in 13th in the table. Finally, on the eve of Deadline Day, the Saints confirmed the signing of Ibrahima Diallo, the 21-year-old midfielder, for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of £11m. Diallo might have never scored a goal in his career, but his impressive midfield performances in Ligue 2 and Ligue 1 for Brest – enough for Hassenhuttl to be excited by the chance to work with him. With former Saints man Theo Walcott returning to St Mary’s on a season-long loan after a distinguished career away from the South Coast, experience is finally seeping in to Southampton’s starting 11.
The biggest – but frankly least surprising – departure of the window was Pierre-Emile Hojberg, who joined Tottenham for a fee believed to be ‘in excess‘ of £15m. The former club captain – stripped of the armband after refusing to sign a new deal with the Saints – made 134 appearances for the club before departing for North London and, whilst his attitude towards the end seemed disappointing, the club will admit they have lost not just a leader but ultimately a brilliant midfield player.
With the Saints focus shifting to youth, it makes sense that the club have released defenders Cedric Soares and Maya Yoshida. The former, who has joined Arsenal on a free transfer after his short loan spell at the Gunners, will be a good addition to the Arsenal squad and someone missed by the Saints’ back line. Yoshida, who has 100 Japan caps and spent the end of last season on loan at Sampdoria, is still a very good defender with a lot to offer. With the Saints’ squad depleted at points in the season, Hassenhuttl may just regret letting experienced central defenders sip through his fingers – for squad depth, if nothing else.
Alfie Jones and Harrison Reed both left the club for undisclosed fees to Hull City and Fulham respectively, whilst Soufiane Boufal, after having made 70 appearances for Southampton, left the club for Angers on a free transfer..
Analysis: Saints’ overreliance on youth is a risk – which may just pay off
The Saints go into the season with an average age of around 25 – much younger than other Premier League teams – and it can be seen that their signings have shown that they are looking less at player experience and more at player potential. As we’ve seen at other teams this season (admittedly ‘bigger’ clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea) young squads have their strengths but also have their flaws – one only has to look at how changeable Chelsea’s back line was this season to recognise that. Having said that, the squad does have a good balance of youth and experience: Shane Long, Ryan Bertrand as well as goalkeepers Fraser Forster (who spent the season at Celtic) and Alex McCarthy are the only over 30s (and goalkeepers over 30 is not a rarity at all), with Theo Walcott now linking up on loan at age 31.
Hassenhuttl has shown that, once his side are accustomed to his tactics and style of play, they can play some really good football and compete with some of the bigger teams in the league. I still believe the loss of Hojberg needed to be replaced with a midfielder with some pace and who can score goals, in case Ings can’t fire the Saints up the table as he did last season. Someone of the calibre of a fully-fit Ruben Loftus-Cheek – whose six-figure wage was said to be a stumbling block in a move to St Mary’s – could be just the man.
Overall, a good replacement for Hojberg would have been enough for Saints to fire their way into the top 10 this year – and Hassenhuttl’s risk will look even sweeter if they can creep into Europe.