The 2013/14 Premier League season was one of wild emotion for Southampton fans. Not only did the club finish in a record-high 8th place, the Saints had become everybody’s second team. With former factory worker Rickie Lambert leading the line and winning international derby games against Scotland, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Jay Rodriguez tearing up trees in their relentless pursuit for a World Cup berth, and a plethora of young academy starlets showcasing their ability under the guidance of Mauricio Pochettino, it was all too easy to get caught up in the red and white whirlwind.
But when Nicola Cortese’s departure earlier this year came doubt, confusion and fear was the result. Southampton fans knew the hierarchy – no Cortese meant no Pochettino. No Pochettino meant no Shaw or Lallana, and maybe even more than that. The “us against the world” spirit that had permeated through the Saints FC family was fading – and one by one, strips were torn away.
First went Mauricio; then the symbol of our ascent, Rickie Lambert; soon, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Calum Chambers and Dejan Lovren were following suit, with Clyne, Schneiderlin, Rodriguez, Fonte, Cork and others all tipped to follow.
But as the sun sets on one period of our history, it rises on another. With former Dutch international Ronald Koeman now steering the ship, Southampton are resurgent. In have come Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle, Ryan Bertrand, Saphir Taider and Fraser Forster, with Florin Gardos and Shane Long expected before kick off this Sunday. But with all this change, just what can Southampton fans – and football fans – expect to see?
Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham Hotspurs) - Mauricio Pochettino was the string that tied the ambition of the Nicola Cortese to the ambition of the playing squad. With his almost inevitable appointment at White Hart Lane, the stability of the squad began to waver. While The Poch left St. Mary’s with a goodbye message and nothing but appreciation for our support, fans were still left with a bitter taste. Only time will tell if the move came too soon for the young Argentine coach.
Rickie Lambert (Liverpool, £4m) - Rickie Lambert has been the symbol of the Southampton charge since his arrival from Bristol Rovers back in 2009. Not only did he lead the way with his insane tally of goals, Lambert has been a truly humble professional since day one. While no-one saw his move to Liverpool coming, no Southampton fan can deny it. To play for your hometown club is every player’s dream, and Rickie had earned that honour more than most. He will always have a home on the South coast, and left with great humility and dignity.
Luke Shaw (Manchester United, £30m) - Perhaps the only move that Southampton fans expected this summer, Luke Shaw’s move to Manchester United almost seemed inevitable with Mauricio’s departure. Under Nicola Cortese, the offers would have been rejected out-right, but under new management, £30m was just too good to turn down. His World Cup after-party may have included a bit too much cake and sunshine for Van Gaal’s liking, but Luke Shaw will continue to develop in to a fabulous English left back, and leaves with a certain degree of affection from Saints fans.
Adam Lallana (Liverpool, £25m) - A most interesting case, Adam Lallana. Having signed his new five year deal back in 2013, the Saints captain claimed he would “bite your hand off” for the chance to stay with the club for the rest of his career. Alas, when England and Liverpool came calling this season, the tune quickly changed. Fans turned against him as stories of refusing to train and speak with the board began to surface, and not even his full-page “goodbye message” in the local paper could smooth those cracks.
Dejan Lovren (Liverpool, £20m) - If there was ever an example of how not to leave a club, Dejan Lovren is it. After accusing the club of having “no ambition”, the Croat claimed his “head was already at Liverpool” and spent pre-season trying to force a happy reunion. With the rest of him now on Merseyside, Southampton fans would enjoy nothing more than the move to fall flat – which unfortunately for them, is unlikely. He will bring stability and resolve to an otherwise flimsy back line – until someone else comes calling for him.
Calum Chambers (Arsenal, £16m) - This was the move that turned the tide in fan attitude. While the previous four were understandable given the circumstances or attitudes, Chambers was inexcusable. A bright, young 19 year old talent that hadn’t been the point of speculation all summer, until the news of the move first broke. Calum Chambers will be missed, and Southampton fans will by in large remain emotionally invested in his career – but his move will be remembered as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Dani Osvaldo (Inter Milan, loan) – Who cares?
Ronald Koeman (Feyenoord) - With the club preparing for a harsh summer, the board had to get this decision right. Not only was Ronald Koeman their choice after lengthy interviews and discussions, Ronald Koeman was by far and away the choice of every single Southampton fan. A manager with a great track record, who played the same style as Southampton, who developed young players and bought shrewdly, with a name and presence that could attract the right kind of player. It wasn’t just his professional credentials that appealed – Koeman has since proven to be a very genuine, very honest and open human being. Chairman Ralph Krueger describes him as “a manager without ego”, and listening to Ronald Koeman speak makes you believe he’s here for the long haul.
Dusan Tadic (FC Twente, £10m) - The first new player through the door was Serbian international Dusan Tadic. While most fans had never heard the name, his hype built quickly; endless assists and goals from midfield in last year’s Eredivise season made him statistically the best player in the division, and early indications from his pre-season performances suggest that Dusan is destined for great things. Saints fans have already sorted his new chant: “He plays on the left, he plays on the right, Dusan Tadic, makes Lallana look -” erm… poor?
Graziano Pelle (Feyenoord, £9m) - With the club desperately lacking in strikers, Koeman turned to his old Feyenoord hitman, Graziano Pelle. With a similar build and playing style to one Rickie Lambert, Pelle has some big, big shoes to fill this season, but the Italian is prepared for the challenges ahead. Having seen how integral Lambert was to our performances last season, Saints fans will have pinned high hopes on Pelle, who will need to hit the ground running to quell their nerves.
Ryan Bertrand (Chelsea, loan) - While one of the least inspiring pieces of business, Ryan Bertrand is a proven Premier League left back with a point to prove. He might not be in the same league as Luke Shaw, but his attacking endeavour and defensive sensibility is just what Southampton and Koeman need with the young academy star’s move to Manchester. The deal does include an option make the move permanent for around £8m, so expect Ryan to try just a little harder than he has elsewhere.
Saphir Taider (Inter Milan, loan) - In exchange for Osvaldo came Saphir Taider, the nippy holding midfielder that just couldn’t seem to show his potential for the Nerazzurri. While I was skeptical of his acquisition, early indications are that Taider is a little terrier with bundles of pace and endeavor. This loan also comes with an option to buy (for a fee of roughly £6m), which could prove an absolute steal by the time he’s done.
Fraser Forster (Celtic, £10m) - There’s very few teams in the Premier League who wouldn’t have loved to see Fraser Forster wearing their jersey, and Southampton are no different. The goalkeeper arrives with waves of excitement, and will most likely be donning the shirt for the first time this Sunday against Liverpool. The signing does raise questions over the future of Artur Boruc, who, while a spectacular goalkeeper, is far too erratic to be considered reliable.
PREDICTED STARTING XI (4-2-3-1)
Forster; Clyne, Fonte, Gardos*, Bertrand; Schneiderlin, Cork; Tadic, Ward-Prowse/Davis, Rodriguez; Pelle/Long*
Bound by pain - This summer has been tough on Southampton fans, but the pain of the summer will be vital. The passion and determination the fan base will show to prove the league wrong, to shut down the jokers and those who have had their pound of flesh during this transfer window, to prove Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren wrong, will be instrumental. The new players will have a lot to live up to, but the “us against the world” mentality will return – even if for a different cause.
Defense - I’m not blind; the club can always do with stronger defenders. But with Fonte soon to find himself paired with Steau Bucharest’s Florin Gardos, with Schneiderlin, Cork, Wanyama and Taider set to sit ahead of them, not to mention new goalkeeper Fraser Forster between the sticks, Southampton should be able to baton down the hatches and keep teams back as well as they did last year. While you can never guarantee a defense will be stable, there’s enough about Southampton’s defensive options to believe that keeping goals out will be more likely than putting 3 past the opponent.
Creativity - With Tadic, Ward-Prowse, Rodriguez, Ramirez and others leading the line, Southampton can expect to be an open and creative outfit, just as they were last year. While the lack of Lallana’s Cruyff turns and uncontrollable twists and turns will be a loss, there’s a void to fill and a wide array of talent prepared to fill it. As an attacking force, Southampton will be as tricky to handle as ever.
Youth - The Southampton academy is always the focus of a Premier League season for fans, as everyone waits to see who can break the mold this year. James Ward-Prowse is almost destined for a big season with Lallana now gone, and with Harrison Reed signing a new long term contract, Lloyd Isgrove impressing in pre-season and young Matt Targett – considered “more promising” than Luke Shaw by staff – pushing for Bertrand’s position this year, the Southampton production line looks set to carry on rolling.
Fan skepticism - The fans believe in Ronald Koeman. Ronald Koeman believes in the board. But the fans do not believe in the board. After all the broken promises this pre-season, Saints fans can be forgiven for not singing the praises of Ralph Krueger or Les Reed, and if things go bad then the board will have to take the flak. The key to this union will be keeping Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez, as Krueger publicly promised we would.
Chemistry - The clearest issue for Southampton is the lack of chemistry the side will suffer from for the first few months. With a period of such sweeping change still on-going, the side will look disjointed and out of tune for the first few weeks of the season. The fans will be patient, and the staff will work hard, but if come Christmas time we’re floundering near the relegation positions, the tide will turn.
Firepower - With only Graziano Pelle fit at present, and the Shane Long deal still not tied up, Southampton only have one striker on the books. It’s all well and good having so much creativity circling the box, but with Rodriguez shelved and Pelle new to the division, Southampton could suffer from a lack of goals early season. Shane Long will fill that void, but his goalscoring record isn’t consecutive or reliable enough to pin too many hopes on him.
PREDICTED FINISH: 12th
It’s hard to say exactly what Southampton would consider “success” this year. On one hand, considering how badly it could go, perhaps survival is all we need consider. On the other, with a team with such promise beginning to forge, and still a few weeks left in the transfer window, who’s to say they can’t re-create a nice and comfortable 8th place push?
The simple fact of the matter is that success for Southampton this season will be determined as the season progresses. Personally, I don’t feel we need to worry about relegation. There’s more than enough about this Southampton side to keep us afloat, especially with so many other teams looking so frail and undeveloped in certain areas of the field.
It may become a rough-ride season, with a few heavy defeats coming our way early doors, quite possibly starting away at Anfield on Sunday, and our patience will be tried. But Southampton will survive, and when we survive, a REAL rebuild can begin. This time next summer, I expect to be preparing for a fourth season in the Premier League, with a much more wholesome, well-rounded, sculpted side solid in every position, preparing for a European position chase, perhaps even a cup run or two.
There is one thing Southampton need to do this season though – prove you wrong. They need to give every single team in this division a game, and remind the fans of English Premier League football that Southampton are no joke. They need to show Dejan Lovren that they DO have ambition, show Adam Lallana that Europe is still within our grasp, show Mauricio Pochettino that we can put our money where our mouth is.
What I wouldn’t give for us to go to Anfield this Sunday, and win.