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Premier League 2016-17 preview No13: Southampton

Southampton manager Claude Puel

Guardian writers’ predicted position 11th (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position 6th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 100-1

At the risk of sounding callous, it has reached the stage where summer wouldn’t feel the same without more upheaval at Southampton. For the third successive year the exit door at St Mary’s has swung open far too much for their liking and although they are accustomed to the talent drain by now, it is not unreasonable to wonder if this may be the season when they begin to feel the strain.

Just as Mauricio Pochettino’s departure to Tottenham in 2014 sparked the sale of five players for a combined £88.5m, the sharks detected blood when Ronald Koeman was lured to Everton. Losing the Dutchman after he had overseen two excellent seasons was tough to take for two reasons. It punctured the celebratory atmosphere generated by Southampton securing their highest Premier League position, not to mention finishing three points off the Champions League spots. And second, what did it say about their place in the food chain that snatching sixth place off West Ham and qualifying for the group stage of the Europa League on the final day of the season was still not enough to keep their manager away from a club who finished five places and 16 points below them?

Sadio Mané joined Liverpool in a deal worth £30m and Victor Wanyama linked up with Pochettino at Tottenham for £11m, before Graziano Pellè accepted a move to China, and fans can be forgiven for having misgivings over the scope of Southampton’s ambition given that they have not been particularly active in the transfer market. In that context, it looks as if Claude Puel, Koeman’s replacement, has accepted a hospital pass.

But hold on a moment. Think back. Because although Leicester City have redefined the art of cramming humble pie down an unsuspecting critic’s throat, Southampton provided the original template when they responded to predictions of relegation in 2014 by finishing seventh in Koeman’s first season. And despite selling Nathaniel Clyne and Morgan Schneiderlin to Liverpool and United respectively last summer, they bounced back from a poor first half of the season.

So be careful. Southampton have repeatedly stressed that their model is not dependent on who manages them. They have laid strong foundations with a thriving youth academy, a clear identity, a solid infrastructure and a £30m training ground.

Graphic

Equally, however, success on the pitch will largely depend on the work of the manager and the quality of the senior players. Puel is an intriguing appointment, a coach who appears to be the right fit for Southampton given that he is regarded in France as a builder who will want to play attractive if sensible football and develop young players, and he arrives fresh from a productive four-year spell with Nice, having almost guided them into the Champions League last season. In the end they settled for Europa League qualification, two points below Lyon and Monaco, but finishing fourth with a club whose resources are modest suggests that Puel knows how to construct a coherent team.

One of his most notable achievements last season was to coax the best out of Hatem Ben Arfa, and Puel also took Lyon to the last four of the Champions League six years ago, beating Real Madrid and the French champions Bordeaux before losing to Bayern Munich.

However, critics of the 54-year-old, whose previous four jobs have been in France, hold his failure to win the title with Lyon against him. They had won seven consecutive titles when he joined them in 2008 but they were pipped by Bordeaux in his first season and Marseille in his second. He left with his reputation diminished in 2011.

Southampton are not expected to win the Premier League, of course, and Puel has inherited a promising squad, albeit one that could do with reinforcements in attack. If everything goes to plan, Southampton should be capable of at least maintaining their position in the top half and reaching the knockout stages of the Europa League, assuming their draw is kind.

Last season's results

Puel may need time to implement his ideas but he is fortunate to discover that most of the pieces are already in place. Southampton have mostly used 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 in the past four years, systems that he is likely to favour, and one of their biggest strengths, going back to Pochettino’s time, has been their defence.

Much of their improvement in the second half of last season was down to more focused defending, with Fraser Forster enjoying an outstanding run of form in goal after returning from a serious knee injury. Though Forster is not immune from the occasional error, the 28-year-old looked increasingly mature as he set a club record by going 708 minutes without conceding. Yet he cannot allow his level to drop now that the promising Alex McCarthy has arrived from Crystal Palace.

There was no need to tweak the back four. Jérémy Pied has arrived from Nice to provide competition for Cédric Soares at right-back, and Ryan Bertrand is one of the league’s most accomplished left-backs, with Matt Targett an able deputy. Virgil van Dyk was an inspired signing from Celtic last season and the Dutch centre-back formed a commanding partnership with the captain, José Fonte. Maya Yoshida is reliable cover and Puel will hope that the hitherto unconvincing Romanian defender Florin Gardos is ready to challenge for a first-team spot after missing last season with a knee injury.

One area of concern is that Wanyama will not be efficiently screening their defence. Yet the Kenyan midfielder may not be such a great loss given that he was sent off three times last season, infuriated Koeman with his attitude at times and struggled on the ball. The Spanish midfielder Oriol Romeu is savvy enough to perform that role and they are well stocked in midfield.

Although Jordy Clasie needs to offer more after a flat debut season, Steven Davis is perennially underrated, James Ward-Prowse is an intelligent player and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg could be one of the signings of the season at £12.8m from Bayern Munich. The 20-year-old Danish midfielder’s silky touches were highly regarded by Pep Guardiola and he could strike up a good understanding with the Serbian winger Dusan Tadic, a likable creator from whom a little more consistency would not go amiss.

But it is further forward where Southampton need to bolster their options. Pellè’s questionable attitude meant that he was not particularly popular last season but 26 goals in two years was a decent return from the Italian forward, and Mané is a big loss. Although the Senegalese was unpredictable, he electrified their attack when he was in the mood and he was a crafty, versatile forward who was capable of singlehandedly destroying opposition defences. Mané scored 15 goals in all competitions last season.

Although Nathan Redmond should not be regarded as his direct replacement, the £10m arrival from Norwich City does not belong in the same class yet. The 22-year-old winger is talented and was a long-term target for Southampton but he is still developing. He scored six goals for Norwich last season and was not a regular starter for Alex Neil’s side.

Goalscoring could be a problem. The underwhelming Spanish forward Juanmi has joined Real Sociedad and although Shane Long became more incisive under Koeman, memorably doing for Arsenal in a 4-0 Boxing Day destruction, the 29-year-old Republic of Ireland striker is selfless, tireless and persistent rather than lethal, having managed 15 league goals in the past two seasons. He would probably be a good foil for Charlie Austin if Puel decides to use a 4-4-2 system.

Yet Austin, a cracking finisher, has found it difficult since his £4.5m move from Queens Park Rangers in January. Although he scored a debut winner in the 1-0 win at United, injury problems meant that he made only two starts.

This is an important season for him. If he regains the level that saw him score 18 goals for QPR two seasons ago, then Southampton might not need another striker. At the moment, however, Puel could do with additional creativity and firepower, especially with the Thursday-Sunday Europa League likely to take its toll before Christmas.

Balancing the demands of domestic and European football will not be straightforward and Southampton will not want to spread themselves too thin. The combination of a new manager, a heavy workload and rivals hoping to overtake them presents them with a daunting challenge; simply standing still would be a fine achievement. But do not be shocked if they surprise us again.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jacob Steinberg, for The Guardian on Tuesday 9th August 2016 09.00 Europe/London

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