Guardian writers’ predicted position 9th (NB: this is not necessarily Ben Fisher’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position 8th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 250-1
Among a myriad questions the one that always loomed largest over St Mary’s this summer was who would blink first – Southampton or Virgil van Dijk? After a stinging statement released around five o’clock on Monday evening it was unequivocally the latter. The question now, given Saints’ hard-line stance over retaining the defender, is whether he is really, categorically, not for sale. It is unlikely to be long before the Southampton board are tested.
It is happening again, with Southampton a victim of their own success. Van Dijk, a steal for the £11.5m they paid Celtic two years ago, has excelled since then, quickly establishing himself as one of the best defenders in the Premier League, in the same way Sadio Mané did as a winger or Victor Wanyama as a holding midfielder, both of whom moved on. As with Mané, Dejan Lovren and Nathaniel Clyne the next step seems increasingly inevitable – although this time it dare not be Liverpool.
Southampton, however, remain adamant they will not sell the Dutchman and perhaps they hoped that adopting a bullish stance over the matter increased the chances of squeezing another stellar season out of Van Dijk, as they did with Morgan Schneiderlin in 2014 before allowing his sale to Manchester United a year later. It still may do. Everton rejected John Stones’s transfer request before sanctioning his sale to Manchester City 12 months on.
Upon signing a six-year contract until 2023 last May, van Dijk said “I definitely want to grow with them [Southampton]”. Fast-forward to this summer and he has not featured in any pre-season matches or first-team training sessions. After months of muddying the waters, van Dijk had an opportunity to show how classy a defender he really is. Now, though, it is difficult to see him pulling on the Southampton shirt again.
It is fair to say it is a saga that has dominated the summer and overshadowed Mauricio Pellegrino’s first few weeks in the job. The damage was already done long before van Dijk submitted a transfer request, though, and the apple cart was already upset – again.Pellegrino, however, has remained – externally, at least – a picture of calm amid the annual south coast storm surrounding him. “The situation is the boy is aside of the team because he doesn’t want to play for us,” the Argentinian said.
Some players have already benefited from the Van Dijk situation, none more than Jack Stephens. The 23-year-old, signed for £150,000 from Plymouth Argyle in 2011, seamlessly stepped into Van Dijk’s shoes after José Fonte’s exit and the Dutchman’s season-ending ankle injury in January. Stephens was rewarded for his displays with a fresh five-year contract in June.
The England under-21 international had not made a league start for Saints until last season and after loans in League One with Swindon Town and Coventry City, he likely would have moved on this summer but for seizing his chance under Claude Puel. His former Southampton team-mates, the defenders Jason McCarthy and Jordan Turnbull, have already done so, signing permanent deals with Barnsley and Partick Thistle respectively this summer. The 22-year-old midfielder, Harrison Reed, has joined Norwich City on a season-long deal after growing stale on the fringes of the first team.
Maya Yoshida, too, previously derided by a minority of supporters, has proved his worth. Despite ultimately failing to appease Southampton supporters, Puel should be credited with accelerating the progress of Stephens, as well as James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond. Still only 22, Ward-Prowse found greater consistency last season but will still feel he can offer more in the opposition box while Redmond, although too often profligate in front of goal, gave Saints a zip they otherwise lacked. Pellegrino’s willingness to develop young talent, a key factor behind his appointment, bodes well.
The attraction of Pellegrino, like when Saints appointed Puel, was his experience and happiness at working with, and developing, predominantly what is already there. Southampton’s only summer business to date is the £5m signing of the 21-year-old defender Jan Bednarek from Lech Poznan while they have agreed an £18m fee for the Juventus midfielder Mario Lemina. Bednarek was sent off for Poland at the European Under-21 Championship against an England side that included his new team-mates, Ward-Prowse and Redmond. Whether he, Stephens and Yoshida are sufficient central defensive options is uncertain.
But with so much focus on the probable void left by Van Dijk, it should not be forgotten that Southampton’s real shortcomings last season lay up the other end – especially at home. They found the net only 41 times (Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion both scored more) and goals were hard to come by from midfield. Last season’s top scorer, the striker Charlie Austin, failed to hit double figures although he missed more than half the season through injury.
Southampton have played in their familiar 4-2-3-1 shape as well as having two up front over a bizarre pre-season in which they lost 4-0 at home to Augsburg before beating Sevilla at St Mary’s. Another slight concern is the goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, who was rewarded with a shiny new five-year deal despite a shaky season. The England stopper must improve for his club to have any chance of becoming No1 for his country.
When Southampton announced their squad numbers for the coming season most supporters will have immediately sought out Van Dijk or perhaps the Italy striker, Manolo Gabbiadini. But Saints’ homegrown talent should also have been a source of interest. Sam McQueen, Matt Targett, Josh Sims and Jake Hesketh will want to push on after playing bit-part roles last season while Sam Gallagher returns after a fruitful loan spell at Blackburn Rovers. The right-sided midfielder Jake Flannigan, who read at the funeral of the former Southampton owner Markus Liebherr, plus the young defensive trio of Alfie Jones, Will Wood and Yan Valery will hope to catch Pellegrino’s eye.
The season opener at home to Swansea City is potentially dangerous. Saints will be expected to win. It is equally a chance for Pellegrino to prove his team are reinvigorated and to sprinkle some excitement around St Mary’s after only four home wins since the turn of the year. The last competitive Saints goal at home was on 5 April. Then they play West Ham United and Huddersfield Town before facing Crystal Palace on 16 September, two days before the date Puel recorded his first league win last season – at home to Swansea. It goes without saying that Pellegrino could do without waiting so long.
Pellegrino guided Alavés to ninth in La Liga as well as to the domestic cup final last season. Sounds familiar? Puel guided Saints to eighth and the EFL Cup final, although all in all it was not much fun. The section of supporters who crudely booed Puel in the final match of his tenure, a defeat by Stoke City, is perhaps the biggest reflection of the raised expectations of a hungry fanbase.
The hope for Southampton, though, is that Pellegrino will indeed bring “exciting, attacking football” and “a high-intensity game”, as the executive director, Les Reed, put it. If Pellegrino can match Puel’s achievements, albeit with substantially more swagger and style, then it will surely be job done.
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