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2016/2017 Southampton Season Preview

It's baaaaack! The beautiful game is back, and Southampton Football Club have one extra competition to play in this season. Let's dive into our preview, with predictions, analysis, and so much more for this year!

Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

It's another season of Premier League football for Southampton. Couple that with two cups and Europa League group stage competition and everything is sunny on the south coast as we look ahead to the new season which, by the way, starts NEXT SATURDAY!

If you look at the #SaintsFC feed regularly, like myself, you'd be accustomed to seeing tweets with complaints directed to the club like, "Why haven't we signed (insert player here)?" or "Why is the club being so quiet about this issue?," and other meltdown mode talk. This preview should ease your stress about this season, because it truly is going to be a fun ride.

Let's start with the key departures:

  • Sadio Mane- The Senegalese player left to join Liverpool for a record transfer deal, which looks to be another quality piece of business from Saints.
  • Victor Wanyama- The Kenyan wanted this move to Tottenham for awhile, and finally, Saints let him go. With only a year left on his contract, and a replacement in the wings, it was smart business to let Vic go.
  • Graziano Pelle- Will probably be missed the least of the four key departures, but that's not saying that Saints won't miss him. He's in China now, so someone will have to replace those lost goals.
  • Ronald Koeman- I can't talk much of the man without sounding bitter, but just know that he's at Everton now, and we've got a good new manager.

Now the additions:

  • Pierre-Emile Hojberg- This guy looks like the real deal. Can play anywhere in the back-3 of Puel's diamond, is creative on and off the ball, and already has European experience. He'll be a real stud for this team.
  • Nathan Redmond- The pacey winger from Norwich, who looks to be a striker in the diamond, will play a vital role in Saints' success this season.
  • Alex McCarthy-  With Stekelenburg and Gazzaniga both gone, either for good or on loan, Saints were in need of a quality back-up keeper. They got one in McCarthy, and he is probably a step up from Stek.
  • Jeremy Pied- One of the more unknown players in the squad, but certainly not unknown by Puel. He's used to playing RB in Puel's system so he can definitely be great for Saints there, as well as a good mentor and leader for Martina and Cedric.
  • Claude Puel- Our new manager. He's French, likes the diamond formation, and is a calm and collected looking guy too. If he can get 100% out of the team, then I don't really care if Brett from Manchester has never heard of him. If you want to know more about Puel, read my article from a month ago where I dove in and discovered everything I needed to know about the Frenchman.

Projected Formation/XI/Diamond Tactics (With Depth Chart):

Claude Puel looks to be set on running his 4-4-2 diamond this season, so based on that, let's look at how Saints could line up this season.

*Starters in BOLD*

  • Goalkeeper- Fraser Forster, Alex McCarthy, Harry Lewis, Paulo Gazzaniga (If re-call is needed)
  • Right-back- Cedric, Jeremy Pied, Cuco Martina, Yan Valery, Maya Yoshida (I know...)
  • Left-back- Ryan Bertrand, Matt Targett, Sam McQueen, Cuco Martina (Have seen it suggested?)
  • Center-back- Virgil Van Dijk, Jose Fonte, Maya Yoshida, Florin Gardos, Jack Stephens, Jordan Turnbull, Cuco Martina, Oriol Romeu, Ryan Bertrand (Emergency situations only, I'd imagine)
  • Defensive Midfield- Pierre-Emile Hojberg, Oriol Romeu, Jordy Clasie, Harrison Reed, James Ward-Prowse
  • Central Midfield- Steven Davis, Jordy Clasie, Hojberg, Ward-Prowse, Dusan Tadic, Reed
  • Attacking Midfield- Dusan Tadic, Nathan Redmond, Ward-Prowse, Steven Davis, Jake Hesketh
  • Striker- Shane Long, Nathan Redmond, Charlie Austin, Jay Rodriguez, Sam Gallagher, Ryan Seager

When you look at the depth, you begin to realize that Saints are quite okay where they're at right now. This is just a rough sketch, based on friendlies and comments made by Puel, and there are several variations of this that I could see happening.

For starters, let's look at this XI. Bertrand and Cedric can provide the defense, but also have the ability to get forward and provide width. Hojberg has already shown his ability to be creative with passing, as well as defending properly without being reckless. He would be great working the ball out from the back. Jordy Clasie and Steven Davis are two very good passers, and with their main roles being to link-up play between the defense and attack, could do wonders there.

Dusan Tadic up at the top of the diamond is a good look, as he has the creativity to facilitate good balls to either striker, and if those strikers are Redmond and Long, he could be in for a whole lot of through-ball assists this season.

Other than that, there are a few different places players could find themselves. For example, Hojberg could find himself in a more advanced role, with Romeu anchoring the diamond. Jeremy Pied, Puel's tag-along player, could start at right-back.

There is a plethora of options for Claude Puel's men this season, and they'll need to use every option to cope with four different competitions this season. Depth in the midfield is key. In defensive midfield, Hojberg, Romeu, and Jordy Clasie are all three top players, who can fit right in at that position. Don't forget about Harrison Reed, either. All this talk about integrating youth from Puel, Reed should certainly be a guy in that discussion.

In the middle of the diamond, you've got even better options. Steven Davis, Clasie, Hojberg, Ward-Prowse and Tadic can all step in and perform when called upon. All are clever passers, with good ability on the ball. And once JWP can get his free-kicks to go, he'll be a force near the box.

The attacking midfield spot is where Saints somewhat lack. With Dusan Tadic the favorite to start the season at the No. 10, the depth behind him is lacking. Behind Tadic, Nathan Redmond and Steven Davis could fill the CAM role, but I believe that Southampton could use one more player there to at least provide some good depth and keep Tadic on his toes.

As for striker, I think Saints, barring an injury, are set. I understand the worry and calls for another striker, but looking at all of our options when healthy, it's a strong group. Shane Long will be the first name on the teamsheet, while I can see Austin and Redmond battling it out for playing time. That leaves one of those guys on the bench, along with Jay Rodriguez too.

In defense, the full-back positions are set. With Ryan Bertrand leading the charge on the left, Matt Targett will be a good backup for him. On the other side, Saints seemingly have three starting-caliber right-backs in Cedric, Pied, and Martina. My guess is that the depth chart will be somewhat in that order, too.

Center-back is the only other position, along with a CAM, that I think Saints could use improving. The Van Dijk-Fonte pairing is a top-5 CB pair in the Premier League, but behind them comes uncertainty, Florin Gardos hasn't really been able to find himself in the last year due to injury, and while his injury still lingers, many wonder how reliable he'll be this season. Maya Yoshida is a good player. Sorry, but he is. He makes too many mistakes though, and that's where his bad rap comes from. I'm comfortable with him as a 4th-choice CB though.

Behind them comes the youth. Can Jack Stephens and Jordan Turnbull make an impact? You've also got Martina, who plays CB for Curacao, and Ryan Bertrand, who filled in impressively last season in a three CB defense.

Other than a CAM and a CB, I don't see any other places where another player is needed. Striker would be next in line though, should any of the current top-4 get injured.

The biggest need for these players is to simply adapt. In a different playing style than that of Ronald Koeman and his 4-3-3, players will have to learn different roles, and that may take time. Full-backs will have to learn to get forward and act as wingers down the sides to provide width, while also having the ability to get back and defend.

The midfield will have to be used to quick passing, and learning that turnovers can be very costly in this setup, especially further up the pitch. The days of the long-ball are probably over, at least as a primary strategy. The ball will stay on the ground a lot more in this system, and not in the air seeking the head of a beautiful Italian.

Three Surprise Players:

For the most part, you know this group of Saints. However, who are some players that could thrive in the new system and become huge parts of this season?

  • Oriol Romeu- We got to see glimpses of Romeu last season, but I think that this year you'll see the emergence of Oriol Romeu as a star for Southampton. Losing the physical and powerful presence of Victor Wanyama, Romeu can certainly anchor the midfield and provide good defensive cover for the back-4, as well as get the attack started from the back.
  • Cedric- The European champion had trouble adapting last season, but with a good summer under his belt, and a full Premier League season, he could thrive in Puel's diamond system. He is good at getting forward already, but if he can clean up his defense, Cedric could be another emerging star.
  • Charlie Austin- Austin can score goals. In his debut, he stole all three points late against Manchester United at Old Trafford, but from there, he struggled to do much else. He was bit by the injury bug. But, with a full offseason under Puel and the training staff, Austin can return to his old self, the old self who can easily be a 10-15 goal striker.
Three Bold Predictions:

These predictions aren't for the faint of heart. Do I even believe these predictions? Maybe, maybe not. But I am going to predict them. Buckle up.

  • Dusan Tadic will score 10 goals and have 15 assists for Saints in all competitions: This one isn't THAT crazy. Tadic can be a star in the CAM spot, and if he gets going, like he did at the end of last season, watch out. The Serbian could find himself as Southampton's best player.
  • Saints will reach the semi-final of the Europa League: Southampton are a good team, and with the luck of the draw, among other factors, they could find themselves close to European glory.
  • Fraser Forster will win the Golden Gloves: This one isn't all that wild either. Fraser Forster is England's best goalkeeper, and is a top-5 keeper in the Premier League. With a good defense in front of him, and a full season's work, Fraser could hold the most clean-sheets.
Fixture Review:

I am under the impression that this will be the toughest Premier League season yet, and while Southampton may be just as good, other teams are either catching them or getting better. Looking at this fixture list, I struggle to find right away many "Guaranteed three points" games, but also can't look at any game as an automatic loss, especially after some of the wins I saw from this team last season. Regardless, let's take a look.

August sees visits to St. Mary's from Sunderland and Watford on the opening week, as well as a visit to Old Trafford to play a brand-new Manchester United squad, and their manager, Jose Mourinho. From there, you would like at least six points. Saints could do far worse than a quick six points from nine in the first three matches.

The Christmas period was very kind to Southampton this season. Six games are scheduled between December 3rd and January 2nd, and only one of those games is against a team that finished in the top-8 last season, Tottenham.

The final run of ten games is fairly kind to Saints too, which could prove to be important depending on where they are fighting in the table at the time.

Saints will round out their season with Stoke City, at home in St. Mary's Stadium.

There aren't many streaks of games that you look at and think, "Man, we might lose four straight," and that's a plus. But like I said, this is the toughest Premier League season yet, and no game, at least from the looks of it, will be a guarantee.

Are Saints Europa League Ready?

Well, the short answer is yes, and my bold prediction will double down on that for you. Realistically though, Southampton can make some noise in this competition. They've got good squad depth for six extra games, they've got players with European experience, and most importantly, they've got a manager who has European experience as well.

Southampton aren't going into this competition blind. They know what to expect this year, and pre-season traveling helps a lot too. From the USA, to Holland, and back, Saints have a bit of practice playing on foreign turf, as well as having the experience from last year's disappointing result.

A good draw in the group stages, with some good football throughout the tourney, could seriously find Southampton in contention for a Europa League title.

Final Predictions:

  • Premier League Finish: 10th. I don't think Southampton are getting worse, I just think the rest of the league will catch Saints, and an extra competition will only toughen up the season for Southampton. Finishing 10th with a good cup run, along with European success, is another step in the right direction for the club, however. Though our status of higher finishes in consecutive seasons may come to an end, Saints status of a rising English club will not. 10th is very good this season.
  • Europa League: Semi-final. I sit here with a smirk on my face as I type this. One reason is that I can't believe Saints are once again back in Europe, and two, I really believe this is possible. They've got the depth, experience, and talent to make a splash in this competition, so I'm expecting big things.
  • FA Cup/League Cup: Quarterfinals in one of these, Round of 16 in other. I feel like these two competitions are where we'll see the youth integrated mostly. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it also means that you'll have to hope for success in Europe or the league for a trophy.

Preseason Award Predictions:

  • Top Scorer: Shane Long. He is Saints' number one guy, and there is no reason he cannot continue his success for another season.
  • Best Player: Virgil Van Dijk. No reason to think that last year's player of the year will regress. He'll continue to be a force in that defensive pairing with Jose Fonte.
  • Best Youth Player: Sam McQueen. It would be easy to pick a Harrison Reed, or James Ward-Prowse, or even a Matt Targett, but I am going with the converted LB, Sam McQueen. He has looked fairly comfortable early on in that role, and may find himself with some game time. Not saying he will be a star, but watch out for this guy. Another one to look out for would be Lloyd Isgrove.
In summary, holy cow, how can you not be excited for this season? Southampton play in four competitions, and have the depth, talent, and experience to compete and do well in all four of them. Look for Saints to take a bit of a step back in the league, but that is only happening because of success in Europe. So while the league form could take a hit, the club will continue to rise to new heights.

Be excited, Southampton fans. A new era of Saints football is here, and Claude Puel's men are ready to march on.

Come on you Saints!