Southampton’s 2018/19 Premier League is done and dusted.
In June, we find ourselves in a month of football purgatory as the real transfer activity commences in July ahead of a new season which usually begins with excitement and then quickly turns sour. Especially if you’re a Saints fan.
But there are some reasons to be positive for the Southampton faithful.
Our club narrowly avoided relegation from the Premier League largely thanks to the managerial coup that was Ralph Hasenhuttl.
Though I am hesitant to get too loved up with the Austrian manager through fear of losing him to more attractive model like we did with both Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, it’s hard not to get a little excited at the prospect of witnessing Hasenhuttl turn our team from chicken sh*t to chicken salad.
So, I asked some of my favourite Southampton fans to help out with a review of the season just gone and to preview what will surely be a more positive 2019/20 campaign of football for the Saints.
A big thank you to Matthew Markstone of the SFC Dellivery podcast (check it out here) and contributors Tom Williams and Lucy Highnett for their efforts.
Please make sure you give us all a follow on Twitter.
How would you summarise Southampton’s 2018/19 season?
TW: Four months of almost comic despondency, then a bloke in tight trackie bottoms arrived.
LH: This has been a season of getting back on track, as Saints hopped off the rickety British manager merry-go-round and returned to the smart managerial recruitment which had established them as a top-eight side under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman.
It’s clear that it will take a long time for that top-eight status to be restored, but it finally feels like Saints are on the right, upward trajectory, under an exciting, courageous manager.
JH: Southampton’s season certainly didn’t start well. When Mark Hughes was offered the permanent job as Saints manager in the summer preceding the season, I was a little apprehensive but strangely thought he earned the position.
It quickly transpired things weren’t going to work out with Hughes and unlike previously with Mauricio Pellegrino, the club acted quickly to seek a replacement and what a decision that was.
Ralph Hasenhuttl totally transformed the way Saints played and with young, academy players at the core. Saints under Hasenhuttl was a world away from what was served up by Hughes. Yes, there are still problems with the squad which is expected with the one he inherited, but the positives are clear to see.
We needed to avoid relegation and we did. Barely. That was the bare minimum expected of a manager as talented as Hasenhuttl and I hope he has the freedom to mould this side into one he wants to see take on the Premier League next season.
It’s also worth noting it was a season of upheaval for Saints, with both Les Reed and Ralph Krueger moving on.
MM: The 2018/2019 season was a bit like meeting your new inlaws. You’ve heard good things about the glory days, but the recent phone calls haven’t gone all that well. Dad seems withdrawn and mum might be on the sauce a bit too much… the initial meeting is awful. Everyone sits in silence at the dinner table and listens to dad tell stories about how great his favourite nephew is [Wesley Hoedt]. You watch him, a bit envious, continuously belittle your significant and question every decision you’ve ever made. You can’t win. Oh, and nothing is ever his fault. Someone else always makes the mistake. “Clearly,” he says. And, every time you think you are making good headway, a political comment or question brings you back down to earth. It’s clear mum isn’t happy, but you’re not sure if anything will happen.
This goes on for months, then, one day, mum calls with news. She’s left dad and has a new man. She invites the two of you away on a bank holiday weekend to meet him.
You go. It’s fantastic.
They greet you with drinks. He loves mum, mum loves him, he makes her feel young. Mum hasn’t smiled like this in years, your significant other tells you. There are no political comments, he asks intelligent questions, he takes a genuine interest in what you are saying and owns his mistakes. It’s the best weekend you’ve had in a really long time. You are excited and happy for mum, and glad to have someone who cares back in the family. He asks to cook the last meal of the weekend. He chooses meatloaf and it’s under-seasoned. You aren’t satiated, but you’ll survive and give him another chance because everything else about him is wonderful.
If Saints’ last season were a famous public figure, who would it be?
MM: I’m struggling here. My pop culture knowledge is less good than my knowledge of teams in the Polish second division.
It’s hard to pinpoint a public figure who had some good attributes a few years ago, produced some good stuff, but has managed to make him/herself into an absolute joke recently. Someone who rose from almost nothing, reached perhaps a bit too high and now everyone is expecting it again, but it’s not happening and people are now starting to doubt whether it will ever happen. Mismanagement publicly, shocking fiscal decisions, and, well, it’s hard to think of anyone like that… wait, wait. I take that back. It’s Kanye West...only we are getting better now and he’s still showing up to red carpet events looking like an auto mechanic.
JH: Eminem. Three decent albums/seasons before a sharp descent. Has returned to slightly more positive form of late, but things aren’t quite the same.
Hopefully things will continue trending upwards after some encouraging signs, but whether that happens or not remains to be seen.
TW: Jon Snow. Spent the first act just moping about before belatedly gaining the confidence required to go and raise some hell.
How big an impact did Ralph Hasenhuttl have upon his appointment as Southampton manager?
TW: Absolutely transformational.
MM: Ralph’s impact on the team this season was huge. Hughes had 9 points through 14 matches. The team was sleepwalking into relegation, and the fans were going too.
Ralph re-energised the fans, the players, and the club as a whole. His energy was infectious and he carried it both home and away. Despite earning an average of 1.24 points per game this season (Hughes averaged .64 this season) he narrowly lead us to safety. Still, his points per game were double that of Hughes, with the same players. The football was more exciting, the players were working harder and together, and they were improving.
From the atmosphere to the player performance, Ralph revolutionised the team. I think we’re all looking forward to what he does going forward.
JH: Southampton fans couldn’t have realistically wished for a better man at the helm, given how bad things were getting.
I remember thinking the rumours of Hasenhuttl joining Southampton were a load of bollocks, given the success he enjoyed at RB Leipzig. Remember when a certain subsection of Saints fans were convinced that Thomas Tuchel would be joining the club after his stint at Borussia Dortmund? That’s what I compared the situation to. By the way, Tuchel went to PSG and never entertained the idea of a dalliance with Saints.
Hasenhuttl’s impact was tremendous. Not only did he get the team playing a totally different way which ultimately kept the club clear of relegation, he did so by using academy players and shipping out more dead wood. We started playing more attractive football, put in decent performances against bigger teams once again, and got the Southampton fans back on board.
There’s plenty of room for improvement and Hasenhuttl will be more than aware of that. Hopefully Saints can get rid of some of their biggest earners to enable him to oversee a total overhaul of the squad in his image.
LH: Hasenhuttl has had a remarkable impact, particularly given he made no meaningful additions to the squad in January, aside from our own academy.
He made some big decisions on the futures of established players; reinstated core club philosophies, not least through the reintegration of youth; and got more out of those that had too often flattered to deceive. Beyond that, he reinvigorated a disillusioned fan base.
Perhaps the only shortcoming was to address the team’s staggering propensity to drop points from winning positions - something to focus minds next season.
Gun to your head. Who would you rather as Saints manager, Mauricio Pellegrino or Mark Hughes?
LH: Ouch. On pain of death, I’d reluctantly say Hughes, on the condition he moved back to the unexciting but functional 3-4-3/3-5-2 system he originally used at the end of the 17/18 season.
His decision to permanently switch to that flat throwback of a ‘90s 4-4-2, during the first match of the 2018/19 season, remains one of the most bewildering decisions I’ve seen at the club in recent years... and there have been many of them!
MM: There are a lot of comparisons I could draw for this question… none of them good. So I’ll just get on with it. If I had to choose between Hughes or Pellegrino, I’d have to go with Pellegrino (I want to cry typing this). With Hughes in charge, the team lacked any sort of plan. There was no learning by the players, there was no improvement under him (Redmond did improve but I think that was more about Redmond than Hughes). Clearly, there were very few ideas being communicated to the players.
Under Pellegrino, the players all said they had trouble understanding the ideas of the coach. Even so, there was more of a visible plan with him in charge. No doubt the football was depressingly boring, but at least there was some sort of a plan. And, with time, I’d like to think Pellegrino would have gotten better at communicating his ideas, therefore improving the squad and results.
JH: Obviously, I’d rather pick neither. I’ll have to go for Pellegrino, but there really is nothing in it.
Southampton were headed on their way down to the Championship, and it was Hughes who managed to keep Saints up, but you can at least see the Argentine has done a respectable job at smaller Spanish clubs Alaves and then Leganes.
When is the last time Hughes has improved a team he has managed, either in a success or footballing sense?
Maybe, just maybe, Pellegrino would have had the nous to reverse Saints’ fortunes and spare us all of Sparky.
TW: Hughes, purely on the basis that he’s the most memeable manager we’ve ever had.
What kind of signings would you like to see Southampton make in the summer?
MM: The squad is in need of a serious overhaul, and it’s likely to take more than one window to make it all happen. The last three or four seasons have seen Les Reed and the rest of the team put together a large squad of, mostly, mediocre players. There is some quality in the team with the likes of Nathan Redmond, Jan Bednarek, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, etc., but for the most part the players are good enough to fill in, not be mainstays in the team.
Given the makeup of the squad, I’d be happy with one or two high quality signings. We need a forward who can stay healthy and provide a threat, not someone who will drop deep to pick up the ball, but someone who can either run onto it or hold it up for others to run off of. I also think we need a central defender if we are going to continue to play a back three. Someone with some experience and who can provide leadership would be nice, but I’d take a talented young CB as well, as long as they have proven they can play at a high level.
Ultimately, I think ratio of players in to players out should be 1:4. Get rid of four players for £4-5 million each, spend at least £15-20 million on one replacement. Overly simplistic, yes. Likely to happen, no. But, that’s what I’d like to see.
TW: Extremely on-brand response, but I’d like us to start buying players because they’ll improve our team, rather than because we think we’ll be able to flog them for a big profit.
LH: Despite Jan Bednarek’s development under Hasenhuttl, and Jannik Vestergaard’s gradual acclimatisation, this is still a side which looks painfully flimsy at the back, accounting for so many lost leads. This has been particularly true when injury has forced Hasenhuttl to play Jack Stephens at centre back, following Wesley Hoedt’s loan departure. With this in mind, I’d like to see the centre back position prioritised.
Aside from this, a striker would make a lot of sense, given Manolo Gabbiadini’s move back to Italy in January and the anticipated departure of Charlie Austin. While Shane Long broke his scoring duck and proved to be useful to Hasenhuttl, there needs to be a certain degree of realism about how much longer he can provide pace to our forward line.
JH: This Saints squad needs a total revamp. We need more pace in the attack, improved midfield creators and, to be quite frank, better defenders. More importantly, Southampton need to make signings which fit the mould of a Hasenhuttl side.
If we could make a number of signings which improves Saints in any of those areas, I’d be a happy man.
Which Saints players do you expect to see leave?
TW: The best ones. This is Saints.
LH: I think many Saints fans are hoping for a comprehensive overhaul of a squad which has suffered as a result of several failed recruitment cycles, and unwarranted contract renewals. I doubt we will see anything large scale and this overhaul will be a long-term project, as Saints have few genuinely saleable assets.
I think Charlie Austin’s recent comments suggest he is one of a few who are unlikely to see the start of the new season at Saints - I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Fraser Forster or Cedric Soares finally leave. The issue will be generating sufficient funds from sales to support Hasenhuttl with the signings he needs.
JH: There are some obvious names Saints need to get rid of in both footballing and financial senses.
Wesley Hoedt, Fraser Forster, Charlie Austin, Jack Stephens, Cedric, Alex McCarthy, Matt Targett, Harrison Reed, Guido Carrillo. Any of those players are disposable, in my opinion. If we could ship off at least five of those players, hopefully that could provide enough financial flexibility for Hasenhuttl to build the squad he wants.
MM: Players I expect to go and want to see go are two very different lists.
Alex McCarthy: He is at a point where he wants to play first team football. Went from nothing being capped by England to being replaced by a younger keeper in the span of six months. We can’t ship Fraser Forster due to wages, so I think he goes.
Wesley Hoedt: He had his chance under Hughes and Hasenhuttl, but has shown he doesn’t fit the system. Big signing initially, but he should seek employment elsewhere.
Harrison Reed: I think we all love him. His energy, his versatility, his bright white face and ginger hair. But, Saints’ midfield is packed and he needs to lock himself in somewhere.
Charlie Austin: He’s more active on Twitter than on the pitch. I would take him to a music festival or bring him on a bachelor party or Vegas trip. I would not have him on my 5-a-side team. He’ll score goals next season, just not for us.
Would you like to keep any of the Southampton players sent out on loan last season?
TW: Again, extremely on-brand; Jake Hesketh.
JH: If his attitude is right, I feel Sofiane Boufal still has something to offer Southampton. That’s a big if, though.
Hasenhuttl has already demonstrated that he wants his squad filled with players committed to his cause. From the outside, Boufal appears to be very self-interested, but if Hasenhuttl could strike the right chord with the player, he would be a very useful option for Saints’ attack next season.
MM: Aside from some of the young players, I think most of them can go… but, if I could take a chance and keep just one, it would probably be Sofiane Boufal.
I struggle with Boufal because of his attitude. In all honesty, I just have a hard time getting along with people with attitudes like that. And, it should be noted, I’ve never spoken to him, so it’s my perception of his attitude. But, his talent and a new manager warrant one more chance.
We could use another playmaker, someone who can occupy the minds of defensive players so that can’t all key in on Redmond. His ability to create and dribble would be wonderful in Ralph’s side, and it could save us a lot of money in the transfer window if he comes in and does the job. But, his attitude and work rate have to change. If they do, he’ll be just like a new signing (cliche alert).
LH: Of all the players on loan, Sofiane Boufal remains the most intriguing. Much like Nathan Redmond pre-Hasenhuttl, he is a player with plenty of ability, with flashes of brilliance, but he has often lacked end product.
Many will reflect on Redmond’s transformation and hope Hasenhuttl can work similar wonders with Boufal, who has arguably more technical talent. However, unlike Redmond, there are plenty of questions about Boufal’s attitude, particularly after his spat with Hughes. It shall be interesting to see what Ralph makes of him, although I think we can expect to see a swift exit for the Moroccan this summer if Hasenhuttl isn’t convinced.
Of those Saints loanees, who would you like to see shipped out for good?
JH: Wesley Hoedt is the obvious choice. He’s most likely the best-paid player Saints let leave on loan and he’s clearly not good enough for either Southampton or Celta Vigo, where he was sent on loan.
I can imagine it being tough to attract a sale matching the transfer fee Saints paid for him, though.
MM: Wesley Hoedt. He seems to have run his course with the fans. He’s had a shot under multiple managers and doesn’t seem to be any better than what we have in the squad already. Boufal brings something drastically different than what we have, which is why I would tolerate his attitude long enough to at least give him a shot at redemption. Hoedt, doesn’t. I’d take a loss in the market for him just to get him off the books.
LH: I think it’s been clear since Hasenhüttl arrived that Wesley Hoedt has no future at the club. Filling Virgil van Dijk’s shoes was always a tough task but Hoedt’s complacent attitude has compounded his issues with adapting to the pace and frequent high press in the Premier League.
Unfortunately, his loan has done nothing to enhance his reputation, perhaps damage it further, and he will be another player that Saints struggle to move on.
TW: Wesley Hoedt. Think he’s lost his arse and seems a bit of a wally too.
Of all the players to leave Saints in recent years, who would be the most useful to Southampton right now?
TW: Virgil van Dijk. Our centre-backs have been awful.
LH: I’d obviously say Virgil van Dijk, given his immense talent and our weaknesses at centre back, but this isn’t a team that can afford for any key player to go AWOL. We also miss a player of Jose Fonte’s experience and leadership but age isn’t on his side.
With that in mind, I can think of few players better suited to Hasenhuttl’s football than Sadio Mane, who has got better and better since his departure. Not only is he full of the pace that this team lacks, but he’s adept at playing a high press, has developed genuine consistency and is full of goals. We can but dream...
MM: Jose Fonte. During his time at Saints I was guilty of thinking he was made better by those around him. From Dejan Lovren to Toby Alderweireld to Virgil van Dijk, Jose looked good next to all of them. And, to be fair, two out of three of them are very good. One of them is best centre-back in the world (citation needed).
In truth, despite having a dip in form during his final few months at the club, Fonte’s leadership is undeniable. He was the constant in the team, the voice in our back line. Even when VVD took over as captain under Claude Puel, we were never as solid as we were with Fonte in the lineup. And, given our lack of leadership in the backline, I think Fonte would have a huge impact on the team.
JH: Yes, Southampton’s defence has been a bag of sh*te since Virgil van Dijk downed tools and eventually left for Liverpool, but I feel Saints were screaming out for Sadio Mane last season.
Since Mane’s departure—also to Liverpool—in 2016, Saints have sorely missed the speed and attacking opportunism he provided us in his two seasons. In his 75 appearances for Southampton, Mane scored 25 goals in all competitions. That’s a great return considering the fact he was largely utilised as a winger.
Of all current Southampton players, only Shane Long has scored more than Mane did at Saints with 32 goals from 178 appearances.
What non-footballing bugbears would you like to change at the club?
MM: People referring to Ralph Krueger as American. He’s Canadian, and I don’t want to be blamed for his mistakes.
Aside from that, I wish our fanbase was more tolerant of each other. We seem too eager to prove our point online instead of 1) trying to understand the point of the other person/group, or 2) being supportive of other people with different viewpoints. We’re all guilty of it (and so is pretty much everyone else on the internet), but it might be nice to press pause on that for a while.
JH: I would LOVE it if Southampton fans sang more about the club they support rather than focus on soon-to-be disloyal players and managers, or local rivals.
Saints fans will be the first to say no player is bigger than the club—especially given the turnover of stars we’ve endured over the years. So why are so many of our chants created and sang for certain players? It’s a bit tinpot.
LH: With that monstrosity of a home kit put to one side, I think many of us (and I include myself) have been guilty of obsessing about Liverpool, and perhaps understandably so.
But, with the last sale to Liverpool over a year ago and others very unlikely to follow this summer, I hope we’re able to move on to focus on our own successes and developing the kind of talent which created that kind of situation in the first place.
TW: I’d prefer we weren’t owned by a bloke who bribed officials who were later executed.
What do you want to see from Saints next season?
LH: Next season, I want Saints to capitalise on the basic principles that were established a few years ago and re-emerged since December under Hasenhuttl.
To me, it is important that we seek to maintain ‘pathways’ for academy players; to continue to play courageous, high-pressing football; and to develop emerging talent from intelligent recruitment, which addresses the team’s existing weaknesses.
I’d like to see greater mental robustness, particularly towards the end of games, and more tactical flexibility and versatility. Hasenhuttl has frequently emphasised his desire to build more than just a 3-5-2/3-4-3 system, perhaps transitioning to his preferred 4-2-2-2, but Saints were too often defensively brittle and offensively rigid when asked to step out of their tactical comfort zone.
Balancing these tasks - recruiting without blocking pathways, and increasing experimentation and flexibility without damaging confidence - is the difficult bit.
JH: All I want to see is the start of a new run of continuous improvement like we saw from Pochettino to Koeman. That will only happen if Hasenhuttl is given the money and freedom to acquire the players he deems to fit the bill this summer transfer window.
I want to see Hasenhuttl build the squad foundation we all think he’s more than capable of doing, allowing us Saints fans to all be optimistic for seasons to come as we look to better each previous campaign.
I’d happily see Saints finish around mid-table, free of any relegation worries with a view to really push on in 2020/21.
MM: Ultimately, I’d like to see a Saints side with a clear identity, a little added quality, and some confidence. A team that picks each other up if things aren’t going there way and that isn’t afraid of criticism or critical, honest self-reflection. Yes, I also want results and goals and clean sheets, but I’m willing to wait a bit longer for those if the identity of the team is being built in a sustainable manner.
I’ll take a two-ish key signings in the team, a few more youth team players on the bench, and a team that stands up a fights for everything they get and is proud to wear the crest on their shirt.
TW: A trophy.
What do you expect to see instead?
TW: Total chaos. I think Hasenhuttl’s playing model is quite high risk, and there’s so much crash, bang wallop it has the effect of bringing the two teams closer together. So we’ll beat some good sides and lose to some crap ones.
MM: I expect to see largely what I want. I’m a millennial.
Really, though. I’d expect more players out than in this summer, though I do think we’ll make one relatively large signing. Someone Ralph wants and who can come straight into the side. I expect to see a team that is more comfortable in the 4-2-2-2 formation and a little more confidence on the ball. I do expect us to be better against mid-table teams, teams who want to play but don’t have top quality players, but still think we may struggle against teams who sit deep and just defend.
I expect Ralph to have a year he is marginally satisfied with, though not something he can hang his hat on as a clear indicator of his talents. I expect Ralph to be around next summer as well.
LH: My hopes aren’t without foundation, and I do expect Saints to build on last season.
Even without recruitment, this team should improve with age and exposure to Hasenhuttl’s coaching in preseason. Their off-season preparation sounds intensive. However, I do expect there to be some issues with addressing the squad’s deficiencies, under such a strict financial regime.
Too often in the recent past, the recruitment team have felt the pressure to generate profit, instead of focusing on the immediate needs of the team, and, in doing so, have failed to provide opportunities for youth.
I don’t expect that tendency to be immediately reversed, particularly as we struggle to shift deadwood, although the current board-level restructuring may help. Similarly, I don’t expect this squad’s mental and tactical fragility to immediately evaporate with the beginning of the new season, and there will likely be a few more frustrations in winnable games.
JH: I’m a realist, and I honestly expect to see what I want.
I’m hardly asking for the world here. I just want Southampton to allow Hasenhuttl to shape the team he needs to bring some relative success to the South Coast’s red and white.