It’s fair to say that Southampton have not had a solid defence since the days of Claude Puel, perhaps even Ronald Koeman. In their prime, the Saints had the concrete center-back partnership of Dutch colossus Virgil Van Dijk alongside captain Jose Fonte, with England international Ryan Bertrand and Euro 2016 winner Cedric Soares occupying the full-back positions. Both Fonte and Van Dijk have since gone on to play Champions League football, while Cedric recently completed a 6-month loan move to Arsenal.
Since Fonte forced his way out the door and Van Dijk completed his at-the-time world-record move to Liverpool, Southampton have been very shaky across the back line.
When the Saints got £75 million for the Dutchman, they were expected to spend it on a solid center-half who could fill the huge gap that Van Dijk left. Instead, they spent £17 million on 23-year-old Lazio defender Wesley Hoedt.
Hoedt was expected to come in and be a like-for-like replacement for Van Dijk. However, he only played one season for Southampton before being loaned out twice, first to Celta Vigo, and most recently to Royal Antwerp in the Belgian first division.
One year after Hoedt was signed from Lazio, Southampton decided to bring in another center-half from a foreign league. This time it was Danish, 6’7” defender Jannik Vestergaard from Borussia Monchengladbach. Many Southampton fans thought the signing of Vestergaard was going to solve all their problems. He was the towering centre-back they had been crying out for ever since Van Dijk left for Anfield.
During the 18/19 season, Vestergaard was Southampton’s main defender, and the Saints fans believed he made the team a lot stronger. However, after many weak performances and bad mistakes, the Denmark international has become a defensive scapegoat in the eyes of many within the Saints fanbase and he has recently had to settle for a place on the bench.
One positive for Southampton this season is how they’ve somehow managed to stumble upon a relatively solid centre-half partnership of Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens. Bednarek has always been highly-rated by the majority of Saints fans, while up until very recently, Stephens had always been seen as a weak link. Perhaps the biggest shock this season has been the rise of Stephens, who has stood out for his willingness to put his body on the line, and the passion he has shown while playing for Southampton.
Now that Southampton’s centre-back problems have been sorted, the only remaining problem is the full-back positions, both of which need addressing.
Ryan Bertrand has nailed down the left side of the back four ever since he joined from Chelsea in 2015. However, Bertrand is nearing the age of 31, and he will need replacing in the near future. One academy option is Jake Vokins, who has previously played for Southampton in the FA Cup against Huddersfield. Unfortunately, it seems Ralph Hasenhüttl does not trust Vokins enough to start in the top flight yet, as every time Bertrand has been unable to play, Ralph has turned to Kevin Danso and even Pierre Hojbjerg to fill in the left-back position. It is looking increasingly likely that the Saints will have to dip into the transfer market when Bertrand needs replacing.
The right side of the defence is also a huge problem for Southampton. After Cedric Soares left for Arsenal in January, the Saints are left with young Frenchman Yan Valery, and Spurs loanee Kyle Walker-Peters. Valery has been very inconsistent in his time with the first team, and Walker-Peters has only started one game since his move in January. It’s obvious that Ralph Hasenhüttl will want to strengthen both his right-back and left-back positions in the near future.
Hasenhüttl will possibly also look to add another centre-half and ship out Jannik Vestergaard as soon as he can. However, Vestergaard might not be the only central-defender to leave Southampton during the next transfer window.
After an underwhelming season on loan, Kevin Danso is very likely to return to Augsburg. It just hasn’t worked out for the Austrian on the south coast. He has struggled to break into the first team, and when he has managed to play, he has been played in the wrong position.
It looks like the Saints are in for a huge defensive reshuffle once normality in the football world returns. It is very possible that as many as three defenders will leave St. Mary’s, and if Southampton want to push on next season - whenever that will be - they will need to sign quality replacements.
It remains to be seen how much money Hasenhüttl will be given when the transfer window opens, but it’s unlikely to be a lot. He will have to be very clever with his business as Saints really can’t afford to spend big money on players that don’t live up to their price tags after making a series of transfer blunders in recent seasons.