Before you could blink an eye, the Premier League is back.
Saints fans have every right to be feeling optimistic going into the 2020-21 season after the form shown by Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men towards the end of the last campaign.
When play resumed following a pause that was forced due to the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic (WEAR A MASK), Southampton were third in the form table under both Manchester United and Manchester City.
Let’s hope that kind of momentum follows Saints into the new season.
Here are five things I would like to see from Southampton in the campaign ahead.
Southampton to resume their run of continuous improvement
Southampton’s ascent back up the Football League to the English top tier was aided by year-on-year improvement in performances and league position.
That form started in 2009-10 (over 10 years ago now... time flies) and continued on when Southampton reached the Premier League under Nigel Adkins and then improved on by Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman until 2015/16.
2009-10: 7th in League One.
2010-11: 2nd in League One (promotion)
2011-12: 2nd in Championship (promotion)
2012-13: 14th in Premier League
2013-14: 8th in Premier League
2014-15: 7th in Premier League (Europa League qualification)
2015-16: 6th in Premier League (Europa League group stages)
I wanted Saints to continue the trend of continuous improvement last season and they did.
After a fall down the Premier League pecking order, Mark Hughes barely managed to keep Southampton up in the 2017-18 season.
Ralph Hasenhuttl stepped in to save a flailing Saints in 2018-2019, leading his side to a 16th-placed berth in the league away from the relegation danger, before leading Southampton to 11th in the Premier League last season.
When you look at the overall picture of Southampton last season, it was a marked improvement in performance on the pitch and was backed up by the league table.
We are now on a three-season run of continuous improvement and I would like to see that continue - even if it’s mere improvement of one league position to finish in 10th.
2017-18: 17th in Premier League
2018-19: 16th in Premier League
2019-20: 11th in Premier League
2020-21: 10th in Premier League or higher??
Continue bringing through Southampton Academy products
Marked by Will Smallbone’s goal against Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup third round, seen celebrated with other Southampton academy graduates James Ward-Prowse and Jake Vokins above, Ralph Hasenhuttl has shown he is willing to give Southampton’s homegrown players a chance.
That may be partially due to necessity. Southampton chairman Gao Jisheng is either unwilling or unable - perhaps both - to invest his money into the side.
Squads are likely to be stretched in this new season and Hasenhuttl will have to look to pluck players from the youth teams he has at his disposal to flesh out a thin roster.
It’s expected that certain players such as Smallbone, Vokins, Michael Obafemi and Yan Valery will see minutes this season. However, it would be great to see players like Callum Slattery and Kayne Ramsay get some game time if they aren’t sent away on loan.
Then there are the former academy players who are firmly in the fringes of the Southampton first team.
Will the likes of Josh Sims and Sam McQueen get to their opportunities to play? They were players who featured a fair amount under the guidance of Claude Puel three years ago, but haven’t really had a look in since. Jake Hesketh is another player who hasn’t really been given a chance after injuries interrupted his opportunities in the first team.
With Hasenhuttl establishing the style he wants Southampton to play from first team down to its youth teams, the pathway from academy football to the Premier League is well-established for Saints thanks to the Austrian manager.
It would be fantastic to see some more academy players break through into the first team, as well as opportunities given to those who are now in their mid-20s but can do a job as proper squad players for Southampton.
A good Southampton cup run
Like last season, any hopes of a good cup run has to be in tandem with success in the league. I can’t say I’m fond of the idea of doing things Wigan Athletic style, winning an FA Cup with relegation looming.
Saying that, it would also be truly bitter-sweet if Southampton were to have any success in the cups if things hadn’t returned to normal by then and fans would not be able to witness such feats in person.
Those things aside, it’s about time Saints have another crack at a final or semi-final in either of the big domestic cups while there isn’t any European football to contend with.
A team like Southampton would typically need a decently-sized squad to compete in the cups even without European football. Saints don’t necessarily have that luxury, but they haven’t for a considerable amount of time.
Southampton’s amazing 2016-17 League Cup run which saw them beat 2019-20 Premier League champions Liverpool over two legs to reach the final against Manchester United came during a season where Claude Puel smartly managed his squad to cope with Premier League and Europa League football alongside that cup run.
Saints haven’t won a thing since the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy a decade ago. Again, time flies. And, of course, our beloved club hasn’t won any major silverware before or since their 1976 FA Cup.
Hasenhuttl hasn’t won a cup either, having only led RB Leipzig to the 2. Bundesliga champions trophy during his managerial career.
Last season’s Carabao Cup adventure saw Southampton obliterate Portsmouth. That was fantastic, but a cup win might taste even sweeter. I say might because we don’t really know how it feels to win major silverware.
Let’s find out this season.
Danny Ings to stay fit and continue banging in the goals
Ah, Danny Ings.
It’s strange to think that Southampton’s own wasn’t really considered a first-team starter at the beginning of last season.
That aforementioned game against Portsmouth kick-started Ings’ prolonged spell as Southampton’s leading man and regular goalscorer.
Touch wood, it appears Ings has overcome the kind of injuries that blighted his spell at Liverpool and he has never looked more lethal in front of goal.
After converting a penalty to make it 3-1 against Sheffield United on the final day of Saints’ Premier League season, Ings notched 22 league goals for Southampton with 25 in all competitions. That saw Ings finish joint-second for the Premier League Golden Boot alongside Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and one goal behind Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy.
It’s no secret that Southampton were reliant - perhaps over-reliant - on Ings’ goalscoring prowess last season. While that’s not a good thing, it’s definitely a bloody brilliant thing that we finally have a striker who can actually find the back of the net.
But it isn’t just his goals. Ings is a really intelligent forward who has proven to be adaptable to play well alongside any of Che Adams, Shane Long or Michael Obafemi.
His hold up play is great and he has a keen eye for an incisive pass to either set up opportunities for his teammates or himself as play evolves.
He is also absolutely vital in Southampton’s pressing game, winning the ball up the pitch on countless occasions last season. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player score so many cheeky goals after nicking the ball off an unsuspecting defender or goalkeeper in one season.
Ings has already gained hero status among Southampton fans and he finished last season playing fantastic football for the club he grew up supporting.
Long may that continue.
James Ward-Prowse to continue being Southampton’s cynical club captain
Having signed a new five-year contract at Southampton, James Ward-Prowse has a fair amount riding on his first full season as Saints captain.
I haven’t always been sold on Ward-Prowse, but he has absolutely blossomed under the guidance of Hasenhuttl.
He may have grown up a Portsmouth fan, but Ward-Prowse is as red and white as his teammate Ings is.
A model professional at the club, Ward-Prowse is rarely sidelined with injury and has been ever-present in the Saints starting line-up for a considerable amount of time under Hasenhuttl. He will also be buoyed on his recent call up to the England national team, making his first start for the Three Lions against Iceland a couple of weeks ago.
Ward-Prowse has a knack for scoring really important goals and that particular aspect of his game has improved over the last two seasons, netting 12 times from midfield over the last two Premier League seasons.
Not only that, he has also developed a really enjoyable nasty streak which exemplifies how aggressive Southampton now plays in the press.
Wilfried Zaha, who could be facing off with Ward-Prowse later today, knows too well how much of a wind-up merchant the Saints captain is these days.
We absolutely love to see it. More of the same please, James.
That’s it. I hope you enjoyed this stream of consciousness written on a Saturday morning in nervous anticipation of the new Premier League season.
While anxious at the thought of another poor showing on the opening day of the season, I am confident Southampton can carry forward the impressive momentum they gained after last season’s restart.
Ralph Hasenhuttl has proven to be the man Southampton needs and he is now blessed with a few characters who have really stepped up to the plate for him - namely Ings, Ward-Prowse, Nathan Redmond, Ryan Bertrand and Jack Stephens.
This is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable Southampton squads for some time and Hasenhuttl has to earn the majority of credit for that.
Let’s hope Southampton can continue to improve year on year. Who knows, if Saints can achieve another bettered league position this season, could we be playing European football in 2021-22?
Agree, disagree, or have something else you want to see from Saints this season which is within the realms of possibility? Let us know!