Southampton 2017-18 Season Preview: Another new manager looks to get the Saints back on track

After an underwhelming campaign last time out, can Mauricio Pellegrino's men put aside off-field drama and bring the feel-good factor back to St Mary's?

Southampton 2017-18 Season Preview: Another new manager looks to get the Saints back on track
Southampton will look to bounce back from a disappointing 2016-17 season under new manager Mauricio Pellegrino. Photo: Getty.

There is no such thing as a quiet summer at Southampton Football Club anymore. Managerial signings, transfer requests, and never-ending rumours have become commonplace on the south coast from May through to August, and things have not been too different to the norm this time around. 

The Saints have a new manager, a couple of new signings, and go into their Premier League opener against Swansea this Saturday off the back of a generally solid pre-season. However, the ongoing Virgil Van Dijk saga is a major distraction which they could do without.

Nevertheless, if there is one club that have shown they can put aside what's going on away from the pitch, it is Southampton. And in order to improve after a difficult campaign last season, they will have to do just that.

Last season: Constant progression finally ends

This time last year, the mood around St Mary's was very much one of optimism and excitement about the season ahead. Sure, the Saints had seen three key players leave in Sadio ManeGraziano Pelle, and Victor Wanyama, as well as manager Ronald Koeman departing to Everton, but there was a genuine belief that these losses could be overcome. 

Yet despite this, it was not a vintage season for Southampton. New manager Claude Puel could not fill the sizeable shoes left behind by Koeman, and the Saints struggled to find any sort of consistency. The constant squad rotation prevented players forming any sort of relationships on the pitch, which led to the inexcusable failure to qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League.

After the European exit, spirits were lifted at the start of 2017, as Southampton saw off Liverpool to reach the EFL Cup final. Yet it wasn't to be for the plucky Saints, as they went down 3-2 to Manchester United at Wembley, in spite of a supreme brace by January signing Manolo Gabbiadini. 

Southampton celebrate Gabbiadini's second at Wembley. The cup run was the highlight of a poor season under Puel. Photo: Getty.

Following the cup final heartache, it appeared the Southampton players could not wait for the season to end. They laboured through their final 10 games, played breathtakingly boring football, and struggled to find the back of the net. 

Even though the Saints somehow finished in eighth place (two places below the campaign before), Puel was sacked at the end of the season. After improving their league position in each of the previous six seasons, Southampton had at last taken a backward step, and it was their French manager that paid the price.

New man in the hot seat

With Puel gone, Southampton were once again on the hunt for a new manager. Just over a week later, they had found their replacement, with Alaves boss Mauricio Pellegrino swapping Spain for the Saints.

Southampton swiftly replaced Puel with Pellegrino. Photo: Getty.

Just like Puel before him, the Argentinian has never previously managed in England, and will need to adapt quickly to win over the Southampton faithful, something which his predecessor couldn't achieve. 

At just 45 years of age, Pellegrino is relatively inexperienced as managers go, but has enjoyed some success in his short career so far. Most notably, in his single season at Alaves, he guided the newly-promoted side to a very respectable ninth place in La Liga, as well as reaching the Copa Del Rey Final. However, the style, speed, and competitiveness of the Premier League will present a totally new challenge for him.

Virgil Van Dijk and other transfer news

Unquestionably, Southampton's best player for the last two seasons has been centre-back Virgil Van Dijk. The Dutchman is entering his prime, and is as close to the complete defender as anything in the Premier League.

Consequently, it came as no surprise when some of the top clubs in the country began to tempt Van Dijk away from St Mary's, with Liverpool seemingly the front-runners. 

Southampton are battling hard to hold on to Van Dijk. Photo: Getty. 

Initially, the Reds withdrew their interest after Southampton reported them to the FA for illegally approaching their man but, after Van Dijk handed in an official transfer request earlier this week, the deal could still be on. 

The 25-year-old is desperate for a move, and has trained in isolation for the majority of pre-season, after expressing his desire to be sold. However, with five years still left on contract, Southampton are not keen at all to let him go, regardless of the sum of money they would receive in return.

As a result, it looks as if Van Dijk will still be a Southampton player come the end of the transfer window, whether he likes it or not. What's more, if he does not withdraw his demand to leave a show his true commitment to the Saints, there is every likelihood he could spend the entire season watching on from the stands.

Elsewhere, Southampton have been relatively inactive in the transfer window. The only acquisitions are young Polish centre-back Jan Bednarek, and Gabonese defensive midfielder Mario Lemina.

The Lemina signing was confirmed yesterday. Photo: Getty.

Despite being young and inexperienced, Bednarek could be a regular fixture in the Saints side, especially if Van Dijk continues to hold out for a move. He will have to perform well to break up the partnership of Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens though, as the pair performed very well together last season when Van Dijk was injured.

Lemina meanwhile, could go straight into the starting XI. At only 23, he has already made a name for himself with impressive performances at his previous club Juventus. While he was not good enough to consistently merit a place in the side at the Italian super-club, he could thrive at Southampton, with his direct and physical style well-suited to the English game.

Unusually, departures from the Saints have been few and far between so far this summer, although forward Jay Rodriguez and right-back Cuco Martina are the most notable players to move on; to West Brom and Everton respectively.

Pre-season

Southampton have played five pre-season friendlies; winning two, drawing two and losing one. Stalemates against Swiss side St Gallen and Brentford were followed by a morale-boosting 3-0 win against St-Etienne in France. 

The Saints' unbeaten pre-season came to an emphatic end in their opening game under Pellegrino at St Mary's, as they were hammered 4-0 by Augsburg. Nevertheless, a 2-0 victory over Sevilla four days later has calmed the nerves ahead of Saturday.

Southampton have favoured a 4-3-3 formation so far under their new manager, with the whole squad being given plenty of opportunities to impress.

Southampton finished off pre-season with a good victory over Sevilla. Photo: Getty.

Strengths

- Although the Van Dijk saga has not been ideal, Southampton enter the new season for the first time in four years with a squad which is very similar to last year.

- Players such as Sofiane Boufal and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg have had a season to find their feet in England, and can now kick on. 

- In Manolo Gabbiadini and Charlie Austin, the Saints have two players who have the potential to score 20 goals a season.

- Southampton do not have to juggle European and domestic commitments this season, something which seemed to hamper them in the first half of last campaign.

- In Virgil Van Dijk, Southampton have one of the best centre-backs in the league. They just need to keep him and get him to play...

Weaknesses

- Manager Pellegrino will have a tough task on his hands to adapt to the Premier League.

- If Van Dijk goes, Southampton will have lost a serious talent.

- A key problem last season was a lack of goals, and the Saints are yet to purchase an attacking player, let alone a striker.

- Similarly, Southampton had several poor performances last season, and haven't strengthened substantially.

Players to watch

Despite perhaps under-achieving last time out, Southampton do still possess plenty of exciting talent. Supporters will be hoping that this year is the one when James Ward-Prowse makes the jump from promising youngster to the first name on the team sheet. The midfielder impressed at times under Puel, and now needs to build on that to realise his limitless potential.

It will also be interesting to see if Manolo Gabbiadini can re-discover the form of his opening games for Southampton. The Italian striker scored six times in his first four games after signing from Napoli in January, but did not find the net again after that.

Finally, it is a big season for winger Sofiane Boufal. After signing last summer for a then club-record fee, the Moroccan could not live up to the hype in his debut season with the Saints. Nevertheless, if he can produce his occasional flashes of brilliance on a more regular basis, he could light up the Premier League.

Can Sofiane Boufal learn from a tough first season in English football? Photo: Getty.

Predicted finish

With a new manager and the uncertainty surrounding Van Dijk, it is very difficult to pinpoint where Southampton will finish in the coming season.

Much depends on how the situation plays out with the Dutch international, but with a similar squad to last season, Saints fans should expect to finish near to last season.

However, there is surely no way they will be lucky enough to finish as high as eighth this time, and so many are predicting them to finish in the ninth or tenth spot.

While relegation should not be an issue, nothing is out of the question in the Premier League. Equally, Southampton begin the season with five games against teams that finished in the bottom half in the previous campaign, or who have just been promoted. Win all of them, which is admittedly unlikely if the Saints' inconsistency continues, and anything is possible.

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