Ralph Hasenhüttl kept Saints afloat last season but the squad needed an overhaul and a relegation battle looks likely
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 17th (NB: this is not necessarily Michael Butler’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 15th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 500-1
When Southampton are good, they are a top-half Premier League team. And when they are bad, they are relegation-grade fodder. Since Ralph Hasenhüttl pitched up in late 2018, the problem is that you never know which version you’re going to get. Unfortunately, that’s about the most exciting bit about being a Southampton fan right now.
After failing to replace Danny Ings at the start of last season, Southampton took 10 matches to win their first game, and finished the campaign with a worse goal difference (-24) than relegated Burnley, with only a prosperous period in February keeping the club above the drop zone.
Transfers have been wayward for a while – the idea of Saints having a player good enough to sell to Liverpool these days seems a little far-fetched. This summer’s transfer policy of paying more than £23m for Manchester City academy players seems a little risky until you remember the success of both Tino Livramento and Armando Broja (from Chelsea) last season. If Southampton do one thing well, it’s spot a good youngster. It’s the rest of the recruitment you have to worry about.
Much depends on the fitness and form of captain James Ward-Prowse – top scorer (11 goals) and creator in chief (eight assists) last year – as well as whether they can find a goalscorer. Broja has gone back to Chelsea, Che Adams has had a mixed time while Adam Armstrong has failed to fill Danny Ings’ shoes after the latter left for Aston Villa a year ago.
“After spending time with Hasenhüttl, I can say I really like him and he’s really smart.” So said the club’s new owner, Dragan Solak, upon taking over in January. Solak spoke about building a top-10 team, but the likelihood is Hasenhüttl will again be fighting relegation as this is a squad that needed an overhaul, not a tweak. Heavy defeats are not limited to the 9-0s: Southampton finished last season with two draws and 10 losses in 13 matches, with five of those defeats being by a margin of at least three goals.
Many balked at the initial £12m deal for Roméo Lavia, an 18-year-old who had made just two senior appearances for Manchester City. But this is a player highly-rated by Pep Guardiola. Lavia was the sole teenage member of City’s academy to be named on their 21-strong squad for last season’s Champions League group stage and the Premier League champions have included a £40m buy-back clause in the deal with Saints. A defensive midfielder, the Belgian will provide competition for Oriol Romeu but has a better passing range and is more mobile than the Spaniard. Expect to see plenty of the youngster.
World Cup impact
Southampton have only a few absences, but the biggest issue will be in defence. Jan Bednarek (and new goalkeeper Mateusz Lis) will be on duty for Poland while Mohammed Salisu has quietly been developing into one of the most progressive centre-backs in the Premier League and the uncapped Ghanaian has finally been convinced to turn out for the Black Stars after saying he wanted to focus on his club career last year. Ward-Prowse has a chance of getting an England call-up.
Alternative attractions during World Cup
You could do a lot worse than skip town and head across the River Test into the New Forest. Or it’s a quick hop on the ferry to the Isle of Wight, which hosts festivals for music, classic cars and even garlic. The latter includes the famous Lamb National, in which sheep race around a circuit with toy jockeys on their backs.
Leading the shirt sales
Who else but “the best free-kick taker in the world”, according to Pep Guardiola: Ward-Prowse. The Portsmouth-born captain joined the Saints at the age of eight, and he has carried his side on his back for the last 12 months. The only issues with getting his name on the back of your shirt is a) how expensive all those letters are going to be b) if Ward-Prowse leaves before the transfer window shuts. Despite signing a new five-year deal last year, Tottenham and West Ham continue to be linked with him this summer.
Not even the club can beat Theo Walcott’s 2.8m followers on Instagram, but one suspects this is more to do with an Arsenal hangover than any ‘content’ the 33-year-old is punting into the ether. The best thing about this corner of the internet is that people have (largely) stopped listening to the conspiracy nonsense that Matt Le Tissier has been spewing out on his various social channels.
If Netflix did a Southampton doc …
There is probably a very sensible documentary to be made on Southampton’s academy, with Gareth Bale, Walcott, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers all breaking into the first team in the not-so-distant past. However, I think most people would rather watch a feature-length ‘film’ of another academy graduate, Ward-Prowse, just taking free-kicks. Eighty-five minutes of the skipper whipping it top bins? Yes, please.