Are there rays of optimism in the sky above St Mary’s?


Markstone expects Jannik Vestergaard to make a big impact this year
Photo: Sky Sports

Are there rays of optimism in the sky above St Mary’s?

by Matt Markstone

Matt Markstone is the host of the SFC Dellivery podcast and a guest writer on Southampton for Prost International.  Check out his podcast at

Last season:
Premier League: 17th
FA Cup: Semi-Finals (Lost to Chelsea)
Carabao Cup: 3rd Round (Lost to Wolves)

For most Saints fans, the less said about last season the better. A dull managerial appointment in Mauricio Pellegrino was followed by on-pitch displays that lacked both passion and cohesion. After grinding out an 8th place finish under Claude Puel in 16/17 playing a similar possession style of football, it was clear by mid-season that Pellegrino had to go.

After a 3-0 defeat at Newcastle, the board released Pellegrino and brought in Mark Hughes, who did everything he could to organize, galvanize and inspire the squad. It was just enough, and as a result Saints fans all over the world get to enjoy another season in the Premier League, one with a brighter outlook (hopefully).

Hughes Stays

After keeping the team up last season with a scrappy goal on a cold, rainy night in Wales, Saints extended Mark Hughes’ contract, keeping him at the club though the 2020/2021 season. He’s won the majority of the fans over as a result of his playing days at the club and keeping the club in the top flight last season. It is hard to understate the impact Hughes attitude has made on the players.

After two laid-back managers who struggled to communicate with the fans, media and players, Hughes came in and has addressed the major issues head on, from Hotel Gate (the Marriott in Swansea will never be the same), to the formation used on the pitch and the roles of players at the club.

In short, Hughes is a perfect a fit for Saints right now. He will lead the out with his head held high, and the players and fans will follow.

World Cup woes?

Pre-season during a World Cup year is always tricky, but Saints were blessed in some ways as many members of the squad missed out on a trip to Russia. The only returning players to represent their country were Cedric (Portugal, RB), Yoshida (Japan, CB), and Bednarek (Poland, CB).

Tadic (Serbia, RW) was also on Southampton’s books when attending the tournament, but left for Ajax immediately upon his return. Jannik Vestergaard (Denmark, CB) also made the trip to Russia and was signed by the club from Borussia Mönchengladbach following his country’s exit from the competition.

As a result, the majority of the squad, were able to work with Hughes in preparing for this season. The result has been a new formation for the club and a clear emphasis on getting forward and creating chances rather than playing a possession based game as has been the case under the last two managers. This has been the first real opportunity for Hughes to work with the squad members for an extended period of time, which should mean Saints are ready to take on whatever comes their way this season.

A return to normality

Southampton has long been looked upon as having a well run academy, with prospects being identified and brought up in the mold of the club. From Gareth Bale to James Ward-Prowse, the club has long focused on bringing through its youth players. That has stagnated a bit in recent seasons, with fewer and fewer youth team players getting meaningful minutes for the club. The result has divided the fan base over the past few seasons, but Saints summer business hints that we could see more youth players in the squad.

In addition to developing prospects from a young age, Saints have also been rather ruthless in the transfer market. They were among the best at identifying and bringing in talent from abroad, whether they were stars at small clubs or fringe players at big ones, working to improve and refine their game, and moving them on for big fees after a few seasons.

In recent seasons, though, other clubs have begun using similar methods of scouting, and Saints are finding it harder and harder to find the diamonds scattered throughout the leagues. This coupled with the high turnover in managers over the past few seasons, means the squad is bloated, often with players who no longer fit the system and some who simply aren’t good enough. Consider that two of the club’s record signings, Sofiane Boufal (Puel’s signing) and Guido Carrillo (Pellegrino’s signing) had to be loaned out this season. The club has over £40 million worth of player out on loan.

However, Saints seem to have returned to their methods of old this summer. They have addressed issues in the squad and brought in talented players from all over Europe that fit the mold of the “Southampton Way.”

With the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Mohamed Elyounoussi, Angus Gunn, Jannik Vestergaard, and deadline day Danny Ings, Saints should be ready to deploy a more forward thinking lineup this season, and with most of the players likely having one more major move in the careers, Saints are once again able to look forward, while still putting out a quality product on the pitch this season.

Now what?

The 2018/2019 Premier League season will be one of refocusing for the club. After going to Wembley twice in two seasons, and being in Europe in 2016/2017, Saints will be looking to have a solid league campaign. There are still concerns over the squad, and after two seasons of slow, tedious football, fans are expecting a bit more pace and attack from the club.

Realistically, Saints should expect to finish between 12th-14th, avoiding a real relegation battle, but not challenging for a European place. If things go extremely well, perhaps a top-half finish is a possibility. If so, expect former youth team players such as Matt Targett and Josh Sims, as well as Sam McQueen and Harrison Reed to get more chances this season, even if they are deployed in different roles than they’ve played in the past. You can also expect the new signings to have a profound impact on the squad, with Vestergaard to make the most appearances of anyone in the side during the course of the year.

In summary, Hughes will motivate the squad made up of screwed signings and youth team players to attack and play with a bit more flair than in past seasons. A cup run, although ideal, isn’t necessary for a good season. The goal is to stay clear of relegation and be involved and in contention for points in every match.

Prediction 13th

Players In:
Stuart Armstrong (Celtic), Mohamed Elyounoussi (FC Basel), Angus Gunn (Manchester City), Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Danny Ings (loan, Liverpool).

Players Out:
Dusan Tadic (Ajax), Florin Gardos (CSU Craiova), Olufela Olomola (Scunthorpe), Armani Little (released), Jeremy Pied (released), Ollie Cook (released), Richard Bakary (released), Stuart Taylor (released), Will Wood (released). Guido Carrillo (loan, CD Leganes), Ryan Seager (loan, Telestar), Sofiane Boufal (loan, Celta Vigo), Jordy Clasie (loan, Feyenoord).



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