Premier League Preview: Southampton
Posted by Featured Articles | Published on August 7, 2016
Since returning to the Premier League in the 2012/13 season Southampton are on their third coach in four years. Though they had their best two seasons in the last two years, it may be difficult for them to maintain that high of a finish this season. After being maligned for selling many high profile players after both the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons it was a shock to Saint fan and observer alike when their most successful manager in the club’s history, Ronald Koeman, left after two years. That said, it must be fair to point out that the team, Dutchman Koeman, inherited from Mauricio Pochettino, before the Argentine took the job at Tottenham the following year, finished a more than respectable 8th place their first year back in the EPL. Koeman, despite selling such high-profile players as, Rickie Lambert, captain Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, and Morgan Schneiderlin, took Southampton to 7th and 6th; both setting records for the club in the top flight of English football. Such success may well have been the underdog story of the season if not for the well documented rise of Leicester City, such success made it all the more of a surprise how quickly Koeman took the helm at Everton. Whereas in the last couple of seasons most unknown for the Saints was how their changed squad would compare to the previous team, this season the biggest unknown is their new coach Claude Puel.
Puel may not be familiar to many Southampton fans or many EPL fans as his football has been played and coached entirely in France. Most recently coach of Nice for three seasons, taking them from 17th in the prior season to 4th, 17th again, and then again to 4th. Puel achieved more success as a player, playing his entire career at Monaco where he claimed two championships and three French Cups, and where three years after retiring, in 1999 he would have his first coaching job. Even with winning the French Championship in 2000 his contract was not renewed. Puel has coached in Ligue 1 since, that is until this summer when he joined the Saints.
In 2002 Puel joined Lille and would go on to coach for six years, at the time making him one of the longest serving managers in France. In his second year at Lille he would guide a team that for the two previous years, only having just been promoted, had languished in the bottom of the Ligue table, all the way to 2nd. After finishing in 5th with Lille in 2009 Puel left to join Lyon who finished 3rd that same season. In the two years that Puel was at OL he was able to get them to 2nd the following year, and only 3rd the next, the same year Lille were champions. To his credit Puel did guide OL to their first Champions League semi-final in the club’s history in 2010. Lyon terminated Puel in 2011. The following year he joined Nice.
The road from France to England is not long but one need only look to Rémi Garde to see it is not easy. Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger being the notable exception, and for Puel a reasonable man to emulate as he takes over a very Dutch influenced football style, especially considering that Puel played under Wenger during his time in Monaco. The new French coach to the EPL is off to a promising start winning three and drawing one of their pre-season games, highlighted by a dominating 1-2 performance against FC Twente, the former club of the Saints’ Dušan Tadić and Cuco Martina. If only judging Claude Puel from these games two things are clear, he understands the rigours of running a professional footbal club, resting Tadić as a precaution in an earlier game, and showing Twente that he could line his team up to play controlling football.
A new coach is not unfamiliar to Saints fans, and neither is high profile player departures. Victor Wanyama left for Tottenham for a fee believed to be around £12 million and Sadio Mané left to join Liverpool for a fee of around £34. Southampton fans also saw long serving, but aging, Graziano Pellé leave to China’s Shandong Luneng for an estimated fee of £13 million.
Being the midfield’s most experienced player it will be imperative for the Saints that Tadić holds together the new and existing players in the center of the pitch. As a team that likes to play the ball through midfield it will be key that Tadić adapts to their new coach, if he is not playing a leading role it may be difficult for the other two main midfield players to connect.
Only having two recognized, or named, forwards, Southampton will have to rely on Austin. The 27 year old striker is a name familiar to most who have followed English football, but not a name that jumps off the page. If Austin can replicate his first two seasons with QPR, scoring 20, and 18 respectively he will have a lot to say about how The Saints season looks.
Their only other named forward is Jay Rodriguez, who also at aged 27 must look to recapture his form for the Saints before his injury, scoring 17 goals in the 2013/14 season.
One To Watch
With what could turn out to be a shrewd bit of business, Puel signed Pierre-Emile Højbjerg from Bayern München for £12.8 million which will help offset the sales. On Danish midfielder Højbjerg’s debut for Bayern he was the youngest player ever to play for Bayern Munich’s first team in the Bundesliga. Højbjerg scored only 3 goals in 16 appearances for Bayern and spent the last season and a half on loan before being sold to the Saints. He was named “Danish under-17 player of the year” and has had 153 appearances for club and country, including his youth career. It will be key that this twenty year old Dane finds a good relationship with club stalwarts like midfielders Tadić and Jordy Clasie, as well as finding ways to connect with Charlie Austin and new winger Nathan Redmond, who scored 11 goals since the 2013 season with Norwich.
In addition to Højbjerg and Redmond, Puel completed the purchase of French defender Jérémy Pied from Nice, Puel and Pied have a history together, the full-back played under Puel just last season. This kind of familiarity, as well as Pied’s steady defending should do well to firm up the Saint’s defense. Only two players, Djibril Sidibé of Lille and Issiaga Sylla of Toulouse, made more tackles and interceptions in France’s Ligue 1 last season than Pied, who had 221.
Preseason is going well for Southampton and a new coach can often lift the spirit of a team trying to impress him. Puel is not done shopping either, already linked with another goalkeeper, 23 year old Alex McCarthy from Crystal Palace to challenge Forster, and Southampton have opened talks with Anderlecht over teenage wonderkid Samuel Bastien. It’s clear from Puel that he is happy with his team but knows he still has work to do as he told the Saints YouTube channel.
“We progress, we improve. You can make things better, but it’s interesting to see these players with good listening… I think the players are a little tired, which is normal, but I am satisfied. To win is important, but to play good football is more important for the moment.”
Puel may be well suited to Southampton, and will bring some new ideas for sure. The need to rest Tadić strategically in preseason more than once does not bode well for their defence, one new fullback is not enough considering the attacking talent on offer this season in the EPL. Southampton will need to look to their midfield players for goals, like new signing Redmond, as it will be tough for either main forward, Austin or Rodriguez to get enough goals to beat their sixth place finish last season.