With the 2020/21 Premier League season on the horizon, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at Southampton and their prospects in the upcoming campaign.
They are not a club seeped deep in the history of English football, at least as far as silverware is concerned. For many, and unsurprisingly so, Southampton might even be just another club from the country, one that seldom competes for trophies at the business end of a season. The Saints are, nevertheless, an outfit that has a special place in the annals of English football history.
After all, they are the club that have given us some of the best players to have played the game within the country and beyond. Just take the Premier League era in isolation and the rich history of the Southampton football academy is evident already. The South Coast club has produced legends like Alan Shearer, the all-time Premier League top scorer, and Matt Le Tissier.
One of the best players in the past decade, Gareth Bale, emanated from the Southampton academy as well before joining Tottenham Hotspur and later Real Madrid. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Southampton and their youth setup, which has also developed other Premier League winners and players who are currently with some of the biggest clubs in England.
That is not where Southampton’s contribution to Premier League football ends. Apart from world-class academy graduates, they have also nurtured several brilliant footballers; players they bought on the cheap before they emerged on the radar of the bigwigs and joined them in big-money moves. The most notable players in this category are Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane.
However, despite getting ravaged by the who’s who of the Premier League quite regularly, the Saints have managed to hold their own in the division, especially since their return in 2012. In fact, for four seasons on the trot, Southampton finished in the top half of the table, even going on to European football twice.
2017/18 and 2018/19 ended up being difficult campaigns, but they now seem to be on the up again under the tutelage of Ralph Hasenhuttl after an 11th-placed finish last term. Let us now take a look back at their 2019/20 Premier League campaign before assessing what beckons them in the coming season.
Prelude – The Backdrop
After two seasons wherein they flirted with relegation, the pressure was on Ralph Hasenhuttl to steer Southampton away from the treacherous waters that are the bottom five places of the Premier League. However, in the first half of the 2019/20 season, it seemed like it was more of the same again.
The Saints started off on the worst note possible, suffering back-to-back defeats to Burnley and Liverpool, although they did put in a spirited effort against the Reds. Hasenhuttl & co. then went on a three-game unbeaten run, which included an impressive 1-1 draw with Manchester United. But, that was to be just a false dawn as they only raked in two points in the following eight outings.
This horrid run included the embarrassing 9-0 defeat to Leicester City on a rain-soaked night at St. Mary’s Stadium. This is when it appeared as if a long season beckoned Southampton once again as they dropped down to 19th spot on the Premier League table. In the next four games, they won and lost twice, meaning they remained in the drop zone.
However, this is when the club’s board chose to stand by Hasenhuttl, imposing their faith in his project. The confidence derived from this stance meant that the tide well and truly turned for Southampton, who slowly but surely found stable footing, never ending a gameweek in the bottom three spots.
In fact, Southampton lost just 6 of their final 21 games of the season, with Danny Ings going on a tear and finishing the campaign with 22 goals. The Saints notably beat Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Chelsea while also getting a measure of revenge on Leicester in addition to holding Manchester United to another draw.
With no defeats in their final seven games of the season, Southampton finished right outside the top ten, suggesting many more positives could be on the horizon in the 2020/21 season. But, what particularly keeps Hasenhuttl & co. in good stead is the away form last term, with only champions Liverpool and Manchester City having a better record than them on the road.
Southampton have not made many moves in the transfer market so far this summer, although they have made one solid addition in the form of promising young centre-back Mohammed Salisu, who was once even linked with Manchester United.
The 21-year-old has talent in bundles and while still quite raw, he showed a lot of maturity in his game during his stint with Real Valladolid. To begin with, however, Salisu will have a task at hand to usurp either of Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek, who have done little wrong to be displaced from the starting lineup just yet.
The young defender will also need to build up the requisite fitness level to reach Ralph Hasenhuttl’s enormous standards. Having said that, if Salisu’s performances in La Liga are anything to go by, Southampton seem to be set for years at the heart of their defence.
The other major arrival for Southampton this summer has been Kyle Walker-Peters, who joined on a permanent transfer from Tottenham. Spurs, though, have swooped Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg away from St. Mary’s Stadium while Cedric Soares joined Arsenal on a free transfer.
The only other movements around the club have been in the form of loan deals or returning loanees – the most notable of those being Mario Lemina’s season-long move to Fulham. The Saints, though, need to bolster their midfield following the departure of Hojbjerg.
To that end, Southampton have been linked with Leicester City prospect Hamza Choudhury, and it remains to be seen if they do end up signing him. Otherwise, it all appears to be quiet, as far as transfer rumblings are concerned and it will be interesting to see if Southampton make any late moves in the final month of the summer transfer window.
Southampton seem to have been handed a slightly tricky draw as far as their fixtures are concerned. While the Saints start off with what should be deemed a winnable game against a somewhat unsettled Crystal Palace, their next opponents will be a Tottenham side that will believe they are on the up again under Jose Mourinho.
Potential relegation battlers Burnley and West Bromwich Albion will be up next for the Saints, and it will be imperative to take the maximum six points from those games as in Gameweek 5, Ralph Hasenhuttl & co. will be up against a newly-formidable Chelsea.
Our 2020/21 #PLFixtures are ????????! ?
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) August 20, 2020
Then comes a run of seven games in which they face only one ‘Big Six’ side in Manchester United and Southampton will need to capitalise on this sequence of games if they have to be in a relatively comfortable position heading into the packed festive period. This period ends with games against Fulham and West Ham United, in which they will fancy their chances of grabbing the full quota.
The games will continue to come thick and fast in January and February, when they will be facing four of the ‘Big Six’ teams and a Leicester City side that will have high expectations from the 2020/21 season. It is in these two months when Southampton will need to be at their absolute best, lest they risk a freefall.
The end of the season, however, presents the chance to finish strongly, with Fulham, Leeds United and West Ham being their final three opponents, albeit not before three successive tricky fixtures against Manchester City, Leicester and Liverpool. The one against Leicester will be at St. Mary’s, in a game that presents them a chance to exorcise their demons. If they do so, a potential top half finish could well be on the cards.
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) August 22, 2020
Who else but Danny Ings to be the most pivotal player for Southampton? Last season, Ings’s phenomenal form was the single biggest reason why Southampton managed to stave off potential relegation and nearly breach the top half of the Premier League table.
Had Ings somehow managed to win the Golden Boot (he only finished one goal behind Jamie Vardy), it would have been the cherry on top. Nevertheless, it was a sensational campaign by the former Liverpool striker.
Having put his injury nightmares behind him for good, Ings will be hoping to contribute heavily for Southampton once again, perhaps even go a step further in the Golden Boot race. If he does so, the Saints will be in with a great chance of returning to the top ten in the 2020/21 Premier League.
For years, James Ward-Prowse was hailed as one of the most promising midfielders in the Premier League. But, for one reason or another, the 25-year-old has only managed to make gradual progress since breaking into the Southampton first-team setup nearly a decade ago. All that changed in the 2019/20 season, when he played every single game for Southampton, earning the faith of Ralph Hasenhuttl.
Showing great versatility and maturity, the English international has gone on to establish himself as a mainstay in the middle of the park while also being deployed in advanced positions at times. The season ended on a memorable note for Ward-Prowse, who was officially promoted to the role of being the Southampton club captain in June.
Now set to begin his first full season as the Saints’ skipper, Ward-Prowse will need to embrace the responsibility further. If signs from last season are anything to go by, the player is set to enjoy his best season ever in senior football. His confidence will be sky high too, after earning a recall to the national side and penning a five-year contract with his boyhood club.
When you look at Southampton’s 2019/20 Premier League campaign from a defensive point of view, it was a tale of two halves for them. However, as the season progressed, Ralph Hasenhuttl & co. became considerably more resilient at the back, conceding more than one goal in a game on just six times.
The focus now will be to continue the progress in defence, something that can be addressed by the arrival of Mohammed Salisu. The Ghanaian defender could be slowly eased in by Hasenhuttl as the season progresses.
But, if he can continue his upward trajectory, he has what it takes to bolster the Saints’ backline on his own. That will indeed by critical for Southampton if they are to establish a foothold in the upper half of the Premier League table once again. A big season awaits Salisu and Southampton.
For a couple of years, Southampton had been mired in the relegation battle and one would hardly be remiss in predicting the drop for the Saints last term. For a few months at the start of the season, it did appear that the popular prediction would come true, with the defence being brittle and the attack showing little bite.
Ralph Hasenhuttl, though, is not a coach to be taken lightly and he made the required changes to transform the fortunes of his side. The Saints did end the season strongly and the fact that there has been a short seven-week break between 2019/20 and 2020/21 could well help them carry forward the solid momentum they ended last season with.
Star striker Danny Ings, who will be crucial once again for Southampton, is of the same opinion and that is the case with The Hard Tackle as well. The author concurs with the prediction that Ralph Hasenhuttl & co. could do what Ronald Koeman and Claude Puel did a few years ago and a ninth-placed finish is what we are going with for Southampton.
THT Prediction: 9th
Author Prediction: 9th