After another summer of exodus for Southampton, the season draws to a close and fans have mixed reactions to how their season has gone.
Having lost manager Ronald Koeman to Everton, and stars Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mané and Graziano Pellè to Tottenham, Liverpool and Shandong Luneng respectively, the south coast club have rebuilt in the transfer window and have provided a fair challenge under new manager Claude Puel, who is taking charge of a club outside of his native France for the very first time.
The former Monaco midfielder made over 600 appearances for the Principality club in a playing career spanning 17 years and even managed the side for two years, before taking charge of Lille, Lyon and Nice.
He had the tough task of replicating Ronald Koeman’s impressive work with the Saints and even help them bode well in the Europa League, which they qualified for directly, having failed at the play-off stages the previous season.
And after 46 games so far this season, the jury is still out with English Premier League betting apps on whether or not his tenure has been a success on the south coast.
One positive that stands out is the manager’s role in improving the performances of several players, especially in defence following a long-term injury to star man Virgil van Dijk and the departure of long-serving captain José Fonte to West Ham United.
The emergence of 23-year-old Jack Stephens has caught the eye of many, impressing in the EFL Cup semi-final success over Liverpool and the subsequent round round – the harsh defeat against Manchester United at Wembley.
In his breakthrough year at the club, he has formed a fine partnership at the back with Japanese international Maya Yoshida amidst the absence of van Dijk.
Oriol Romeu, in particular, has been a key beneficiary of Puel’s new methods. The former Barcelona midfielder has put in a few solid performances in the Southampton midfield and has made 30+ appearances in a single season for the second consecutive season.
His display against Manchester City in October that ended in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad is often regarded as one of the best individual showings of any player over the course of the season, and he has shown his quality in Southampton’s run to the EFL Cup final.
Puel’s transfer activity has come under intense scrutiny this season.
The respective arrivals of Nathan Redmond from Norwich and Manolo Gabbiadini from Napoli have been relative successes – the latter arrived in the January window and has six goals in five appearances, even winning the PFA Fans’ Player of the Month award for February, which was his first full month at the club.
However, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg from Bayern Munich and Sofiane Boufal from Lille, the latter being the club’s record signing, have been unconvincing. Højbjerg has failed to cement a spot in the first-team after a decent start, while Boufal has shown glimpses of his quality, but the first six months of his stint have been tinged with recurrent injury, resulting in inconsistency.
Another criticism of the Saints’ boss can be his lack of focus towards the Europa League. Southampton were drawn against three-time European Cup/UEFA Champions League winners Inter Milan, Czech giants Sparta Prague and Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, and finished third in their group.
Puel sent out inexperienced players in most of his starting line-ups, with the only highlight of their campaign being a come-from-behind 2-1 success over Inter Milan at the St. Mary’s Stadium.
The same can be said about the FA Cup, where they were unconvincing in their replayed success over Norwich, before receiving a 5-0 home thumping at the hands of Arsenal after dropping several key players for the tie.
Claude Puel has also proven to be quite stubborn with his tactics and lacks a tendency to go for a Plan B.
That was evident in Southampton’s terrible league form between the end of December and the start of January where they lost four successive league games in a row, conceding ten goals in the process and scoring just two, collecting a 4-1 home thrashing against Tottenham and a 3-0 defeat against Everton at Goodison Park along the way.
However, he has shown off his capabilities at times this season, especially in the EFL Cup semi-final against Liverpool where his defensive shape and structure earned high praise as well as wins against West Ham United and Leicester City, where Southampton displayed their attacking prowess.
The Saints can only get better from here, and with seven rounds of Premier League football left to play, they can still, realistically, finish as high as eighth, which would be a decent end considering the changes they’ve been forced to make.
Next season can be a good one for star striker Manolo Gabbiadini as well if he’s able to get a full pre-season under his belt and Puel is still adapting to the English game after spending his whole career in France.
The appearance in the EFL Cup Final was a major boost to them and in hindsight, when you consider the ins and outs at the club, as well as the injury problems, this season can be considered as progression on Ronald Koeman’s work.
From a season of uncertainty, the Saints should look forward to a bright future ahead.