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2019/20 has been a season of peaks and troughs for Southampton. A campaign that began with two victories and a draw in their opening five matches hit the skids in late September, when the Saints went eight matches without a win – reaching the nadir with a crushing 9-0 defeat at home to Leicester City in October.
The game looked to be up for Austrian boss Ralph Hasenhüttl, but to his credit the manager turned things around at St Mary’s, winning seven of their next 11 encounters as Southampton shot up the table.
Results may have tailed off in the weeks preceding the campaign’s current hiatus, but with 34 points it now feels unlikely that the Saints will drop into the Championship next season. Thoughts can, therefore, turn to the summer, when Hasenhüttl will have to wrestle with how to eliminate the inconsistency from his team’s performances.
Recruitment will be key as always, but it’s an area that will need improvement – the South Coast side have made a series of calamitous signings in recent years, in contrast to the smart business they became famed for under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman.
Nonetheless, there is a feeling at St Mary’s that the building blocks are in place for further improvement over the coming seasons, if the board are able to navigate the potentially choppy waters of a post-coronavirus transfer market.
We’ve taken a look at where the Saints need to strengthen in the next transfer window, if they’re to push for a Europa League finish – rather than getting dragged into a relegation battle – in 2020/21…
Southampton are well stocked when it comes to goalkeepers, even if none of their options particularly stand out as star performers in this team. Alex McCarthy looks to have nailed down the No.1 spot and Angus Gunn is a perfectly able deputy (though whether he was worth a £13.5million outlay is another matter entirely).
Fraser Forster is excelling on loan at Celtic but the Saints will surely be keen to sell him in the summer to free up funds, after he signed a lucrative five-year contract back in 2017.
Verdict: Hasenhüttl should be content with his goalkeeping options. This is an area where it’s more about getting at least one player out of the door, rather than bringing anyone in.
It’s at the back where major improvements need to be made in the summer. Southampton have tried to strengthen at centre-back for the past few seasons but have recruited poorly – Jannik Vestergaard (£15million from Lazio) appear significantly out of their depth, while Kevin Danso doesn’t look to have done enough to make his loan move from Augsburg permanent.
There are positives though. 24-year-old Jan Bednarek (a £5.7million purchase from Lech Poznan in 2017) has proved to be a remarkably shrewd acquisition and long-serving defender Jack Stephens has stepped up to the plate in the absence of any alternative options.
But with Maya Yoshida set to leave when his contract expires in June, a first class centre-back to marshal a defence that has conceded an average of 1.79 goals a game in 2019/20 is an absolute priority.
Right-back needs addressing too. Working on the assumption that Kyle Walker-Peters returns to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer (and that Cédric Soares departs), it feels like a big ask for 21-year-old Yan Valery to become the main man next season. It would make more sense to bring in a starting full-back and use the Frenchman as a rotation option.
Much will depend on budgetary constraints, but the Saints are also in need of cover at left-back. Matt Targett’s move to Aston Villa last summer (albeit for a healthy £11.5million fee) has meant that youngster Jake Vokins and Sam McQueen are the only options in this position if first choice Ryan Bertrand gets injured – more depth than that is surely needed for next season.
Verdict: It’s hard to underestimate just how much work needs to be done to this Southampton backline. It would certainly help to free up funds if Leicester City were to revive their interest in Vestergaard this summer, but signing a top-quality central defender and first-team ready right-back are both absolutely essential (with a left-back also desirable). Getting this right will be the difference between success and failure in 2020/21.
Hasenhüttl’s men are strongest in the middle of the park, where the likes of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse are all more than capable of starting in the central midfield berths next season.
Youngster Will Smallbone may also step up to compete with that trio, but there are concerns about possible departures – Højbjerg and Romeu are both out of contract in June 2021 and the Saints board may look to cash in if either are unwilling to sign a new deal.
Mario Lemina could become an option upon completion of his loan spell at Galatasaray, but it’s more likely that he will move on to another club in the summer. Likewise, Harrison Reed (currently on loan at Fulham) will probably depart.
There’s quality out wide too, with 2018/19 Player of the Year Nathan Redmond in Southampton’s ranks. Add in the exciting Moussa Djenepo, Stuart Armstrong and the inconsistent (but occasionally brilliant) Sofiane Boufal, and this doesn’t feel like a priority area.
Despite an impressive season with Celtic (scoring seven goals in all competitions), Mohamed Elyounoussi’s time on the South Coast is probably up, while youngster Josh Sims could also be on the move.
Verdict: An additional winger could be useful, but it’s far from the most important use of Southampton’s budget in the summer. The centre of midfield looks good too, but possible departures could force the Saints to bring someone in.
Danny Ings has become the first name on the teamsheet, after a season that’s seen him score 15 Premier League goals (0.63 goals per 90 minutes played). Shane Long has proved to be an adequate strike partner, but questions remain over Ché Adams – the 23-year-old has failed to score since arriving from Birmingham City for £15million last summer.
Youngster Michael Obafemi is a useful bench option, but Southampton are lacking a physical focal point upfront. Everything about Guido Carrillo’s time at the club indicates he is unlikely to become that player, so a new target man should be high on Hasenhüttl’s summer wish list.
Verdict: A new striker isn’t as important as defensive acquisitions, but it should nonetheless be high on the list of priorities. If Leeds United show interest in Adams – as they did in January – then one in, one out could be the order of the day at St Mary’s.
Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether Hasenhüttl himself will sign a new deal with the club. Recent reports have indicated that an agreement has been reached over a three-year contract, but as yet nothing has been signed and sealed.
Verdict: Despite a shaky start this season, Hasenhüttl is absolutely key to Southampton’s chances of playing in European competition over the next couple of seasons. His footballing philosophy gives the club a clear identity and the squad appear to have bought into his methodology. Getting this summer's recruitment right is vital to the Saints fulfilling their potential, but their manager is the most important piece of the puzzle.