2023 has been an eventful year for Southampton football club. There were highs: (almost) beating then front-runners Arsenal at the Emirates, denying Manchester City the quadruple (Nathan Jones really was the best in Europe for about a day), and doing the double over Chelsea. But more often there were lows, namely the almost weekly inept football leading to an excruciatingly slow march to relegation.
But the 2nd half of 2023 has brought a new exciting manager in Russell Martin playing an entertaining system and Saints fans are optimistic about the season to come. Thus far Southampton has retained almost all of its talent whilst bringing in several exciting new faces.
Friendlies against Benfica, Göztepe, Reading, and Bournemouth have given us a good look at how the Saints will play in 2023-2024. With little over a week remaining until Southampton FC’s first game back in the Championship since 2012, let’s dissect what we have learned about Southampton so far, specifically which areas of weakness need improvement, and who they will rely on heavily next season.
The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same
I wrote back in June about the Saints’ struggles between the sticks in 2022-2023. Well, Southampton has stuck with Gavin Bazunu and Alex McCarthy, and thus far the same issues have reared their ugly heads. Bazunu has a great command of his box and is good with his feet, but had a penchant for letting in soft goals last season.
Thus far he has been out of position for one against Reading, and let two additional weak shots sneak underneath him (one against Reading and one against Göztepe). Bazunu has frustrated Saints fans in his young career; he is capable of pulling off spectacular saves, such as this one against Benfica, but his inconsistency has his number-one status in question.
His challenger, Alex McCarthy, has also not covered himself in glory. Russell Martin wants to play out from the back, and this demands a goalkeeper comfortable with his feet. Comfortable with his feet, McCarthy is not. His short passing is often mishit putting his center backs in difficult positions, and his long distribution is wayward.
Against Bournemouth McCarthy’s passing was a real issue, and led to several Bournemouth chances. McCarthy remains a talented shot-stopper, but generally stays glued to his line and is poor coming for crosses, which cost the Saints a goal against Bournemouth as well as several other half chances this preseason.
So all in all Saints have one keeper who is good at claiming crosses and passing but shaky at stopping shots and another who has two left feet but can stop shots. Unfortunately, they cannot take the best attributes of both and combine them, thus Rasmus Ankersen, Jason Wilcox, and the rest of the Southampton decision-makers have a big job on their hands addressing this all-important position.
The Saints are Still Learning to Play from the Back
Much has been made of Southampton and new manager Russell Martin wanting to play extreme possession and build-up football. After four preseason games, we have been treated to both the positives and negatives of this system. The positives: Saints regularly have dominated possession and scored some lovely goals (see their 2nd and 4th against Reading).
The negatives: they have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot committing ugly turnovers in the defensive third. Two of Southampton’s most comfortable players on the ball, James Ward-Prowse and Roméo Lavia, seem destined for an exit from St. Mary’s. They will leave a massive hole to fill.
Similarly, Southampton’s center-backs do not seem ready to play in such a technically demanding system. As the transfer window progresses I expect reinforcements will be incoming in these positions.
Southampton’s Returning Loan Players Shine
We’ve gone over the doom and gloom, now let’s talk about the bright spots of this preseason. Saints have brought back Jack Stephens (Bournemouth), Nathan Tella (Burnley), and Will Smallbone (Stoke) from last season’s loans, and all three have looked comfortable back on the South Coast.
Jack Stephens will immediately contend to start as Duje Ćaleta-Car looks set for a move to French side Lyon, and Lyanco had a move to Beşiktaş fall through last minute. Smallbone has looked incredibly adept in Russell Martin’s all-important holding midfield role. His on-ball technical ability will be crucial for the Saints. Nathan Tella provides a needed option running in behind, and Saints should try to fend off the rumored interest from Burnley and retain his services.
Five Rapid Fire Things to Watch For
1.) Where will Shea Charles play? Against Bournemouth, we saw him as a center-half and a number-six. He looked far more comfortable as a six, however, the theory behind wanting a ball player at center-half is sound. Regardless, the Saints appear to have found another young talent in the Northern Ireland international.
2.) Who will play at center-back? Jan Bednarek seems a shoo-in to start, and even secure the captaincy if JWP leaves. Who could’ve predicted that after his acrimonious loan to Villa last year? His defensive partner is more of a question.
Jack Stephens would be my pick, as with Armel Bella-Kotchap, Mohammed Salisu, Duje Ćaleta-Car, and Lyanco all linked with transfers, he may not have much competition. If all four Southampton defenders leave, the Saints will have to be active in the transfer market.
3.) Sam Amo-Ameyaw is an incredible talent. The Southampton academy appears to have struck gold again, as the 16-year-old has looked incredibly lively in his pre-season minutes. Keep an eye on the young lad, he is destined for the top.
4.) Will a striker please stand up? Ché Adams and Adam Armstrong are both proven Championship scorers, both have not produced consistent goals at the Premier League level. If the Saints want to secure automatic promotion, one of these players will have to score goals in bunches.
Sékou Mara similarly will have a lot of pressure on his young shoulders to produce goals and produce them quickly, as the first two months of the season are crucial for Southampton’s automatic promotion aspirations.
5.) Will other clubs match Southampton’s valuation of their players? Saints have now reportedly rejected 20 million plus pound moves for Lavia and James Ward-Prowse, and turned down an additional 9.5 million for Nathan Tella.
That is huge money for a Championship side, but Southampton director of football Jason Wilcox is thus far standing firm. However, the side is left in limbo as a result — new players cannot be brought in until the old ones are moved on.
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Southampton wrap up their pre-season friendlies against AZ Alkmaar Saturday. AZ is a good side, finishing fourth in last year’s Eredivisie. So far Russell Martin’s men have only produced one win (against League One side Reading) but looked competitive against Premier League Bournemouth. AZ will be a great measuring stick for the Saints leading up to their season opener on August 4th at newly promoted side Sheffield Wednesday.