The Saints head to Hillsborough Friday for their first game of the Championship season. Southampton entered the preseason with lots of promise, but have stumbled a bit in their friendlies, with losses to Bournemouth, Benfica, and AZ Alkmaar, a draw at Turkish 2nd tier Göztepe, and a win against League One side Reading.
Southampton’s best players have also continuously been linked with moves away, but as of writing captain James Ward-Prowse, and talented youngsters Tino Livramento and Roméo Lavia are still in the squad (update – Tino is according to sources off to Newcastle).
All of this has brought a few rainclouds into the clear sky that was the optimism surrounding the Saints not two months ago. There are clear weaknesses on the side that need to be addressed, and with major (and seemingly inevitable) departures not yet finalized, the squad feels in a bit of limbo. Despite these issues, the Saints can put them all away with a dominant performance this week against newly promoted Sheffield Wednesday.
Sheffield Wednesday Preview
Wednesday has not been having the calmest of offseasons themselves. They had a miraculous run through the League One promotion playoff, going down 4-0 in a first leg to Peterborough United, and somehow rallying to win on penalties after forcing a 5-5 aggregate result.
They then squeaked by cross-town rivals Barnsley in the final on a 120th-minute winner. You’d think they would still be riding the momentum, but they failed to agree on contract terms with popular manager Darren Moore, and similar to the Saints’ appointment of a new boss, Xisco Muñoz was appointed as Wednesday’s manager with very little time left before preseason training started.
Forwards Michael Smith and Josh Windass are the danger men, with Scottish midfielder Barry Bannan providing most of the creative passing. Southampton actually played Wednesday in the Carabao Cup last season, needing penalties to dispatch the at the time League One side.
Southampton Predicted Lineup
Russell Martin could send out any one of 5 or 6 combinations of players and I would not be shocked. The Saints have an incredibly large squad, and not many players have taken command of starting roles. One thing for certain is that Martin will stick with his preferred 4-3-3 formation, with fullbacks inverting in possession to create more of a 2-5-3 or 2-3-2-3 depending on how you see it.
Martin wants a box midfield with lots of possession and build-up play. Some of Southampton’s players have acclimated well to this style, and some have shown limitations. With that in mind, I predict Southampton will line up like this:
Bazunu – Livramento – Bednarek- Stephens – Manning – Lavia – JWP – Alcaraz- Tella- Edozie – Adams
Off the Bench
Walker-Peters, Amo-Ameyaw, Smallbone, Charles, Mara
Ward-Prowse and Lavia may not be Saints for much longer, but unless they are sold in between writing this piece and game time, they must play. Points are far too valuable in what is set to be a tightly contested race for promotion.
Likewise in defense, I would rather the Saints go with experience. Shea Charles may be up and coming, but both Bednarek and Stephens are tried and tested at the Premier League level. Livramento is an exception to this as he is too talented to not play (since he is now a Newcastle player, expect Kyle Walker-Peters to start in his place).
Ryan Manning knows Russell Martin’s system from his time at Swansea and I tab him to start the opener while fellow left-backs Romain Perraud and Juan Larios get up to speed.
Attack will be especially difficult for Martin — he has a plethora of options none of whom have distinguished themselves in the preseason. Well…I take that back. Sam Amo-Ameyaw has been sensational, but the lad is 16, and starting a 16-year-old in a highly anticipated season opener away from home is a big ask. I expect on the wings to see Tella and Edozie with the physical presence of Ché Adams up top.
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If Wednesday hadn’t had such a tumultuous offseason I would be tempted to predict a 1-1 cagey draw. But just three months ago these sides were two leagues apart. My prediction is a 2-1 nervy victory for the Saints as they continue to grow accustomed to Martin’s high-difficulty system.
How to Watch
The game kicks off at 8 pm BST. In the UK it will be featured on Sky Sports, in the USA the match will be broadcast online on ESPN+.