The last international break until March is over, there is an early winter chill in the air, and the fixtures are coming thick and fast for Southampton. Over the next 3 months, the Saints will average 2 games a week. This is where the EFL Championship season really takes hold — where contenders take flight, and pretenders falter.
The key to this grueling stretch of games: depth, depth, and more depth. Football is a tough game, injuries will happen, fatigue will set in, and squads will be tested. Now more than ever, it is imperative for managers to call upon multiple trusted options at each position. You never know when all of a sudden you need to rely upon a backup player in a pivotal game.
Which makes the upcoming stretch of December matches vital. The transfer window opens on January 1st and is the last chance for English teams to make changes to their squad for the 2023/2024 season. Russell Martin has 7 fixtures to evaluate where his squad needs strengthening. Oh and did we mention he will also have to fend off several Premier League vultures circling around his best talent? Let the games begin.
With all this in mind, we have put together some friendly recommendations for Martin on 3 areas on the Saints that could use some reinforcements, as a-la generals of old they try to make a winter charge up the table. We also attempt to identify some realistic targets to fill those positions. To steal a phrase from transfer window guru Fabrizio Romano: Here…We…Go.
Southampton: Central Midfield
Starters: Will Smallbone, Stuart Armstrong, Off The Bench: Joe Aribo, Shea Charles
Midfield is a tricky position to evaluate in Russell Martin’s system. His brand of 4-3-3 involves 3 midfielders, where at any time one drops deepest with the most defensive responsibility, and the other two maraud forward in various ways.
Here we focus on the “front” two midfielders (calling them “front” midfielders even though at any given time they can drop deeper than the defensive mid). After some initial shuffling, Russell Martin has locked in Will Smallbone and Stu Armstrong as his starters, with Joe Aribo occasionally cameoing. It has produced results — 9 unbeaten and counting.
But the lack of depth is apparent. Aribo is the only player who truly fills this role off the bench. Listing off other players who have played here: Carlos Alcaraz (best as a striker), Adam Armstrong (actually a striker), Ryan Fraser (actually a winger). Shea Charles has also filled in — but his strengths are defensive. When Saints are chasing a game, their options to switch things up in the middle of the park are slim.
To add to the intrigue — opposing teams are beginning to figure something out against this combination. Southampton’s struggles in the 2nd half of games are well documented — and opponents are finding joy when aggressively pressing Southampton’s midfield. The ideal candidate for this position would be someone who comes off the bench and provides stability and calmness in possession.
Target: Roméo Lavia
Just kidding. But actually, he would be so incredibly perfect for Russell Martin’s system. A single tear is actively sliding down my face. Wanna throw your old club a season-long loan for old times’ sake Mauricio?
Actual Target: Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Beşiktaş
We’ve written about the Ox before, and his ideal fit hasn’t changed. He is a Southampton academy graduate. He is versatile, able to play centrally as well as out wide. And importantly, he has experience at the highest levels of football.
The Saints desperately need a calming presence off the bench during their inevitable weekly 10-15 minute drop in performance, and the Ox could provide that. But most importantly, he adds to the double-barrelled surname tally, bringing Saints to a (unofficially) league-leading 4.
Bonus Wonderkid (who likely wouldn’t come): Martin Baturina, Dinamo Zagreb
Southampton: Central Midfield (again!)
Starters: Flynn Downes, Shea Charles
Getting déjà vu? We have to once again talk about the middle of the park. But this time, we’re focusing on the deepest, most defensive midfield position. Flynn Downes has been a revelation for Southampton this season, consistently being one of the top performers on the pitch. Shea Charles is young and his inexperience, especially in possession, often shows, but his ability to break up play and provide defensive cover is apparent.
The issue with this position — depth. The Saints are a Flynn Downes injury away from a crisis. While Will Smallbone could play here in a pinch, the other midfielders on the roster are not exactly defensive stalwarts. Jack Stephens is a dark horse candidate to fill in here once he returns from injury, having played midfield in the past for Saints.
Target: Will Vaulks, Sheffield Wednesday
Sheffield Wednesday have issues both on and off the pitch. On the pitch, they languish bottom of the league, 10 points from safety. Off the pitch, there have been reported financial difficulties: unpaid wages, debts, and a disconnected owner. That presents an opportunity for the Saints to grab quality players at a good value.
Enter Will Vaulks — despite Wednesday’s poor season, the veteran has impressed statistically. 90th percentile in tackles won, 99th percentile in defensive 3rd tackles, 88th percentile in interceptions, and zero errors made leading to a goal. He is also strong aerially, which has been a Southampton weak point. He won’t be a big splash but would be a pragmatic, affordable addition for a Saints team struggling to kill off close games.
Starters: Kyle Walker-Peters, Ryan Manning, James Bree, Injured: Juan Larios
KWP has been Southampton’s best player this season. His rampaging forward runs down the right are balanced with strong defensive play, and the responsibility he holds in all phases of the game is massive. On the other side, the play has been more inconsistent. While Ryan Manning has provided strong play going forward, his defensive contributions have not been stellar. James Bree has since won the left back position and provided needed defensive stability down that side.
But once again, the Saints are one injury away from a problem — they only have 3 healthy senior fullbacks. Juan Larios is injured without a timetable for his return, and also only 19. Imagine a scenario where James Bree gets hurt — Saints are now relying on KWP (one of the most fouled players in the Championship) and Ryan Manning to play multiple games a week in a physically exhausting system.
Even if Larios returns to contribute this season, help is needed, especially for a defensively-minded player on the left. An example of why: against Huddersfield as soon as Manning was introduced, they immediately attacked the Southampton left, spraying cross after cross in until eventually the equalizer was scored.
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Target: Jesús Gallardo, Monterrey
Gallardo is a well-rounded player and a full international with the Mexican national team. He would provide competition for Manning on the left, and allow Bree to return to his natural right back position. A former winger, he possesses the technical skills to thrive in Russell Martin’s system, while does not sacrifice defensive stability.
The downside to Gallardo is he has never played outside of Mexico, however his Monterrey side featured in the Club World Cup in 2019, and he has played in two world cups for Mexico (even owning the record for fastest World Cup booking — 15 seconds!).