Welcome to the 5th edition of the Southampton Weekly Rondo -- where we discuss the past 7 days of the biggest club on the South Coast. We will briefly recap the week, then analyze what happened, and predict how the Saints will move forward. If you enjoy -- we march on next week!
I think its safe to say no one saw this coming. If you did, please let the rest of us know the winning lottery numbers. 21 straight matches without a loss (20 straight league games). The last time Southampton did that Victoria was Queen of England.
Early in the streak, we wrote about how the games didn't feel right. Despite the wins, something was off: the team looked shaky and lost for large periods, and the margins of victory were slim. We were not amused (I'm sorry I couldn't resist).
Fear no longer Saints fans, Southampton are winning games in style now. Albeit against bottom half competition, a 4-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday (who were 3rd in the form table at the time) and a 3-1 win of Swansea was enough to vault the Saints over Ipswich into 2nd place. We also had a transfer saga, and finally a January new face at St. Mary's. As always, let's dive right in.
1. Jack Stephens Looks Rusty.
Jack Stephens was the correct choice for squad captain. He is an elder statesman in a young squad, Premier League tested, and has been at the club for over a decade. He was far and away the natural choice to replace outgoing skipper James Ward-Prowse.
But now that decision is causing Russell Martin some headache. This isn't the first time we've lauded the centre-back partnership of Jan Bednarek and Taylor Harwood-Bellis, and it certainly won't be the last. But they have been absolutely fantastic this season since Stephens was lost to injury in August.
And now, Martin seemingly is feeling the need to get his Captain into the side. After trying to use him has a right back (and forcing star Kyle Walker-Peters into an unfamiliar wing role) with mixed success, Stephens has made cameo appearances off the bench in recent weeks, often replacing Bednarek or THB. Against Swansea, that move almost backfired. Stephens immediately misplaced a few passes, and Swansea regained momentum and should've scored one, and could've had two to equalize.
Harwood-Bellis looked unhappy at being taken off, and who can blame him. He has been one of Southampton's best players, and deserves to be playing every minute. He was on a yellow card, which makes the substitution understandable. But forcing Stephens into the side, while it didn't burn Saints now, could do so later on unless he finds his form again.
2. Ryan Fraser Has Done Enough .
Ryan Fraser has been refreshingly open about his desire to stay at St. Mary's once his season long loan from Newcastle is done. And who can blame him. He is not in Newcastle manager Eddie Howe's plans, and has found a real vein of form for Southampton. The Wee Man has scored 5 goals while mostly coming off the bench. His direct play and intelligent running has been pivotal for Saints after injuries to Kamaldeen Sulemana and Sam Edozie.
Fraser has also been a good attitude in the locker room, and according to Russell Martin, a role model to a younger team. He has done everything and then some to ensure the Saints brass give him a good look at season's end. While it could come down to money, for the on the pitch product, Ryan Fraser has done enough to warrant a permanent move.
3. Joe Rothwell Could Be the Difference Maker.
Joe Rothwell isn't the sexiest of signings. With the fanbase crying out for a winger and a striker to replace the injured Ross Stewart, Saints went into the transfer window with several areas of need. One of those areas was central midfield insurance for the magnificent Stuart Armstrong.
Enter Joe Rothwell. He brings a wealth of experience, over 150 Championship appearances. He has also played 11 matches for Bournemouth in the Premier League this season. His lack of minutes this year makes evaluating him difficult, but one stat stands out. 88th percentile in Europe's top 5 leagues in take-ons per 90 minutes.
When Stu Armstrong sits, Southampton's ability to play through a low block team diminishes greatly. Stu is their main ball carrier and touches in the box man, using his technical close control to great effect. Rothwell projects to be a similar presence to that, and will likely replace Armstrong late in games when the 31 year old begins to tire. With so many Southampton games coming down to the wire, having Rothwell on the bench could be a difference maker in turning 1 point in to 3 points in these tight matches.
4. Burnley Are Your Jilted Ex.
Given their injuries at the position, Southampton want a winger. Burnley have a winger, Manuel Benson, who isn't playing for them. Southampton want Manuel Benson. Burnley however, have stymied every Saints attempt at signing him on loan. On the surface, it seems to make no sense. Why would Burnley hamper the development of their player and possibly fracture their relationship with him?
Just like why your ex-partner keeps reminding you of all your previous transgressions, the answer is Nathan Tella (think about it...it still won't make sense, just roll with it). Tella was on loan with Burnley last season, and Burnley wanted to make the move permanent. But Southampton held out for a higher fee than Burnley wanted to pay, and eventually got their 20 million valuation from Bayer Leverkeusen. So off Tella went to Germany, and Burnley were left with nothing but a ridiculous Tik Tok video.
It seems that Burnley took that personally. Frankly to me if someone offers you a price and you say well...I'm not paying that but give me the product anyway, you don't really have a leg to stand on. If Saints constantly moved the goalposts for Tella's valuation, that is a different story, but with the information we have now, Burnley look silly. But at the end of the day, Manuel Benson's move seems dead. Perhaps a #freeBenson Tik Tok will help?
5. How Are Our Saints Faring at AFCON?
AFCON 2023 has not disappointed. Pre-tournament favorites Egypt are winless, FIFA men's 73rd ranked Cape Verde are undefeated, and every single group could drastically change on the final matchday. Last week, we wrote a Southampton preview to AFCON, detailing current and former Saints playing in the tournament. Southampton lads are actually faring decently so far. Joe Aribo and Paul Onuachu's Nigeria team have not yet lost, but realistically need a win against Guinea-Bissau to guarantee advancing. Both have appeared, with Onuachu surprisingly playing in both games. Onuachu is on a roll this season, and while he does not fit in Russell Martin's style, could have earned himself a look in if he returns to Southampton after his loan to Turkey.
6. WSL2 Promotion Race Will Be Intense
The Southampton Women's Team earned themselves a 3-0 win against bottom side Watford on Sunday. The result was not unexpected, but avoiding a slip up was needed. Every single point will be crucial for the Saints as they chance promotion to the Women's Super League. They are just 2 points back of leaders Charlton, but sit in 4th place, with 5th place Birmingham only one point back of Saints. The 5 way battle for promotion will be a roller coaster as we reach the business end of the season, and Saints still play 4 of their promotion rivals. Southampton also still have two cup competitions to contend with, including fixtures against Super League sides Manchester United and Tottenham. The side will need all our support, each match will be more important than the next.
And mark your calenders. Final match of the season -- April 28th vs. Charlton. Promotion could be in the balance.