05 9 / 2014

Three days have passed since the transfer window closed on Monday night, & with all moves now sealed it seems like a fair time to evaluate Southampton’s business in what has certainly been a turbulent summer.

It was a summer that started badly when Mauricio Pochettino left to join Spurs. It wasn’t a massive leap in quality, given that Tottenham only finished two places above Saints last campaign, but having witnessed how Southampton’s new board were prepared to let Pochettino’s side be dismantled I don’t think you can blame the Argentine for moving on. However it was a real shame to see Pochettino, the best Saints manager of my lifetime, depart.

This was quickly followed by another departure, Rickie Lambert, in one of the board’s darkest moments of a pretty bleak summer overall. They were easily bullied by Liverpool into giving up Lambert for just £4M; a pathetically small figure given that we’d later go on to splash £12M on Shane Long. Some tried to justify the deal because it saw Lambert return to his boyhood club, but the board shouldn’t be making deals for sentimental reasons.

Adam Lallana, widely regarded as the cub’s best performer last season, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw & Calum Chambers soon followed him out of St. Mary’s, & with the exception of Lovren all departed for disappointing fees. Due to a sell-on clause, the club will receive less than £20M for Lallana, not enough to justify selling such an important player on & off the pitch. £27M isn’t terrible money for Shaw, but given Manchester United’s need for a left-back, the lack of alternatives who are as good as Shaw & Ed Woodward’s incompetence the fee could well have been closer to £40M. Chambers’ fee, seemingly around £16M, is a lot for a back-up right-back & many reports said new boss Ronald Koeman saw it as a “gift” given that Chambers wouldn’t have featured in his first choice eleven, but seeing as Chambers has since been capped by England and impressed at centre-half for Arsenal, much increasing his value, it’s hard to judge the sale as being a good piece of business. Lovren, a player for whom we already had an able replacement & whose reputation was largely based on playing in a successful system, for £20M was a good deal for Saints, to be fair to the board.

Dani Osvaldo also left, if only on loan with a view to a permanent move, which was probably inevitable ever since the club publically shamed him in January after his training ground bust-up with José Fonte. Whatever the rights & wrongs of said incident, I still fail to see how making it public has done anything but harm the club in making a talented player’s position at the club untenable & reducing his value. Gastón Ramírez’s departure- albeit just a plain season-long loan- was another hard one to fathom given how desperately lacking of creative players Saints have been this season.

Morgan Schneiderlin- in my opinion Southampton’s best player going into the summer- & Jay Rodriguez looked to be off too, until Ralf Krueger, the Canadian chairman with the demeanor of an especially keen science teacher who’s trying to be your friend, finally put his foot down & decided that neither would be sold. Credit to Krueger for staying true to his word & keeping two key players who didn’t want to stay despite clear interest, although this affair only served to dispel the myth that Saints could do nothing to prevent the earlier departures. It’s immensely frustrating that it wasn’t until after the sales of five star men that the board grew a backbone and decided to hold on to talent instead of making a quick buck.

In terms of arrivals, it too soon to judge individuals as successes or failures but it is clear that some holes in the squad have been filled, while others haven’t. Dušan Tadić has made a promising start and looks very sharp, as has Graziano Pellè whose mobility and work-rate have stood out. Ryan Bertrand is not as good a player as Shaw, but is a solid replacement & complements Nathaniel Clyne very well. Saphir Taïder’s short spell at the club was another embarrassing chapter in the tale of the summer, while having seen him play bar a few short clips I don’t have much to offer on Florin Gardoș. Shane Long is a player I like, but £12M was too much to pay for him. Fraser Forster again is a decent player & certainly an upgrade on the erratic Artur Boruc, but cost rather a lot of money in comparison to the likes of Michel Vorm & Keylor Navas who were sold before him. Sadio Mané appears to be the kind of dangerous wide player Saints have been in need of ever since our return to the top flight & is perhaps the most exciting of all the additions. Finally, Toby Alderweireld looks to be a good signing if he can rediscover the form he showed at Ajax, but I would question the decision to bring in two new centre-backs when other areas look a lot more threadbare.

With all of this considered, I think it has to go down as a poor summer for Southampton. The squad may have more depth, but key areas- mainly attacking midfield & both fullback positions- are still weak & should someone like Tadić or Bertrand get injured there’s little in the way of cover beyond unproven players from the U21 squad. Saints’ first choice eleven is unquestionably weaker & the squad as a whole is only marginally stronger, if at all. Saints have made a profit this window, & may argue that that puts them in a stronger position for the future, but if it were a window for the future then selling Shaw & Chambers, two of the country’s brightest prospects, makes even less sense.

Southampton’s team is weaker than it was four months ago & the squad has less potential. We still have a decent team more than capable of finishing in the top half & the summer didn’t turn into the complete disaster it was threatening to become, but that doesn’t mean it was a good one. It wasn’t.

18 9 / 2013

Artur Boruc is currently Saints’ number one & has been for a little under a year. Were it up to me though, Paulo Gazzaniga would be the man between the sticks- & here’s why.

Let me start by saying that I don’t have a particularly high opinion of any of Southampton’s current crop of goalkeepers. All have flaws, but only one has upside- if you’ll pardon the Americanism. Boruc’s kicking is atrocious, error-prone & his shot-stopping is certainly below par for the Premier League. Kelvin Davis’ kicking is also poor & his shot-stopping ability is very suspect, having been cheaply beaten at the near post on several occasions since our return to the top flight. Gazzaniga meanwhile has shown himself to be error-prone & suspect when it comes to dealing with crosses.

The Argentinian, however has major upside. He’s young- at twenty-one over a decade younger than Boruc & Davis- so is a long-term option. His kicking is excellent & he’s also quick off his line; two attributes whose importance is often underestimated in the modern game & are particularly important given how Mauricio Pochettino’s side play. Keeping possession of the ball is essential, both to enable patient build-up play & to minimise the amount of energy-sapping, high-tempo pressing the players have to do when without it. Gazzaniga’s speed off his line also helps the pressing game, as it allows Saints to play a higher line of defence; something Spurs have been able to do with Hugo Lloris in goal. This should compress the area in which the opposition can play in, making Saints’ intense pressing more effective.

Contrary to what some will have you believe, Boruc isn’t that great. Many sweep his deficiencies under the carpet because they’ve warmed to Boruc’s character, loving how he glorifies hooliganism & is, apparently. a “LAD”. That bears a striking resemblance to those calling for Billy Sharp.

For me, the bottom line is this; none of our goalkeepers are that great so we may as well go for the one who could become great, while also offering key attributes the others don’t. If Gazzaniga is given regular football & the confidence of knowing he’s the man, he”l improve. There may be a difficult teething period, but he’ll be stronger for it in the long run.  I don’t think Boruc is any better than Gazzaniga, so I don’t think he should be playing instead of him.

02 9 / 2013

With the transfer window now closed, we know that the above will be Southampton’s final twenty-five man squad; even though it only contains twenty-three players. I for one am happy enough with that; we’ve added quality to an already talented bunch. A lack of width & pace upfront is my only minor concern.

31 8 / 2013

Dean Hammond left Southampton on Friday, joining Leicester for an undisclosed fee. Whilst he hasn’t had adoring fans with a romanticised agenda calling for his inclusion in Saints’ latest line-ups, unlike a certain Billy Sharp, he departs having made a far greater impact in Saints’ rise to the Premier League, & is a far greater legend.

Hammond was a key cog in the Southampton machine for three seasons, ever since his 2009 arrival from Colchester. His commanding presence in midfield, both with the ball & without it, gave the likes of Rickie Lambert & Papa Waigo N’Daiye the ideal platform from which to dispatch chance after chance & also shielded an ready solid defence. Morgan Schneiderlin & Jack Cork were both partners with whom Hammond developed a good relationship, as both were willing to sit in front of the defence, allowing him to venture forward as your archetypal box-to-box midfielder. Both would go on to develop into top quality players & ultimately make Hammond surplus to requirements, but he took in it his stride, accepting his time was up, & hasn’t wallowed in self-pity at not getting his chance in the top flight. Hammond is, without doubt, a consummate professional, & swearing on live television is the one of few blots in his proverbial copybook. Blots I’m more than willing to forgive.

Saints won the JPT on his watch, with Hammond- as on-field captain- lifting the trophy with club captain Kelvin Davis, & gained back-to-back promotions. Hammond was crucial in all of this success & I have no doubt that he’ll prove a shrewd acquisition for the Foxes.

20 8 / 2013

To use the worn-out cliché, Mauricio Pochettino has a problem, but a good problem to have, following the arrival of Daniel Osvaldo from AS Roma. The Argentina-born Italy striker, who was the third-highest scorer in Serie A last season, adds to Saints’ plethora of attacking talent & makes Pochettino’s team selections that little bit harder.  There are multiple ways Pochettino may try to accommodate him, but first here’s the lowdown on Osvaldo from European football expert Joseph Sexton, who watched him extensively at Espanyol where he played under Pochettino.

"Saints have brought in a talented footballer at reasonable price. He’s quick, athletic & strong in the air, so is physically suited to the Premier League. His movement is very good, & while he’s best suited to playing as the main striker, he is versatile. He links the play well, can come deep or go wide when required & is capable with his back to goal. He’s not too dissimilar to Gonzalo Higuaín in that sense."

"It was under Pochettino’s guidance at Espanyol that Osvaldo first began to bloom into a real talent, consistently performing at a high level. As he mentioned on Monday, the faith shown in by Pochettino was crucial in helping him grow as a player, but equally, he comes with something of a reputation as a bad boy. He was banned for one match by Roma & fined €55K, the biggest possible fine under Italian rules, after an altercation with teammate Erik Lamela in the dressing room. He was also seen driving around Rome in a Mini adorned with the blue of Napoli- Roma’s bitter rivals- & a picture of Diego Maradona, who is a hated figure among fans of other Italian sides."

"However this works out, it certainly won’t be dull. With his attributes there’s every chance he could become the fans’ favourite he was at Espanyol, rather than enduring the troubled association he had with Roma’s notoriously volatile supporters." 

The main issue now facing Pochettino is how to shoehorn Rickie Lambert & Osvaldo into the same team. Dropping Lambert would be a dangerous move that would certainly upset fans, & coupled with Pochettino’s glowing praise for the striker after his exploits for England this seems unlikely. Given that Lambert scored fifteen goals last term whilst also creating the third-most chances from open play in the league, his importance in how Saint play shouldn’t be underestimated. At least in Osvaldo Saints now have someone far more capable of filling his boots, should he be out for any length of time.

Pochettino seems to like playing a 4-2-3-1, & it’s possible that he could accommodate both Osvaldo & Lambert into this formation. Lambert regularly drops deep as it is & has an under-appreciated range of passing, so could potentially play behind Osvaldo. However, this ‘number ten’ role is the one that best suits Gastón Ramírez, so if Lambert were to line up here then the Uruguayan would either be pushed out of position or out of the line-up as a whole. Adam Lallana & James Ward-Prowse have also shown that they are capable of delivering as a playmaker, so using Lambert in this role would perhaps seem like a waste of resources.

As eluded to by Joseph above, Osvaldo does possess the skill set necessary to play in a wider role & often found himself in this position for Roma last season, with Francesco Totti still ruling the roost there & playing down the middle. Attacking full-backs Luke Shaw & Nathaniel Clyne tend to provide most of the width for Southampton, so the ‘wide men’ in the 4-2-3-1 tend to actually spend most of their time cutting in from the flanks & making their way towards the penalty area. This should give Osvaldo plenty of opportunities to get into goalscoring positions, while also maintaining at least some width up the pitch. Osvaldo would probably play on the right, but as with playing Lambert in behind Osvaldo though, there are other players more suited to this role- most notably Lallana.

Of course, the simple solution is to play with two upfront. This way both Osvaldo & Lambert would be in their best position, & as both are technically gifted players they should link well together. Pochettino could possibly play Lallana & Ramírez behind them as inverted wingers, or one of them in behind & three central midfielders behind him. I’d quite like to see the latter with Ramírez operating just ahead of Morgan Schneiderlin, Jack Cork & Victor Wanyama, but can see how this could lead to a lack of width & our attacking players being crowded out. The combative midfielder trio would be one of the strongest in the league though & stop the opposition finding their rhythm, whilst Ramírez should bring the flair, skill & vision necessary to unlock a crowded defence.

Osvaldo is a player Pochettino knows well, & who has flourished under him before. Whilst there is of course a risk involved, given his track record for trouble, I trust Pochettino’s judgement & would be surprised if Osvaldo causes too much disruption at St. Mary’s. He’s clearly a complex character, but hopefully the South Coast’s tranquility, & relative lack of nightlife, should help him stay out of trouble.

Pochettino’s previous experience with Osvaldo also means he knows him well as a player, & so clearly has a plan for where he’s going to play him. Where exactly that is remains to be seen, & is likely to change with the opposition, but Osvaldo is certainly an exciting addition who adds real quality to a Southampton squad that’s already the best of I’ve seen in my lifetime.