(Writer’s Note: This is the fourth of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on Aug. 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page)
Manager: Mark Hughes (Hire Date: March 14, 2018)
Tenure Length: 16th/20 in Premier League and 63rd/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 7-15-16, 36 points, 17th in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 37
2017-18 Goal Difference: minus-19
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League: 7 (includes 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2012
Last Relegation: 2009 (Championship to League One)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Second-round loss (Wolverhampton)
2017-18 FA Cup: Semifinal loss (Chelsea)
After four consecutive top-eight finishes, it all came undone for Southampton as it narrowly avoided being relegated to the Championship. The Saints started well enough with five points from their first three matches, but they failed to win back-to-back league matches all season while lacking chemistry under Mauricio Pellegrino.
The high point of the season may have been their 4-1 rout of an Everton squad in the throes of a coaching change in late November. It also marked the last time Southampton was in the top half of the table. Pellegrino’s team then went winless in 12 matches (0-7-5) before beating West Bromwich Albion 3-2 in February, but that was just another blip as the Saints endured an eight-match winless drought (0-3-5) during which Pellegrino was sacked March 12.
Hughes was hired two days later and Southampton looked no better in his first three matches in charge with losses to West Ham United, Arsenal and Chelsea as Southampton was now at the top of the drop with five matches remaining. The Saints, though, regained their defensive bearings and conceded just twice while taking eight points from their next four matches — highlighted by a six-point belter in a 1-0 victory at Swansea City on Manolo Gabbiadini’s goal in the 72nd minute in the penultimate contest that all but mathematically secured survival.
Despite a season-ending 1-0 loss to champion Manchester City, Southampton finished the season three points clear of the drop on 36 and finished 17th.
Charlie Austin led the Saints in scoring in league play with seven goals despite appearing in just 24 matches. He and Dusan Tadic shared the overall team lead with seven goals as Southampton potted just 43 in 44 matches, and Gabbiadini was the only other player with at least five.
Between the sticks, Alex McCarthy took the No. 1 spot from Fraser Forster after Boxing Day, but neither were overly impressive. They had 11 clean sheets between them and stopped 66.1 percent of the shots on target while shipping 61 goals overall.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
The interesting thing about Southampton is despite its struggles last season, there is quality to be found throughout all three outfield positions, and Hughes could have some selection headaches this time around. Angus Gunn arrives from Manchester City to challenge McCarthy for the No. 1 shirt, leaving Forster as the odd man out as Southampton are looking to move the keeper.
There is plenty of quality in defense as World Cup starters Cedric Soares (Portugal), Jen Bednarek (Poland), and Maya Yoshida (Japan) will likely be joined by Denmark reserve Jannik Vestergaard, who spent the last two seasons with Borussia Monchengladbach. Having the cloud of uncertainty of Virgil Van Dijk’s status removed with his January transfer to Liverpool coupled with a summer training camp under Hughes could prove to be addition by subtraction.
The biggest overhaul is in the midfield where newcomers Mohamed Elyounoussi (FC Basle) and Stuart Armstrong (Celtic) will contend for spots in the starting XI against holdovers Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse, with defensive midfielders Oriol Romeu and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg waiting in support.
Up front, Austin is again expected to lead the line with Gabbiadini and Shane Long further options. This could be the weakest link in the squad, though there are rumours Southampton is trying to bring Liverpool striker Danny Ings on board.
THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS
Elyounoussi, a £16 million signing, scored 24 goals in 84 matches over the last two seasons in helping win Basle win two domestic titles and reaching the group stages of the Champions League in 2017-18 while Armstrong — a £7 million signing — was one of the linchpins of the Scottish power who won a domestic treble in each of the last four seasons and racked up 21 goals in 86 contests in the last two.
Gunn, who has progressed up England’s youth program, spent last season on loan at Norwich City where he recorded 15 shutouts. The 22-year-old, though, is behind Ederson and Claudio Bravo on Man City’s depth chart, necessitating the need to loan him out once more.
While the 6-foot-7 Vestergaard did not appear in any of Denmark’s four World Cup matches, he did score seven goals in 66 matches with Borussia MG and brings sorely needed size to deal with aerial crosses and corner kicks on the defensive end.
To help make room for these players, Southampton parted ways with Tadic (Ajax) and Sofiane Boufal (Celta Vigo).
THE GUY WORTH SEEING
Stuart Armstrong (MF)
Armstrong arrives at St Mary’s with high expectations after debuting at 18 with Dundee United and climbing up the SPL food chain to Celtic, where he was a fixture in the starting XI when healthy and a key cog in Brendan Rodgers’ dominant squad. His pairing with Elyounoussi in the midfield will be important considering Southampton scored two or more goals in just nine league matches last season — with two of those occasions coming against relegated and last-place side West Bromwich Albion.
Per Ladbrokes, Southampton is in the middle of the pack with 7/1 odds to be relegated, which is somewhat surprising given how narrowly survived last season. The Saints are 10th-most likely to finish in the bottom half at 4/7 odds but sixth-best to finish in the top half at 11/8 odds. It’s a longer road for a top-six spot, ranking 11th at 14/1 odds.
FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES
Aug. 12 — Burnley (7th) H
Aug. 18 — Everton (8th) A
Aug. 25 — Leicester City (9th) H
Sept. 1 — Crystal Palace (11th) A
April 20 — Newcastle United (10th) A
April 27 — Bournemouth (12th) H
May 4 — West Ham United (13th) A
May 12 — Huddersfield Town (16th) H
It is slightly difficult where to peg Southampton. The Saints could be a team whose parts are greater than the sum of the whole given the talent sprinkled throughout their top 15-18 players, or they could emerge as a comfortable mid-table squad which pulls together in the same direction going forward.
The key to all this is Hughes. For all intents and purposes, it appeared the game had passed him by last season at Stoke City, and his resurfacing at St Mary’s to perform what turned out to be a successful rescue mission was somewhat surprising. To be associated with two teams being relegated in the same season would have been an albatross that may have weighed too heavily on “Sparky” going forward, yet he persevered and kept the Saints in the top flight.
Having a summer to instill his methods and philosophy will serve him well, but it will also be interesting to see if Southampton return to the positive football it enjoyed under predecessors Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koemann as opposed to their successors Claude Puel and Pellegrino.
Hughes did not lack for attacking talent with the Potters before being sacked last campaign, but a defense that was repeatedly torn to ribbons before a loss to League Two Coventry City in the FA Cup was understandably a bridge too far for Stoke supporters.
Southampton’s first four matches will be a good barometer of what this side’s aspirations should be because all four sides are currently where the Saints used to be under Pochettino and Koeman. It is possible the Saints may be only a notch below that. But it also seems likely they will be in a relegation scrap for most of the campaign before saving it late.
PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS
July 18 — Fulham July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace August 6 — Manchester City
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