16/08/2014: 2014/15 Season Preview
On 26th April 2014 Everton travelled to St Marys with realistic hope of claiming a place in the Champions League. Two own goals later and that dream was as good as over. The Toffees had punched above their weight all season, pulling well clear of Tottenham and Man United on a fraction of the budget. They couldn't cope with Saints' high pressure enterprising football, however. Mauricio Pochettino's men had been out of European contention for a while, but at that moment they looked far more cut out for that level of football than Everton did.
Talk of Champions League aspirations seemed fanciful at times, but when you saw Everton come so close, it didn't seem quite so unattainable. At the very least Saints were in touching distance of matching the Toffees and even Tottenham in that level just below the top four. The talent was in place, and the club had enough financial clout to push on even further. Fast-forward four months and the gap between Saints and Everton has widened considerably. At the time of writing Saints have lost five important players and a manager. Everton, in contrast have strengthened, signing Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry on a permanent basis. Ross Barkley also penned a new contract, despite reported interest from clubs higher up the football food chain.
It's been a frustrating summer for many reasons. What probably grates the most is that Saints didn't even come close to maximising the potential of the squad that has now been broken up. The club could have easily pushed on a lot further without breaking the bank if the core had been retained. Prior to Nicola Cortese's January departure there hadn't even been a hint that something like this was on the horizon. Some have argued that what has happened was just the inevitable consequence of Saints doing well last season, and while that may have been a factor to a certain degree, the board certainly aren't blameless for the mass exodus of players. The number of key departures and level of unrest has been almost unprecedented. They did little, if nothing to persuade any of the outgoing players to stay. They had final say over every single transfer. It's not 100% clear whether it was a deliberate ploy to scale back, or whether they've just been incompetent. Either way it's a bit worrying. You can't help but feel a lot of what's gone on this summer could have been avoided with stronger leadership at the top. Saints squandered a great opportunity, and might not ever be able to manufacture a squad with as much potential ever again.
What's done is done now, however. Saints need to look ahead to the future. For all the mistakes the board have made during the summer, the appointment of Ronald Koeman seems like a shrewd move. While his track record isn't quite as perfect as many would have you believe, he seems like a good fit for the club, and his most recent work with Feyenoord is encouraging. Of all the names that were linked after Pochettino's departure, Koeman was by far the most enticing. He has the credibility and the pedigree to instil confidence in both players and fans, at a time when it is badly needed.
Saints have strengthened between the sticks with the signing of Fraser Forster. Artur Boruc performed heroics at times last season, but he also made several costly mistakes. The Pole is still a capable Premier League goalkeeper, but he's far from perfect, and at 34 you can't blame Saints for looking elsewhere for a long-term solution. It's a big step up for Forster, but he's still young enough to improve. Ideally Saints will be able to keep Boruc around as a very credible backup option, but you couldn't blame him if he wanted to move on.
Nathaniel Clyne is a match for any other right-back in the league. Assuming Saints don't succumb to a late transfer bid, the former Palace man is sure to be a standout performer this season. Lack of alternatives in that position are a slight concern. Koeman has said he will look within his current squad for a Calum Chambers replacement, but the only real viable option would be Jack Cork, whose future is uncertain. Ryan Bertrand has looked fairly capable in his two friendly outings so far. It remains to be seen whether Matt Targett is an adequate second-choice left-back.
Saints are a lot stronger at centre-back than many would have you believe. Dejan Lovren had a great season and will be missed, but that early defensive record had as much if not more to do with the work of the team than of any individual. Jose Fonte wasn't far off the level Lovren was at last season, and actually made fewer glaring errors than the Croatian. Securing his future with a new contract was important, not just for the role he plays on the pitch, but for his leadership qualities off it too.
Maya Yoshida has been criticised for some lackadaisical pre-season showings, but it's worth remembering he was excellent for much of 2012/13 once he had settled in. The Japanese centre-half usually needs a run of games to get used to the pace, but when he does, he's mostly fine. His positional play and intelligence compensate for the other faults in his game. Florin Gardos is an unknown quantity, but comes well regarded from regular viewers of Romanian football. Jos Hooiveld, while far from perfect, is not quite as abysmal as he's often depicted. As fourth choice, he's more than sufficient.
The back four should be fairly well protected, even if Morgan Schneiderlin does eventually depart. Victor Wanyama had his ups and downs during his first few months at St Marys and took a while to get back into the groove on his return from injury. His form at the end of last season was very encouraging, however. James Ward-Prowse could thrive in the centre if he's afforded enough minutes. The England U21 international found it difficult to impress in limited time from the bench last season, but still has the talent and attitude to make it far. Steven Davis - probably the only player who hasn't been linked with a move away this summer - has moved back into the middle in pre-season, having played in a more advanced role under Pochettino. Whichever position he plays, you'd expected his technique and speed of thought to shine through.
Jack Cork was rumoured to be on his way to Crystal Palace, but Koeman insisted he expects him to be at St Marys come September. Hopefully he is true to his word. Even though Saints are well stocked in central-midfield, the club should be doing all they can to tempt the former Chelsea man into signing a new contract. You can never have enough good players, and Cork clearly is more than cut-out for top flight football. His intelligence and awareness have proved invaluable over the last three years, and he rarely has a bad game. Saphir Taider looks like he might share some of those same attributes, based on his cameo against Leverkusen.
The biggest worry for Saints this season is where the goals are going to come from. New signing Shane Long has many useful attributes, but he's never been very prolific. Graziano Pelle scored for fun at Feyenoord, but struggled beforehand in Italy. If Saints can somehow keep Jay Rodriguez at the club for the entire season then he'd be a good bet to finish top scorer, even if he does miss the first few months. That said, there's no guarantee he'll return to the level he was at just prior to his injury. Pochettino's system was geared towards getting the best out of him, and it remains to be seen if he'll be as suited to Koeman's way of playing. Sam Gallagher may get some playing time, but probably isn't ready for a prominent role. Emmanuel Mayuka will either be shipped out again, or used to just make up the numbers.
Saints have a couple of creative players to fill the wide roles, but could do with more depth. Dusan Tadic has impressed in pre-season, particularly against Bournemouth and Brighton. It'll be tough for him to live up to the standards Adam Lallana set last season, but he does appear to share some of the same qualities the former skipper possessed. Gaston Ramirez has had more fruitful moments in a Saints shirt than many give him credit for. You could argue the Uruguayan hasn't quite lived up to his price tag, and while stamina issues can be a source of frustration, he has still single-handedly changed games for Saints on several occasions. He's been particularly effective from the bench. Ramirez could be a real game-changer and Saints should persist with him. Steve Davis does a good job linking play from midfield to the front men, but beyond that there aren't too many other options. Lloyd Isgrove did ok in pre-season, but doesn't look anything like a Premier League starter.
Opinion among supporters has swayed throughout the summer. Most were desolate following the sales of Rickie Lambert and Calum Chambers, but many have been won back now that new signings have arrived. The new regime will ultimately live and die by results on the pitch. Few will demand a repeat of last season's points tally, but if Saints get off to a rocky start, the atmosphere at St Marys could soon turn poisonous. The top seven are very much in a league of their own right now, but there isn't much between the rest. It's not completely inconceivable that Saints could sneak into the top 10, but with so much change over the last few months, consolidation in lower mid-table might be a more realistic aim.
2014-15 Pre-season key moments
27th May: Mauricio Pochettino quits for Tottenham
2nd June: Rickie Lambert completes his move to Liverpool
16th June: Ronald Koeman appointed as manager
27th June: Luke Shaw joins Manchester United
1st July: Adam Lallana signs for Liverpool
8th July: Dusan Tadic becomes Saints’ first summer signing
12th July: Graziano Pelle links up with former boss Koeman at St Marys
27th July: Dejan Lovren departs acrimoniously to Liverpool
28th July: Calum Chambers signs for Arsenal
29th July: Chairman Ralph Krueger publicly declares that Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez are not for sale
29th July: Schneiderlin’s future thrown into further doubt by his subsequent Twitter outburst
30th July: Ryan Bertrand joins on loan from Chelsea
6th August: Saphir Taider comes in on loan in a swap deal for Dani Osvaldo
8th August: Fraser Forster moves to Saints from Celtic
14th August: Shane Long and Florin Gardos deals wrapped up