Second summer of departures in a row is taking its toll on Saints
27 August ~ After five seasons of upward progression, Southampton fans are coming to terms with the reality of an imminent plateau. Last year’s exodus of players was negated by some shrewd purchases, but 2015’s loss of several key men – Morgan Schneiderlin most of all – is already being felt. The changeover in personnel has been so thorough in the last 13 months that it’s fairly difficult to choose a strongest XI at the moment. Indeed, early signs are that manager Ronald Koeman is struggling even to find a strongest formation this term.
Two factors will have a big impact on Saints’ performance in 2015-16. One is whether we can hold on to our remaining top players, including Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama who are linked with moves away. Certainly alarm bells rang when captain José Fonte was the subject of transfer speculation, which would truly have been a blow for a side with a defence best described as “not as strong as in recent years”.
The other factor is how much league form will be affected by participation in the Europa League. Southampton fans seem torn on how seriously they’d like the club to take the continental competition. On one hand the enthusiasm is evident from the strong attendances at both home legs (helped by sensible pricing by the club), and to listen to some fans the club should be clearing space in the trophy cabinet already.
However, expectations may have been turned downwards a little following last week’s display, and the accompanying lacklustre league performances have shown up frailties in a team full of squad players but lacking much depth of quality.
In the previous round, matches against a naive Vitesse side were comfortable enough to take on the atmosphere of pre-season matches, but FC Midtjylland provided much stronger opposition. The Danish champions were well organised in defence and stretched the Saints back line regularly, thoroughly deserving the draw and away goal they take into the second leg.
Fans of poetic justice will note that the visitor’s goal was scored by Tim Sparv, who left Southampton eight years ago without managing a first team appearance and whose solid performance in front of his defence went a long way towards frustrating the home side.
Early season jitters aside, Southampton should have enough quality to earn a place in the Europa League group stage, but will quickly need to find the cutting edge in attack which has been missing so far. The return of Jay Rodriguez feels like a new signing, albeit one still finding his form, and there have been promising signs as he and Mané look to feed off Pelle’s hold up play. Should we progress, the return from injury of Jordy Clasie and Ryan Bertrand will help to balance the side in future games.
While the extra games could help the side to gel, being on the end of an upset against FC Midtjylland could prove a blessing in disguise for our league campaign – although you wouldn’t have found too many fans among those at St Mary’s last week who’d admit to it. Matt Howell