When Southampton lined up against Inter Milan in the 2016/17 Europa League, it would be easy to describe them as the model of how to run a football club in England.
They were a small team punching well above their weight, consistently finishing above big teams every season. Just five years earlier, Southampton were in League One and it was a remarkable rise for the South Coast outfit.
However, now Southampton are much less impressive and this season set a record for the biggest home defeat in Premier League history when they lost 9-0 to Leicester at St Mary’s. The question on every Southampton fan’s lips is – how can they return to the glory days?
What has gone wrong at Southampton?
Between 2009 and 2017, Southampton Football Club were owned by the Liebherr family. After the death of Markus Liebherr in 2010, his daughter Katharina took over the day-to-day running of the club. Between Liebherr, Les Reed and Paul Mitchell, the club went on a remarkable rise.
Reed, the Head of Football operations, and Paul Mitchell, the sporting director, were influential in signings and managerial appointments such as Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. Southampton’s downturn in fortunes has perfectly coincided with the departures of Liebherr and Reed.
In 2017, Liebherr sold 80% of the club to Chinese businessmen Gao Jisheng, despite his motives for buying Southampton being dubious and assumed to be motivated by political gain in his homeland. Jisheng seems unwilling to invest and will need to for the club to improve.
Another issue was Reed leaving to take up a post at the FA, and this has seen a massive downturn in form. Mitchell, who bought some of Southampton’s finest players such as Sadio Mané, Nathaniel Clyne and Jay Rodriguez left to become sporting director at Tottenham with Pochettino and now works as director of football for one of Europe’s model clubs: RB Leipzig.
Southampton know that for every Sadio Mane, you get a Sofiane Boufal.
The Saints have done some excellent recruitment over the years but also made some sub-par signings. An example would be the £20million acquisition of Che Adams. He came in off the back of a 22-goal season for Birmingham City despite the worrying stat of just 2.5 shots per 90 in the Championship. By comparison, this season Championship top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic has been taking 3.9 per 90.
As a mid-table Premier League club, Southampton have to examine data to ensure they get what they can for their money and they clearly have not been doing this. Adams was taking a low number of shots and outperformed his XG by 5, making this a poor signing that was unlikely to work out and has not.
When Southampton had a functional recruitment department, they would sign players from outside the Top 5 leagues and from unfancied clubs. Arguably their best signing, Mané came from the Austrian League after a successful spell with RB Salzburg.
An underachieving squad
The Southampton squad is actually not in a particular poor state compared to some of the teams around them in the league currently. They certainly have the talent to be further up the league. James Ward-Prowse and Pierre Emile Højbjerg form an excellent pivot, breaking up play and playing the ball forwards to either a striker or attacking midfielder.
Danny Ings and Nathan Redmond are both attacking players with England caps. If they are both running red hot they have a strong creative force as well as a fantastic goal scorer; as Ings has proved this season. The back four are unremarkable but solid with Jan Bednarek and Ryan Bertrand arguably being the pick of the bunch needing just one player to complete that area. They could also raise funds easily with sales of players such as Jannik Vestergaard and men currently out on loan like Guido Carrillo and Mario Lemina.
Who should Southampton sign?
There is one area where Southampton are weaker than any other and that is scoring goals. They have found the net just 35 times this season, and only 17 if you take Ings out of the equation. Ings is having a stellar season having scored 18 Premier League goals but he does have a concerning injury record and seems to be the Saints’ only source of goals. After Ings, next in the scoring charts are Nathan Redmond and James Ward Prowse, each having scored just four goals. The squad seems good and just needs an injection of goals to really push on under Ralf Hasenhüttl.
A chink in the armour is on the right-hand side of a front three. Hasenhüttl usually operates with either a 4-2-2-2, where this player would play as a right attacking midfielder, or a 4-3-3, where this player would be deployed as a traditional winger.
Viktor Tsygankov has managed 50 goals in 136 matches in the Ukrainian Premier League and Europa League for Dinamo Kyiv. An exciting young talent at just 22, Tsygankov is arguably the best player in the Ukrainian league. Exports from the Ukrainian league include Fernandinho, Douglas Costa, Willian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. All these players have adapted to facing a better quality of opposition and Tsygankov probably would too. This is because he stands at a relatively tall 5 foot 10 and has the physical stature of a Premier League footballer. He would be a relatively low-risk signing, with Transfermarkt valuing him at just €14.4 million. Southampton would probably have to spend slightly more than this to get him but he could be the perfect player to ease the burden of goalscoring off Ings’ shoulders.
Southampton must be looking for a Shane Long replacement. Long has only made 13 appearances this season but his work rate for the team is second to none. The newcomer must be a hard-working centre forward who can score more goals than Long but is still able to play as a second striker alongside Ings.
The best candidate for this is Brentford sensation Ollie Watkins. Watkins is a 24-year-old striker who has managed 20 goals in the Championship this season as a traditional number 9 much like Ings. However, Watkins is a versatile forward able to play anywhere across the front line. He is taking 2.6 shots per 90 but appears to have attributes more suited to the Premier League than Che Adams.
In this team, Watkins, Tsygankov, Ings and Redmond play as the advanced players in a 4-2-2-2 and would surely score enough goals to fire Southampton up the table. These two signings would be typical of Southampton when they were operating under Paul Mitchell and they would only need one more starting centre-back to partner Jan Bednarek.
Southampton should go shopping in the Championship for Mike Van Der Hoorn of Swansea who is available on a free this summer and would provide excellent cover. They should also go in for Valladolid’s Ghanaian centre-back Mohammed Salisu. Despite being 15th in La Liga, Valladolid have the ninth best defence in the league. Salisu has been managing 2.5 tackles and interceptions per 90 which would only improve as he ages and becomes more experienced. He manages 2.4 long balls per game and an average of 36 passes, which is not remarkable, but Salisu has age on his side. At just 21, he has the potential to exponentially improve and would cost only around £12 million and even less should Valladolid go down.
Academy needs to get firing again
The Southampton Academy has been one of the best in the country for many years but the production line has dried up recently. In years gone by, the club has produced Alan Shearer, Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and many others. However, lately the alumni have been less impressive and they need to improve the academy to compliment the players they bring in.
Steps to improve are clearly being taken as the Academy does seem, from the outside, to be on the rise again. Michael Obafemi has impressed in limited minutes, Will Smallbone is beginning to break through and Yan Valery can be the starting right-back for years to come and has plenty of time to flourish.
Hasenhüttl deserves time
When Mark Hughes was sacked in 2018, Southampton looked to be on their way to relegation. However, they pulled off a managerial coup in the appointment of former RB Leipzig manager Ralf Hasenhüttl.
The Austrian had led the East German outfit to second place in their first ever Bundesliga season with a 4-2-2-2 formation that he has brought through to Southampton and is synonymous with Red Bull clubs.
With the right personnel, Hasenhüttl could bring success to the club but the powers that be must give him time. As long as Southampton recruit sensibly with the Hasenhüttl formation in mind they can become a force to reckon with and challenge for honours.
Looking into the future
Southampton are not in the poor state that they were in this time last year but are nowhere near where they were under Pochettino and Koeman.
With a few excellent signings in key areas, the Saints have the potential to push on to the level of Leicester and Wolves. They have an elite manager who can truly take them to the next level and if they use analytics-led recruitment to buy players in the £15-20 million mark they can make it back to Thursday Nights on the continent once again.
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