• Dakir Thanveer

Southampton 2021/22 Preview: The Season Of Uncertainties


By Dakir Thanveer

 

Southampton kick off their Premier League campaign away at Everton this afternoon. While the start of a new season and the return of the fans provide reasons to be excited, the Saints go to Goodison Park with concerns over their future in the top flight. Ralph Hasenhuttl's side have featured in the bottom three of several pundits' predictions, many football writers and fans of other clubs have written them off and the Southampton faithful are perhaps not as optimistic as they were ahead of their club's previous season openers. It appears that the pessimism outweighs the optimism at St. Mary's and the truth is those doubts are justified. As the Saints brace to lock horns with Rafael Benitez' Everton, it is hard to deny that there are more than a few question marks over their future, making this the season of uncertainties for them.


The Root Cause Of All Uncertainties


2021/22 is the season of uncertainties for Southampton and the root cause of all uncertainties is the uncertainty regarding the ownership of the club. There has been talk of majority stakeholder Gao Jisheng looking to sell his 80 per cent share in the club, but the Chinese businessman has struggled to find a buyer. American billionaire Joseph DaGrosa appeared the frontrunner to take over from Jisheng at one point. However, he was not willing to accept Jisheng's asking price of around £160m (Jisheng paid between £180m and £200m to buy an 80 per cent stake in the club in 2017). There have been other interested parties as well, but they are yet to show serious intent.


Jisheng has not put any money into the club after making an initial investment four years ago and with the club said to be up for sale, he appears even more reluctant to provide funds for recruitment. With no additional investment coming in, Southampton have a need to find funds for transfers themselves, i.e through player sales. The Saints have done a great job to balance their books so far. Danny Ings, Jannik Vestergaard, Angus Gunn and Mario Lemina have been sold for a combined fee of over £55m, while Adam Armstrong, Romain Perraud, Valentino Livramento and Dynel Simeu have been signed for around £34m. Southampton's net expenditure currently stands at around +£21m. On paper, their books look healthy, but we must remember that among the outgoings are Ings, Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand. And that leads us to the second main uncertainty regarding Southampton.


Can They Cope With The Loss Of Three First Teamers?


Ings was Southampton's primary outlet for goals during his three years at the club, while Vestergaard and Bertrand formed integral parts of the team's defence. Ahead of the 2021/22 campaign, the Saints find themselves without three of their key first team players from last season. While they had the time to find the answer for Bertrand's departure, signing Perraud from Brest early in the summer, they are left with little to no time to fill the voids left by Ings and Vestergaard. Ings joined Aston Villa just ten days before their season opener and Vestergaard's transfer to Leicester City was only confirmed on Friday - a day before their trip to Everton. The duo had only one more year remaining on their contracts with Southampton and selling them for a combined fee of £45m seems rational, but sanctioning their exits just day(s) before the start of the season is risky.


Southampton believe they have signed an ample replacement for Ings in Adam Armstrong, who has joined from Blackburn Rovers for a fee said to be in the region of £15m. The 24-year-old scored 28 goals from 40 Championship appearances for Tony Mowbray's side last term and has a playing style that is largely similar to that of Ings'. And having now taken Ings' number 9 jersey, all that is left for Armstrong to do is to find the back of the net as often as his predecessor did. The Hampshire outfit have also brought in Armando Broja on loan from Chelsea. Standing at around 6'3, the 19-year-old adds a bit of physicality to Southampton's frontline. And then there is also Nathan Tella, who is considered as the club's biggest young asset by many. Tella has been deployed as a striker during pre-season and we could see him there more often in the Premier League. In Armstrong, Broja, Tella and Che Adams, Southampton believe that they have a strike force that will ensure Ings' absence is not felt.


Southampton, though, go into their first game of the season without a replacement for Vestergaard. They are said to have drawn up a list of potential targets, with the focus being on a young centre-back who they can nurture and sell for a profit in the future. Southampton do have the funds to sign a new centre-back and are expected to do so before the transfer window slams shut. The Saints also have Mohammed Salisu raring to go after an injury-ravaged debut season at St. Mary's. The 22-year-old could only make 12 league appearances last term, but played more minutes than any other Southampton player during pre-season and looks to be in line to be a key player for Hasenuttl this time around. Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek also enjoyed good summers and Southampton feel they do not have to worry about Vestergaard's exit, with a new player also set to join the trio soon.


The signing of Perraud to replace Bertrand is astute and another piece of business from Southampton that is worth noting. Bertrand, who has joined Leicester on a free transfer, was a key player for the club for the last eight years. Though he might not seem as important as Ings or Vestergaard, replacing a player who has occupied a position for eight years is not an easy task. In Perraud, Southampton might have found the ideal replacement. The left-back scored three goals and provided seven assists from 36 appearances for Brest in a campaign that ended in relegation for the former Ligue 1 outfit. While it remains to be seen how much impact Perraud can have on Southampton's defence, he is expected to be a solid attacking outlet for the side.


The Saints have also added Livramento to their full-back options this summer. Having signed on from Chelsea for a fee of around £5m, the teenager is expected to provide cover for Perraud and Kyle Walker-Peters initially. Livramento, though, has the talent and potential to be the surprise package of the season. The 18-year-old impressed Southampton fans with his debut in pre-season and is more than capable of pushing for a spot in the starting eleven.


Livramento providing competition for Walker-Peters and Perraud for one of the full-back positions brings us to another important doubt that Southampton have looked to address this summer - adding depth to the squad. Hasenhuttl's team looked thin on several occasions last season, with a host of inexperienced players like Alex Jankewitz and Allan Tchaptchet forced to step up at times. This season, barring any injuries, Hasenhuttl will have the likes of Theo Walcott, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Moussa Djenepo, as well as Broja and Livramento, ready to come on if needed.


What About James Ward-Prowse?


Southampton appear to have addressed almost all their concerns ahead of the trip to Everton, but one doubt that remains is regarding the future of skipper James Ward-Prowse. The Englishman has four more years remaining on his contract with the Saints, but is attracting serious interest from Aston Villa. Dean Smith's side have already seen a bid rejected and do not look like giving up yet, while Tottenham Hotspur are also said to be lingering in the background. Having already seen Ings, Vestergaard and Bertrand depart, Southampton cannot afford to lose their captain now. While they have done well to find solutions to all their problems so far, losing Ward-Prowse is one they must avoid at all costs to reduce the risk of relegation. And, as of now, the feeling is that Ward-Prowse will continue to ply his trade in Hampshire.


In conclusion, it is easy to see why Southampton could be under serious threat of suffering relegation this season. Last season's form, coupled with the loss of Ings, Vestergaard and Bertrand, does not instil much confidence. But the bottom line is Southampton have answers for all the questions asked of them. Yes, there have been no high-profile signings. Yes, Armstrong, Perraud, Broja and Livramento do not have Premier League experience, but neither did Sadio Mane or Virgil van Dijk or even Che Adams, who has done a decent job for the side so far although not as well as the other two, when they moved to St. Mary's


Off the field, the Saints have addressed all almost all their uncertainties and the ones they haven't, they will soon. It hasn't been glamourous, but they have done a good job and it remains to be seen if they continue that on to the pitch in the 2021/22 season, which I believe they will.


(Top Image: Getty)

113 views