Reporters on Saints' season so far
We got the thoughts of four journalists on Southampton's top performers so far this season, the team's European adventure and what its aims should be for the rest of the season.
In the first part of this latest edition of The Press Box, our guests discussed Saints' start to the campaign, as well as new boss Claude Puel and his philosophy.
Continuing the discussion here in the second part are:
– Paul Belverstone (Premier League Productions)
– Adam Leitch (Southern Daily Echo)
– Adam Blackmore (BBC Radio Solent)
– Joe Prince-Wright (NBC Sports)
Which players have stood out, and what have you seen as the team's strengths and weaknesses?
Paul Belverstone: “Austin, obviously. I said I was worried about a potential lack of goals at the start of the season, but he got five in four and looks like the player that was with QPR in the Premier League a few years ago.
“Virgil van Dijk again looks like he’s picked up where he was last year, as Player of the Season, and the whole defence has been superb – six clean sheets in a row is phenomenal.
“The one perhaps unfashionable one that I think deserves a lot of credit is Romeu, who I saw come through under Villas-Boas at Chelsea, and he looked tremendous then and had a fantastic few months, and everyone knows about the knee injury he had and it didn’t work for him at Chelsea from there. He didn’t really get a great run of games under Ronald, but now he looks like he’s taken over from Wanyama terrifically. He’s not the same physical presence, but he reads the game so very well. I think he’s playing a crucial role in front of the defence, and Højbjerg also looks like a super signing.
“You mention weaknesses, I don’t think there have been too many shown up. I think they could still do with more goals from midfield. Tadić has been looking good and looks like he’s thriving in this new system, but perhaps they need a few more goals from him. I’d like to see Højbjerg score a few, Davis and so on, and obviously Redmond. But maybe that’s what Boufal brings, if he’s scoring a few himself but teeing up a couple of midfielders as well as strikers then that would be good. That’s my only area of concern as such. There’s certainly no concern at the back and the whole squad looks strong throughout.”
Adam Leitch: “If you look at some of the most basics, six games without conceding a goal is an excellent record, so you have to look at who’s doing it. A lot of players have contributed, but Virgil van Dijk has been outstanding again, and I’ve also got a lot of time for Romeu, who has helped greatly in front of the back four.
“I’ve been really impressed with Højbjerg when we’ve seen him. He looks like a great signing, really classy. Also, I should mention Tadić is probably on the most consistent run we’ve seen from him and he’s really stepped up in terms of his contribution as well.
I've been really impressed with romeu. i think he's taken his game to a new level.joe prince-wright
“The concern would be goalscoring. Obviously, Charlie Austin’s run was great, but that aside, as Claude keeps saying, where else are goals coming from? If Charlie doesn’t score then it seems to be hard to find a goal at the moment, and that would be your main concern. Claude wants goals contributed throughout the team, but a problem we have seen at Saints over a number of years is a real reliance on two or three players to score nearly all of the goals.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “Virgil van Dijk for me, again. He’s been a real leader and a big reason why they’ve been on this run of clean sheets. For me, he’s been the standout defender, but I’ve been really impressed with Romeu in midfield. I think he’s taken his game to the next level.
“Of course, it’s great to see Charlie Austin back fit and getting chances, and we all know if he gets a chance that he’s going to bury it. Those three through the spine of the team have been really impressive for me.
I think charlie taking that ball off dušan in the prague cup game could be a massive point in the season.Adam blackmore
bbc radio solent
“As a team, the strength has been having a Plan B now. They can sit back a bit deeper and hit teams on the counter. Maybe the one weakness is just being a bit more clinical. I was at the game against West Ham and seeing how many chances they created, even though they won 3-0, it could easily have been six or seven. Teams might figure out a bit more the way they play and how they set up their attacks, so as the season goes on they’ll want to be more clinical.”
Adam Blackmore: “The players who have stood out for me so far are obviously Virgil, Dušan and Charlie Austin, but more so Virgil and Dušan. If you look at the three of them as part of a backbone of the side, it’s very encouraging all three are in good form. Virgil had a more difficult game than I’ve ever seen him have with the ball at his feet against Leicester, but aside from that, and it just shows he good he is that we even notice things like that, he has been imperious.
“Dušan Tadić’s creativity, we can see how much Claude realises how important it is, because he’s played him in almost every game. He has started to relish that position, and the movement between the front players has started to improve. We’ve seen more of a three rotating around, and I think that’s really good.
“I also think Charlie taking that ball off Dušan in the Prague cup game, while it was something I criticised at the time, could be seen as a massive point in the season, because it’s gone on to give him that confidence.
“I think José Fonte’s form is improving by the game, I think Cédric’s done well to perform at the level he has without quite as much rest as José, and I also think that we’ve seen Shane and Steven probably for me have the hardest task in recovering their edge from last season, and I think both are picking up, Steven especially, and I think Shane is working as hard as ever and just needs a goal to improve his confidence. You see with Austin how much difference, literally, a goal makes to a striker’s season.”
What have you made of the Europa League campaign so far?
Paul Belverstone: “I asked James Ward-Prowse about the atmosphere and if it was different for the Prague game and he said it clearly was. It seemed like a good reward for the club and the players for all the hard work that’s gone into the last few seasons.
“The draw was good. It’s a difficult one, but with a couple of wonderful cities to visit, and then that unusual, long away trip that will surely have only done the squad good things. Playing so far away and then playing at the champions a couple of days later is a new challenge, and one they’ve risen to.
“It looks like there’s a real possibility of getting into the knockout stage, and what amazing progress that would be.”
Adam Leitch: “I think it’s been a great start. I feel like the next round of games is going to be absolutely crucial for the group in general and particularly Saints as well.
“The Inter Milan story has been a very odd one. We know they’ve left out four of their big players, for financial fair play reasons, but then they’ve also left some of their remaining star names out of the games. What we don’t know, and what I think we’ll discover in San Siro, is do they not want to get anything from this competition? Because, if they don’t, then they will presumably field pretty much the same team again and Saints have got a very good chance of getting a win that would effectively knock Inter out.
“But, if they thought – mistakenly, as it turns out – that they could field a bit of a reserve team and it would be enough against Hapoel and Sparta then actually they’re at a point of no return with the Saints game. In that case, I think they would have to play a really strong team and go seriously for the win. If you’re Milan and you want to get through, you probably feel you need to take four points, but whether that’s what they want to do or not I don’t know.
“If not, that’s really played into Saints’ hands, because from what I’ve seen there’s no doubt they’re stronger than Sparta and Hapoel, so I fully expect Southampton to get through this group now. I’d be amazed and really disappointed if they didn’t make it through.
“In terms of the experience as a whole, it’s been really good. The atmosphere over in Be’er Sheva was phenomenal in the stadium – like nothing I’ve ever really experienced before, and I think a few of the players said much the same. It’s been good, but you kind of feel like you’ve got the glamour trips to come, which is quite nice. I think you can see the players have got something from it already, with their performances domestically.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “I’ve been very impressed. I was at the game against Sparta Prague and the atmosphere was great. I think everyone in the city is really getting behind it.
“It was a great point away in Israel, and everyone’s now looking forward to these two games against Inter. They’ll be two great occasions, but I think Saints’ players have shown they belong at that level.
“If they can go to Milan and get a famous win in the San Siro, you almost have to say they’ve already got one foot in the knockout stages, which is an incredible achievement in itself.”
Adam Blackmore: “Saints have made a very solid start and haven’t given away a goal in two matches. They are going the right way about it, and they’ve managed to pick up four points. It’s been a great adventure already.
"Going to Israel was an eye-opener for everybody, I think the trips to Milan and Prague are going to be special, and I think the chemistry of the group is so different to what we imagined three weeks ago, with the way Inter have started, how Be’er Sheva have been and how disappointing Prague were.
"The Israeli journalists I spoke to all thought Southampton were favourites to top the group, which I don’t think any of us would necessarily have said before the autumn.”
What do you feel are realistic expectations for this season now?
Paul Belverstone: “When we spoke in the summer, I said this would be the toughest season ever just to get into the top half. But then there are some teams struggling. I would say at the moment, cracking the top four is still too big an ask, particularly with playing in the Europa League. I don’t think anyone should expect matching sixth place with everything else going on this season, but I’d be surprised if Southampton dropped out of the top eight. Let’s say fifth to eighth would be a real strong possibility and then a good cup run as well.
“It’s early days, but we could comfortably say Southampton finish let’s say seventh, reach the Europa League knockout stages and then a semi-final or so. What a season that would be.”
Adam Leitch: “I haven’t really changed my mind from when we last spoke in the summer. What I’d really like to see is a really good cup run for them. The way the group is opening up in the Europa League, if they continue to play well they should get through. If Saints get to the knockout stages and especially if they get through perhaps two rounds and are moving towards the quarter-finals that would be so exciting. If they could couple that with doing well in a domestic cup I think that would be a cracking season, and then I think you would say you would take comfortable mid-table in the Premier League.
“I think it will be hard with the amount of fixtures and the quality of the teams to realistically challenge for European football via the league this season, so I definitely would like to see a situation where they get through the group, maybe make progress in another cup and just have a good, building season in the league. There’s probably a real chance they might not be in Europe next year, given how rare it is for them to qualify, and the fixture pile-up they’ve got, so really make the most of it and then use that experience and that building process in the league under Puel next season to really have a big springboard to get back there again. For me, that would be a really positive season for them.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “Before the season started, I thought tenth or 11th place, but seeing some of the results and the way they’ve played they’ve exceeded expectations so far, and I thin potentially a seventh or eighth-place finish.
"Top six is maybe a bit out of reach, but definitely a top-ten finish doesn’t seem to be out of the question. They’ve coped with some of the departures well, the new manager’s philosophy is coming across nicely and I think the next month to six weeks is going to be pretty pivotal.
"There’s some tough games coming up – Inter twice, Man City, Chelsea. If they can get some really positive results then confidence can build. So far so good is the assessment.”
Adam Blackmore: “I would like them to treat all four competitions the same. The reason I say that is because I don’t think in the big scheme of things it matters if you finish seventh or eighth in the Premier League or 14th or 15th. While the media and the Premier League itself might put massive importance on that, I think Southampton are a club who can win something. If I’m a player or a manager, I want to be winning things.
“It’s one short career. People like to win things, fans want to go to semi-finals and finals. I want to see Saints attack the League Cup, I want to see them attack the FA Cup – I think they’re already attacking the Europa League, and I think they’ve got enough about them and enough talent – we’ve still got to see Boufal, remember – and enough strength in depth that I don’t see why they can’t do that.
“I would love them to be ambitious on all four fronts, even if it meant come May not being in the top half of the Premier League. I would sacrifice a sixth, seventh or eighth place finish for a semi-final in the League Cup or FA Cup and getting through the group stages of the Europa League.”