Reporters' verdict on season so far
With the season having reached the latest international break, we got two journalists who cover Southampton regularly to take stock of the campaign so far.
Giving us their thoughts were Joe Prince-Wright, of NBC Sports, and Paul Belverstone, of Premier League Productions.
Tomorrow will see part two of the feature, as the duo discuss the EFL Cup, the Europa League campaign, and what they hope to see from the side in the final weeks of 2016.
How would you grade the season to this point?
Joe Prince-Wright: “It started off quite shaky, then there was a great run in September, October time, where things started to click with quite a few wins in a row, and the clean sheet run was fantastic.
“In the last few weeks there have been a few untimely league defeats, with a tough month or so coming up. It’s probably right about where Saints fans thought they would be at the moment. I gave Saints a C-plus on the grades I did on our website, so I think I’ll stick with that – a passing grade, but maybe just expecting a little bit more.”
Paul Belverstone: “I think the highlight so far was undoubtedly beating the three-time European champions, Inter. What an evening that was, and a thoroughly-deserved result.
“There have been plenty of other good ones along the way, with that seven-game unbeaten run, and going to the Etihad and drawing up there a few days after visiting San Siro showed real maturity.
“It’s been a new experience this season, and they’ve shown they’re not out of place in Europe and are learning very quickly.
“The rotation as well has been extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a manager rotate so successfully. Ok, there’s been a couple of slip-ups recently. Hull was disappointing, but I don’t think anyone could have lived with Chelsea the other week.
“Overall, a little bit disappointed maybe to be tenth at this stage, but it’s not been bad at all, and they're still in the quarter-finals of the League Cup, so I’d give the season a B grade."
What have you learned and what has stood out since the last international break?
Paul Belverstone: “I think it has been that rotation for me. It’s very unusual, I think, to see teams so confident in each other, no matter who’s playing.
“A lot of teams have very good replacements in a couple of positions, but Claude Puel has managed to change the whole team, yet they still play the same way and have great confidence in each other, and I think that is quite unusual."
Joe Prince-Wright: "Just being more clinical, which we spoke about last time. I saw a stat that Saints’ average expected goals per game is very high, with the chances they are creating, but they’re actually just not putting the chances away.
“The old adage goes if you’re creating chances that’s always good, but I think for most of this season fans would agree they really should have buried a lot of teams early on. You look at the game at San Siro, and then Hull away was a perfect example.
“They’ve also given up more points than any other Premier League team from a winning position this season, so it kind of tells its own story. A lot of fast starts, but they need to make the most of those. The positive is they’re creating a lot of chances, though.”
Which players have stood out in the last few weeks, as well as across the season so far?
Sam mcqueen has been phenomenal. he's been a massive, massive plus.joe prince-wright
Joe Prince-Wright: “Virgil van Dijk was the one we spoke about before, and I think he’s been a mountain for them. Especially in that second half against Inter at St Mary’s, I thought he stepped up and showed leadership, scored the goal, and drove the team on.
“Since we last spoke, Sam McQueen has been phenomenal. I remember being at West Ham and he was sat a couple of rows behind me in the stands, just watching with the fans, and a couple of weeks later he’s playing in San Siro and has played a good run of games at left back and done really, really well. I think he’s looked brilliant on the ball and has been a massive, massive plus.
“After that, the likes of Tadić and Austin have been good as well. Austin has been the player you know is going to put away those chances when they fall to him. I think those are the real standout players for me.”
Paul Belverstone: “Virgil has carried on from where he left off, and it was interesting hearing what Puel said about him possibly becoming one of the best defenders in the world. He’s a threat up front and a monster at the back.
“I mentioned Oriol Romeu before, and I’m still very impressed with the way he’s taken over the Wanyama mantle. Tadić I think has also shown a bit more consistency than he perhaps has in the past.
“It will be interesting to see if he and Boufal can fit in the same team. And that goal from Boufal, which had no place in that Sunderland game, has got mouths watering about what he can bring to the club in the next few weeks and months.
“I’m always a fan of Steven Davis as well. He just keeps everything ticking along so nicely."
Claude Puel says he feels Virgil van Dijk can become one of the best defenders in the world. How far do you think he can go?
Joe Prince-Wright: “I don’t really see a better centre-back in the Premier League than him this season.
“There’s no reason to say why he can’t go on to be one of the best defenders in the world, because he all the attributes coaches look for in a modern centre-half – he's good on the ball, he comes out, starts attacks and he links up the play.
“When he came to Southampton last season, I think at times he was a little bit erratic in terms of positional sense and maybe taking a few too many risks on the ball, but he seems now to have found a good balance.
“I think he’s flown under the radar the last six months outside of Southampton, but I think more and more people around the league and Europe and the world are starting to realise just how good he is. It proves once again how good the business Saints do is.”
Paul Belverstone: “He’s got everything about him as a defender, and it’s interesting Puel wants him to be defending higher up the pitch, without that safety blanket of the keeper close behind him.
“The fact he has adapted to that so well is tremendous, because then that means you can essentially slot into any team.
“He’s excellent at intercepting the ball, winning the ball, tackling, clearing – he’s got everything – and I think his partnership with José Fonte is excellent as well, but the fact he can then become the senior partner very easily in the Europa League games, I think he is showing he can still achieve an awful lot with Southampton.
“In the mixed zone after Inter, which was before Claude’s comments, he was telling us he feels he still has a lot of improving to do and feels he is doing that under this manager, so that’s a nice positive sign as well, that he’s not thinking ‘I’m the finished article, where can I go now?’"