12/08/2017: 2017/18 Season Preview
When looking ahead to the 2017/18 campaign you could probably recycle most of the material used in the previews for last season and few would notice the difference. Once again Saints start with a new manager. Mauricio Pellegrino may well add some much-needed energy after a listless year under Claude Puel, but as things stand it's difficult to imagine things changing too much. With no European football, Pellegrino has more time to develop his own style of play, but there's only so much he can do. The squad he inherits is almost identical to the one which looked so unimpressive for much of last season. As long as Saints are run as efficiently as they are at present they are unlikely to fall too far, but a lack of genuine star quality within the ranks means a push to the next level seems insurmountable.
For the first time since 2013/14 Saints could well end the window having not lost a single key player. Virgil van Dijk is the only one who still has his future shrouded in doubt. The interminable saga took another twist on Monday, when the defender publicly stated his desire to leave with a written transfer request. The noises coming out of St Mary's seem to suggest that the club are prepared to hold firm this time. van Dijk is under contract until 2022, so his value is unlikely to drop to a significant degree within the next 24 months. Saints traditionally like to get their outgoing business done early, so if it was going to happen, logic suggests that it would have already.
The club are right to take a strong stance. van Dijk has too much professional pride to spend all season sulking on the sidelines. If he comes back after August he will improve the team. Even if he remains unmotivated, he's still more likely to perform to a higher standard than any realistic replacement. As well as Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida did during the second-half of last season, Saints' options at centre back look scarce right now. Jose Fonte still hasn't really been replaced, with new boy Jan Bednarek looking like one for the future, rather than someone who will be able to slot in instantly. If Liverpool or anyone else offer astronomical money at this stage of the game, Saints should resist. The club garnered impressive fees for Victor Wanyama, Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane, but none of those players have been truly replaced as of yet, to the detriment of the team. We can't play our balance sheet at centre back. Moreover, keeping van Dijk would send a strong message that we won't be bullied into giving way by either bigger clubs or want-away players.
You can never read too much into pre-season, but for what it's worth Saints have looked quite pedestrian on the ball, just as they did for much of 2016/17. Pellegrino's men got better as the game went on in the final match against Sevilla last week, but problems still persist. The team has looked incredibly shaky at the back at times, and slow and unimaginative in the final third. The most impressive performances have come from the home grown talents of Stephens, Matt Targett and James Ward-Prowse. Stephens' defensive awareness and leadership skills get better by the game. Yoshida alongside him has looked a bit sloppy at times, although he often does in pre-season. Targett has provided several assists and has generally performed well, plugging away up and down the left flank. On the other side Jake Flannigan put in a decent cameo in the Sevilla outing. Had he not sustained two lengthy injuries he might well have been in the same position Targett and Sam McQueen are in right now as a dependable squad player. Behind them Fraser Forster hasn't looked entirely convincing.
Oriol Romeu has looked as commanding as you would expect. He should be boosted by the arrival of Gabon international Mario Lemina, who has signed from Juventus for a record fee. Saints were in badly need of an extra body in that area of the pitch. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg showed early promise last season -- and may well still come good -- but was largely disappointing. Jordy Clasie has been passable, but he's easily upgradable. Steven Davis has always looked much better playing a more advanced role.
At the top end of the pitch James Ward-Prowse has looked just as dynamic and motivated as he does in competitive games. Sofiane Boufal has shown sparks of brilliance. Provided he stays fit and the crowd keep off his back he could really deliver this season. He's an unbelievably gifted player, who is capable of great things. Charlie Austin has scored a few goals, but otherwise looked typically statuesque. Manolo Gabbiadini looks as sharp as he did during his first few weeks at the club. Saints could still do with another centre forward. Austin and Shane Long cannot be relied upon when it comes to fitness or consistency. We have also lacked that big physical presence in the box since Pelle left for China. Unless Pellegrino has seen something special in Sam Gallagher during pre-season, this is surely an issue that still needs addressing.