29/08/2015: August 2015 Round-Up
Our European adventure was far too short, but it certainly captured the imagination of the Southampton fanbase this summer. Even the pre-season programme generated more interest than usual. Austria was fairly low-key, with approximately 50 fans journeying over for a few uneventful friendlies. The week in the Netherlands was slightly more memorable. The Feyenoord game was a particular highlight. With the home side selling out their 51,000 capacity stadium in a matter of hours it didn't really feel like a friendly. There was a great atmosphere generated early on, although the Feyenoord supporters were a lot more subdued after their team went behind. The presentation and reception afforded to Graziano Pelle and Jordy Clasie just prior to kick-off was a really nice touch. Saints played their part too. Around 600 fans made the journey to Rotterdam, a decent effort all things considered.
Arnhem was on a different level in terms of fan experience. There was of course some trouble before the game, but that was nipped in the bud pretty quickly and was very much an isolated incident. The majority of Saints and Vitesse fans happily mixed together before and after the game. The atmosphere in the fans square prior to kick-off was one of the best I've ever experienced. It felt as if the entire population of Southampton had descended on Arnhem. Fans stocked up on plastic footballs, and attempted to boot them into the open windows in the surrounding buildings, as the local DJ blasted out samples of old school classics mixed in with unlistenable Europop. The match itself almost felt like an afterthought.
With only 550 odd fans making the trip to Herning, the pre-match build up was inevitably not quite as lively as it was in Arnhem, but there was still plenty of fun to be had. The atmosphere at both games was very good, but by the last 15 minutes in Herning all the enthusiasm had been completely drained from Saints supporters. A small group of fans started a new chant for Cedric to the tune of 'She's Electric', which is the best thing we've come up with in like forever. Sadly as it isn't Seven Nation Army or the usual interchangeable guff then I suspect it won't get picked up by the masses. The trip itself was pretty decent overall. I just hope we don't have to wait another 12 years to experience it again.
Most fans probably expected us to do a bit worse in the league this season, but a longer run in Europe would have softened the blow. Now that we're out it's difficult to know what to get excited about. While there have been some extenuating circumstances - injured players and at least one more to join before deadline day on Monday, there's no getting away from the fact that there are issues with the team at the moment. Much of our success over the past six years has come from having an excellent youth system and expert player recruitment, but we’re no longer as strong in these areas as we once were.
Our transfer business this summer has been nothing short of cheap and unambitious. Many of the players we've signed wouldn't have even been on our radar a couple of years ago. Standards have been lowered considerably. During the previous few years we always did business with a view to improving on what we had. This summer it feels like we've just been filling gaps. It already appears that Ronald Koeman doesn't have that much faith in Juanmi. Steven Caulker has been ok, but like many of the others, someone we wouldn't have even looked twice at two years ago. Cuco Martina looks painfully average. Maarten Stekelenburg has been passable. The jury is still out on Cedric, although it's probably fair to say he's some way off the level Nathaniel Clyne was at. Oriol Romeu has some class about him, but there's still something missing and I can't quite put my finger on it yet. Clasie may well turn out to be a very good player when he returns to fitness and Virgil Van Dijk or whichever other centre back we sign may ease the pressure at the back, but overall it's been a step backwards.
The doom mongering after Nicola Cortese and Mauricio Pochettino left was far from unjustified. Since that time we've lost seven important first team players and only four have signed new contracts. Of those four, two were over 30 and one was crocked. We found a few gems last summer, but a big part of our success last season was down to us having enough quality left over from the Cortese era. Now that Morgan Schneiderlin and Clyne have gone we're nearly all out of genuinely top class players. Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane are pretty much the only ones left and they will almost certainly be gone by this time next year. From a financial point of view the club is in extremely good shape, but what use is having all that money if you don't put it to good use? Ambition has been scaled back in favour of trying to generate as much cash as possible.
Gaston Ramirez's current situation sums up the clubs approach. Koeman doesn't even namecheck him during his press conferences anymore. It would appear Saints are willing to take any offer they get for the playmaker. Even though we are short of attacking quality we would rather save a bit of money on Ramirez's admittedly extortionate wages then potentially boost our creative options. The Uruguayan contributed well from the bench during 2013/14 so the idea that he isn't up to it now when we're much worse than we were then is laughable.
Some have called for time, but the worrying thing is Saints have very few players who look like they are capable of improving to a significant degree, a stark contrast to a few years ago when our squad was packed full of young talent. Ward-Prowse certainly has a lot more room to grow as does Harrison Reed, but apart from that the potential isn't really there.
The lack of recent playing time for Reed has been somewhat troubling. He might not be the finished article yet, but he's never once looked out of his depth. He would have been a better option than Steven Davis as a holding midfielder in recent games. Wanyama will be gone by this time next year if not before so we need to prepare for the future. Reed is not going to get better by warming the bench and playing in U21 games. His potential has been widely recognised. Reed has trained with the full England squad and has reportedly been tracked by Man United. We need to be doing everything to make sure he becomes the player he is capable of being. As a combative academy product Reed will be granted the support and patience required from the crowd. Saints fans need some hope right now and Reed can provide it.
If Koeman doesn't think Reed is up to it, then I don't fancy the chances of most of our other youngsters. Sam Gallagher is a lot further away from the first team than he was 18 months ago. Pochettino was a fan, but Koeman didn't even give him a look-in after his U21 cup heroics last season, at a time when we were struggling in front of goal. It'll be interesting to see how he gets on at MK Dons this season. Jack Stephens and Jordan Turnbull have also been loaned out to Middlesbrough and Swindon respectively. With Saints lacking numbers in central defence, they weren't even considered for a backup spot. Stephens in particular has been around for a fair while now, and isn't much further along than he was in January 2012 when he made his first and so-far only competitive appearance against Coventry. You get the feeling that if they were going to make it they would have done so already.
A few levels below that the outlook is even bleaker. The batch of scholars coming through the academy have been getting steadily worse over the last few years. The U18s have lost their first three games this season. Apart from Callum Slattery - who looks like a genuine star in the making - there isn't much to get excited about in that age group.