Claude Puel is a very interesting figure. Minimal hype was made of the former Nice manager’s arrival on the south coast and 6 months into his journey with Southampton and things have been hit and miss as they sit in 12th place in the Premier League. Puel’s men have however booked their ticket to Wembley with an EFL Cup Final showdown against Manchester United, showing that his side has potential to become a respected side, but how far can the Frenchman take the Saints?
Now, the typical cliché response will say that he probably won’t be there in a few years’ time and even if he is, he will be forced to let go of his best players as his predecessors Pochettino and Koeman were victims of. However, Puel has a host of characteristics that enables him to withstand and survive any potential raids that might occur during his tenure.
Youth is something that Puel prides himself on and he is always keen to show faith in young players as clearly exhibited in his last season in Ligue 1 with Nice. Looking back at last season, Nice were the surprise package finishing in 4th place and two points off qualification for the Champions League. One of the most surprising stats however is the fact that his side had the lowest average age in the league and that really is a testament to how he sets up his sides. Standout players like Ricardo Pereira, Vincent Koziello and Jean Michael Seri were imperative to his side’s success last season and none of those players were over the age of 23.
The fact that Puel is so hands on with youth players makes him a match in heaven for the senior officials at Southampton. Past experiences in France have forced the Frenchman to work with smaller transfer budgets and this will have undoubtedly played into Southampton’s hands as they know that they have appointed someone that will continue the tradition of promoting academy graduates to the first team. A club that is known for producing some of the best British players like Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and most notably Gareth Bale, Puel has been responsible for bringing through the next crop of bright talents and has already started that process by integrating the likes of Josh Sims and Jack Stephens into the first team.
With the arrival of Manolo Gabbiadini from Napoli, Southampton now have a team that is truly capable of staking their claim as a real contender for the top 6. From top to bottom, they have players in every position that are more than able to shoot this side to success. Forster is a decent keeper and while the loss of Fonte is yet another sign of what has become so common on the south coast, he can be replaced and particularly with the form of Virgil Van Dijk this season, they will be somewhat grateful that it was their ageing captain that left. Cedric and Bertrand provide the necessary width that Southampton miss at times when they choose to play narrow.
Their midfield has been their core for so many years and almost on an annual basis that core gets stripped and they are forced to start from scratch again but now they truly have a pool of very decent and underrated central midfielders. Oriol Romeu has really impressed under Puel so far this season as the more defensive midfielder, the former Chelsea man has finally found his feet in the Premier League and Jordy Clasie is a very suitable challenger to battle for that spot on the pitch. It has to be stressed how pivotal Romeu has been this season and he is the one who protects the defence. Then we have James Ward-Prowse who looks to have got over the injuries. The youth product and England under 21s captain is excelling in the Southampton team now he is getting a long string of games. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, a summer signing from Bayern Munich and once touted as a future world star has had a patchy start to life in the Premier League but his qualities on the ball compliment the side very nicely and as he adapts to the league you will see just how good he can be, so watch out for him. Steven Davis is a really important component to the team as he offers a lot of experience to the midfield and Harrison Reed continues to prove a reliable back up from the youth academy.
The flanks are where we begin to see the real talent at disposal in Southampton. Nathan Redmond has been one of those English youngsters that have been dubbed as one that has great potential but his career over the years stagnated with Norwich. Now at Southampton and he is already showing glimpses of what is capable of doing playing both on the flanks and a striker. Sofiane Boufal is another young summer signing however he took a bit of time to get going after a few injuries but he too has shown flashes of absolute brilliance with his trickery and his ability to beat a man. Jay Rodriguez has been a player that has been plagued with long term injuries since his move from Burnley but he now seems to have come out a better player. Often deployed on the left side of the attacking trio, he still has that goalscoring touch from his time as a striker and that is shown in the fact that only Austin has scored more goals than him for the Saints. Tadic is a very technical, talented player that hasn’t been used as much this season but he is experienced and he is good at linking up play in the final third while young Josh Sims is a young player who has impressed a lot of people with his cameos this season. His composure and his eye to pick out a pass for someone that is so young will certainly have fans excited about how good he can become.
Finally, the strikers are a mixture of different styles that the team are able to adapt to and play to that player’s strengths. Charlie Austin is the first choice striker and he again is another one that has been hampered with injuries over the past few years and is currently on the treatment table but he is a typical #9. He gets himself about and can put invite a bit of pressure from defenders. For a big man, he is quite good with the ball at his feet and he definitely knows how to find the back of the net which is backed up by the fact that he is Southampton’s top goal scorer with 9 goals in 19 appearances. If he can stay fit then Puel definitely has a competent striker on his hands. Shane Long is the alternative striker and he offers a different dimension for the side; his work rate is a valuable asset for the side when he runs his socks off for 90 minutes. While his selfless style of play benefits the team, it can hinders the amount of goals he scores.
The most interesting move of their transfer window is the signing of ex-Napoli’s Manolo Gabbiadini. He is a player that has lots of potential but wasn’t able to really act upon that whilst at Napoli. Whilst his first season in Naples was very fruitful in terms of goals, the emergence of world class form from the likes of Gonzalo Higuain and surprisingly Dries Mertens, coupled with the signing of strikers Arkadiusz Milik and Leonardo Pavoletti had severely limited the number of minutes that he was given on the pitch.
So what can the Saints fans expect from the Italian? Well, firstly don’t let the lack of goals he scored at Napoli discourage you. It’s that old cliché ‘stats don’t tell the full story’ and it is evident in this case because it is important to note that Gabbiadini is not a natural striker. While he has been deployed there many a time for both Sampdoria and Napoli, he doesn’t possess the awareness or have the necessary understanding of how to lead the line effectively. Whilst he hasn’t enjoyed too much success down the middle, he has learnt a lot about holding up the play, inviting other players into the equation and creating clear cut chances. Given time, the Italian could well prove to have a future as a false nine if Puel decides to play him at striker, he must most importantly allow him to develop with patience. Gabbiadini is much more effective and suited to a role behind the striker or on the right side of the field. He really has many great assets to his game starting with his magical left foot of his. When given time and space, Gabbiadini is capable of truly spectacular plays whether it is his weight of pass perfectly finding his intended target or if he chooses to have a go from long range where he often attempts to bend the ball into the corner. He is very similar in the way that he operates on the wing like Jay Rodriguez and this means that he is a more potent goal threat from the wide areas than Redmond or Boufal and this can benefit them massively.
While the future is looking very bright for the Saints, there is two key issues that need to also be addressed and it stems from the amount of losses that they have. 10 losses so far in the Premier League leave them in 12th place and a mixture of conceding too many goals and ultimately at the other end not scoring enough. To combat this, one would recommend that Southampton sign at least two defensive reinforcements in the summer. The loss of Jose Fonte is a real disappointment as he was the captain but moreover his performances were for the most part pretty good this season and to go from Fonte to Yoshida is a serious downgrade. A potential target for the centre back area in the summer could be Issa Diop from Toulouse who is earning rave reviews for his showings in Ligue 1. Tall, strong and commanding in the air. Puel always has his eye on things back home in France and he should look no further than the young French centre back. Another centre back that they could look to sign is Martin Caceres who is currently a free agent after his contract with Juventus expired back in July 2016. The Uruguayan is very experienced, playing for various respectable European outfits such as Barcelona, Sevilla and most recently Juventus. The main positive about this signing would be the fact that Caceres is versatile and can play anywhere across the back line which will mean that he can provide cover if one of the main full backs were to get injured.
- 4-2-3-1 – This formation will work nicely for Southampton. Romeu will sit just in front of the defence and shield them from any danger which will allow Ward-Prowse to venture further forward. The trickery of Boufal and the speed of Redmond offer two different tests on each flank while Tadic pulls the strings and Austin leads the line. This is an alternative approach they can use against teams that are around them in the table in a bid to surprise their opposition.
- 4-3-3 – This is the formation that is probably most identical to the one that is usually deployed under Puel right now. Clasie will act as the destroyer, Davis will be all over the pitch working box to box and Ward-Prowse will play slightly more advanced in order to try and link up with the forward three. Rodriguez and Gabbiadini are both very similar players when played out wide so they will both look to cut in field onto their stronger foot and attempt to test the keeper and Long will be up front alone but given his characteristics, he will always been on the move closing players down. This can be used in games against sides that are lower in the table.
- 4-4-2 – This last formation should mostly be used against the bigger teams in the league. The midfield pairing of Romeu and Davis will give you solidarity and discipline in the midfield, the wide men in Gabbiadini and Tadic will be tasked with helping the midfield stay compact but whenever they do get the ball they will look to set one of the two strikers on their way. The strike partnership of Long and Redmond is something that is made for a side that is playing on the counter because you have Long who will run tirelessly all game in a bid to help the team both defensively and going forward. Nathan Redmond will operate more as a second striker playing just off Long, so he will be able to come short at times to collect the ball and spark a counter or he could stay alongside Long, use his pace and spin into space for the ball to be played into.
Claude Puel has assembled a good squad that has a balance of youth and experience. They are set up very well, fast on the break, comfortable on the ball. The biggest question to be asked is whether Southampton will able to now retain this current roster of talent within their team or will it be all a sense of déjà vu. Exciting times await fans of the south coast club if they do, as the Saints will undoubtedly be marching on.
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