Squad strengthening

Last updated : 23 July 2004 By Editor

Usually at this time of year Saints fans would be ruefully looking at the fixture list to check the run in. Unfortunately, this would be to determine how likely it was that Saints would stay in the division rather than involving any European aspirations.

In recent years, however, under the guiding hand of Rupert Lowe, Saints have slowly built up both quality and depth in their playing and coaching staff.

More than any other Premiership club, Southampton have a reputation for steady progression and patience. Not for us the boom or bust of Leeds, or mortgaging our future as Manchester City, Birmingham and others have done.

Lowe has insisted on prudence in both the transfer market and in establishing wage and contract structures. While it might not make us the most exciting team in the league, in terms of gossip and star names, at least it makes us less likely to face catastrophe should we slip down a division. Fans need only look to the likes of Bradford and Sheffield Wednesday to realise the sense in taking this approach.

The board must be congratulated for keeping a steady ship through a succession of managers, each making the club a little stronger than the last. Well, perhaps not Stuart Gray, but then that was another example of the board looking to build consistency and longevity to the coaching staff.

As a result, Paul Sturrock has inherited a squad full of talent and, just as importantly, with enough depth to accommodate tactical changes and back up in the event of injury. While we miss the sheer talent of Matthew LeTissier, we are a far cry from depending on a single player to pull our fat out of the fire every season.

The club have worked hard to keep together the core of the side, by extending contracts well in advance of expiry. Antii Niemi was just the latest to sign a new deal giving Saints fans as much security as possible that one of the Premiership's best ''keepers would remain with the club.

The central defensive partnership of Lundekvam and Michael Svensson proved to be rock solid in front of Niemi, giving the team an enviable defensive record. With the experience of Dodd on the right and Le Saux on the left, it's going to prove to be a hard task back line to score against.

Of course, this back four were rarely seen together last year due to injuries. Le Saux is very attack minded, and the side suffered without him. We have replacements in Crainey, Higginbotham and now Belgian international Jelle Van Damme. Van Damme would seem the likely replacement for Le Saux on a regular basis, however there's nothing to prevent Darren Kenton switching flanks.

Kenton, a superb attacking right back has found his appearances limited by the continued form of Jason Dodd. Although Dodd is in the twilight of his career he's proven to be a very hard man to replace.

Waiting in the wings with Kenton is Chris Baird, who has also recently signed a new deal. Baird has waited for a long time for his chance and many thought he would have had more opportunities since the FA Cup final.

If Saints have a problem, it's in scoring from midfield. This inability puts a lot of pressure on the strikers. It's clearly an area where Sturrock, a proponent of attacking football at Plymouth, looks for improvement in the forthcoming season.

There's certainly neither a lack of numbers or talent in the midfield area, but there remains a reluctance or game plan to make the most of that area. The closest Saints have come to attacking midfield play involved Wayne Bridge as an overlapping fullback with Chris Marsden closing any gaps and providing support. If Fernandes was having a good day, Saints at least looked threatening. With Bridge and Marsden both gone, Saints need to come up with a new combination.

Saints have missed out in bringing either Javier De Pedro or De Marcus Beasley into the team, and pace is certainly lacking down the flanks. Fabrice Fernandes is still the team's main threat from out wide, but can be frustrating to watch as he constantly looks to cut inside.

Of course, the lack of players able to pick up his passes or move into an overlapping plays a large part in these disappointing attacks. With Mikael Nielsson arriving before the start of the season from Halmstad, Saints will hopefully have gone some way to solving this problem.

With David Prutton and Matt Oakley available, there's no doubt that Saints will be able to break up play and dominate midfield. Perhaps with Prutton's holding ability Oakley will once again show what an excellent shot he possesses further forward.

Anders Svensson and Rory Delap are other options for Sturrock so there's no shortage of cover for the midfield positions.

Up front Beattie and Phillips are potentially a great combination. With Pahars, Ormerod and now Crouch each having particular strengths to give Paul Sturrock, the club's strike force has rarely looked better. Sturrock will have his work cut out keeping everyone happy as well as making tough decisions on which two are best for which games.

So, in closing, Saints fans have plenty to look forward to, with any further transfers likely to increase direct competition for first team places. While Saints have no doubt budgeted for the usual twelfth spot in the table, there's no reason why we can't aim higher.