Opposition view: Saints need to prove they are still motivated against Canaries
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Ahead of tonight’s restart clash with Norwich City, Total Saints Podcast host Ben Stanfield gives us the Southampton perspective ahead of kick-off at Carrow Road.
Q Has the three-month break changed much for Saints, have injuries cleared up?
A Obviously, like most clubs, we’ll have to wait and see who is ‘match fit’ for Carrow Road, but the general view is that, yes, it’s helped several players recover from knocks and niggles, not least Nathan Redmond. Saints have a fairly small senior squad, in terms of quality and experience, so in hindsight giving everyone a chance to recharge the batteries could well have come at the perfect time.
Q It was four defeats in five ahead of lockdown, what was behind the downturn in form?
A I think it was probably due to two main reasons. Firstly, having rapidly risen to 34 points - bearing in mind we were only on eight at the start of November - it felt like some of the Saints lads had started thinking about ‘flip-flops and sun cream’ to be honest. The “another couple of wins and we’re safe” attitude then saw us outfought by teams seemingly more committed to picking up the points (Burnley, West Ham, Newcastle etc). Secondly, despite having gone through most of the season without many injuries or disciplinary issues, the likes of Redmond, Stuart Armstrong, Kyle Walker-Peters and Moussa Djenepo had all missed some or all of those games, so that didn’t help either.
Q Nathan Redmond seemed to play a big part in the strong mid-season form, was his injury a big blow?
A What’s that saying about “you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone”? Nathan had actually had a fairly up and down season anyway. He was out for a few weeks in October, then took a little while to get back to his best. Having been instrumental during our wonderful run over Christmas and the New Year, he got injured again about a month or so before lockdown and, from that moment on, his pace, creativity and goals were definitely a loss to the team. Now he’s back, hopefully the team will get a real boost from that over the remaining nine matches.
Q Which players were the top performers prior to the season being suspended?
A There’s probably been two stand out performers this season. James Ward-Prowse has scored some crucial goals, covered every blade of grass and has proven adaptable as well - shifting to right-back in a couple of desperate situations. He’s had a really consistent season. But our best performer and, I suspect, still the guaranteed Player of the Season, is Danny Ings. A local lad and Saints fan, Ings has scored 15 Premier League goals, which is no mean feat in a side that doesn’t create loads of chances. When you also add in his constant work rate and pressing of opposition defenders, Danny has stood out as the one Saints player who’s performed well above average since August. You just hope he hits the ground running once the season restarts.
Q And which areas of the team needed improvement?
A Defence! The back line has needed an overhaul for at least two years now - since Virgil van Dijk went to Liverpool - but investment in the right player(s) simply hadn’t been made. There is no dominant and communicative centre-back anywhere within the club and, when you look at how many goals we’ve conceded already this season - that catastrophic 9-0 loss to Leicester aside - its meant dropping far more points than we’ve gained. The whole squad needs looked at this summer - whatever league we eventually end up in - but if we only have enough budget for one area of the pitch, it must be signing a quality defender or two.
Q The board stood by Ralph Hasenhuttl after that loss to Leicester and you look likely to stay up, does he have the faith of the fans?
A Ralph actually did a great job in keeping us up last season, given where we were at the start of December. While we all hoped we would push on this season, with a target of mid-table obscurity, its simply not happened - mainly due to the collective squad not really being good enough. He’s since signed a new four-year deal during lockdown, been working on an ‘SFC Playbook’ while self-isolating - which is designed around a strategic pathway from under-nines to the first team - so we’re looking forward to him now being around for a little while longer, and starting to move the club forward. Ralph is a very charismatic and passionate guy, so I’m excited about where we can go under his leadership, once we get this season done and dusted.
Q Angus Gunn seemed to take the fall for the 9-0 loss to Leicester, could he be available this summer?
A It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the goalkeeper position this summer. The club is currently carrying Alex McCarthy, Angus and Fraser Forster - all on senior salaries! None of them have really made the number one shirt their own over the last 24 months, so Hasenhuttl may look to move two of them out and bring a new goalie in instead. If any of them are to leave then I would expect it to be Forster, so that’ll more than likely mean Gunn and McCarthy remain. From what I hear, Saints still rate Gunn very highly, but he needs to start showing the potential that encouraged us to spend so much money on him.
Q Have you been surprised to see Norwich struggle this season?
A Whenever I’d seen the Canaries play this season I was impressed. There was certainly no lack of effort, but the ability to score goals one end and keep them out at the other appeared a hard balance to get right - as we also know at Saints! The likes of Pukki and Cantwell had performed well, and Tim Krul also seemed to be coming into form as well. As we all know, the key now will be how quickly players can get going again. Overall, it proves how challenging the Premier League is given, though generally performing well, Norwich have found themselves at the bottom for a fair while now - and I don’t just mean because of lockdown!
Q And finally, what is your prediction for Friday night?
A Its hard to really predict a score after so much time off. For many clubs and players I think it’ll essentially feel like the first competitive match of the season. Given there haven’t been many friendlies either, who knows what’s going to happen. I think there’ll certainly be some rustiness at both ends of the pitch. For all those reasons, I’m going to plant myself firmly on the fence with a 1-1.
- Ben Stanfield is the host of the Total Saints Podcast, head to Twitter.com/TotalSaintsPod for their latest episode.