Time to kick-on for Southampton

Sunday 28th July 2013 17:14

Mauricio Pochettino: Has had his first pre-season with Saints

Mauricio Pochettino: Has had his first pre-season with Saints

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Southampton FanZoner Ben Stanfield previews the new season as Saints look to consolidate their place in the Premier League.

Well I hope everyone has had a good 'summer' and not found pre-season too tough! Even as fans of our beloved Clubs it's important to make sure that you mentally rest as much as you can at the end of one season, forget about those stresses and strains or near-misses suffered previously and just focus on getting yourself in the right frame of mind to prepare, with of course a renewed anticipation, for yet another new season and the ups and downs that it will inevitably bring to you and your team.

The truth is though, can anything really prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster that we all undertake in following our clubs nationwide?

Here at Southampton we seem to be on the cusp of a wave currently. With back-to-back promotions achieved, before a solid season back in the Premier League last year, we now have strong aspirations to make sure we don't suffer from 'second-season syndrome' and instead kick on to somewhere near mid-table obscurity.

Some Saints fans will no doubt think we can follow the lead of teams like Swansea and West Bromwich Albion from last year and try to target the top eight, whilst other fans will likely feel that even 17th is okay again as long as it means surviving in the toughest league in the world.

Personally I'd like to think that, with the current squad and the astute additions we've made, that 10th is a realistic target to shoot for before a ball is kicked.

How has your pre-season gone?

Pre-season for Saints has certainly looked to be a lot of hard work. With Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching team arriving in January of last season, it's the first chance they've had to undertake pre-season with our players and to start implementing they're own fitness regime, ideas and plans for the season ahead.

Fans have been kept up to speed regularly by the club's media team, via a variety of social media outlets, as to individual player progress and team performances. Having been 'on tour' for several weeks, in both Spain and Austria, there is no doubting that the players have certainly been put through their paces on the training pitch in warm, humid temperatures.

Nigel Adkins had actually made Saints into one of the fittest squads in the Premier League anyway, but Pochettino and his assistants certainly seem to have 'upped the ante' even more this year.

On the pitch Saints have beaten a couple of lower league Spanish sides, also beaten Turkish side Besiktas and, sandwiched in the middle of those, lost to a strong Schalke 04 side who were a couple of weeks ahead of us in their pre-season anyway.

As most fans know and appreciate, pre-season isn't necessarily about winning games anyway, although of course this can build confidence, but is simply more about getting 'match fit' and working on new tactics, formations and routines ahead of the new campaign as well as spending some time bonding as a team as well. From that point-of-view it certainly seems to have been a productive one for Saints ahead of their last couple of upcoming games against top flight Spanish opposition.

Happy with how things have shaped up in terms of transfers - both in and out?

Speaking of team bonding, it's been good to see the new additions to the playing squad - Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama - adapting to life as a Saint and all that comes with that.

Its been noticeable, particularly with Wanyama, how Nicola Cortese is as ever being as ruthless as he can in the transfer market with regards to the amount he will/won't spend on players and, particularly, with their agent's fees.

Cortese, of course, is a banker himself and there aren't many chairmen around in European football that will drive a deal as hard as he will. Wanyama's agents apparently wanted nearly £1m to make the deal happen before it was eventually ironed out, after a couple of weeks, with a payment believed to be much more in favour of the football club.

Alongside these two significant additions, it seems to be common knowledge that we are still searching for another top level striker to support (please note I say support and not replace!) Rickie Lambert.

Lambert will still have a significant part to play for Saints this coming season but, as was noticeable at the end of last year, expecting him to play 38 games at the same level of fitness and consistency is unfair on someone of his age now.

We've been linked with the likes of Osvaldo, Leandro Damiao and, more recently, Roman Lukaku and there is no doubt that we do need another 'hold-up' type striker on our books. Whilst we have the likes of Mayuka and Jay Rodriguez who can play up front if needed, both their strengths are mainly pace and there is something about the presence of Lambert that those players can't replace. It will be interesting to see who we bring in but, otherwise, I think we are pretty much ready to go.

With regards to transfers out of the club, Richard Chaplow has already left to join Millwall and several other out-of-contract players released. The likes of Dean Hammond, Billy Sharp and Steve De Ridder, who are all still contracted to Saints and have played a large part in our recent success, have been left at home to find new clubs and will likely leave before the new season starts - with our best wishes of course.

Is your current manager the right man for the job?

I guess time will tell on this one. I, like many Saints fans, had not really heard of Mauricio Pochettino until he took over at St. Mary's last January but he seems to have gained the support of the playing squad quickly and, with a pre-season now nearly carried out between them, can hopefully push them on to the next level.

I genuinely believe that Saints would have stayed in the Premier League under Nigel Adkins last year anyway, but Pochettino came in and added a bit of international nous to the tactics and team and will enter this 2013-14 campaign with a clean slate but a lot to prove.

It's only fair to give him the whole season before judging him but I think he is the right man to take us forward and achieve that top-10 finish.

I guess one of the significant positives about having such a ruthless chairman like Nicola Cortese is that, should Pochettino come unstuck at any point, then 'The Don', as he is affectionately known on the South Coast, won't hang around in replacing him!

Dare to dream - if everything clicked into place what's the best you could hope for?

Despite what some opposition fans around the country think, most Saints fans aren't arrogant in believing that we are better than we really are. We vigorously support our club, and are very proud to do so, but we are also very knowledgeable and respectful of other teams and their abilities.

With regards to the upcoming Premier League season I honestly think that there are about 10-12 'lesser' teams in the division, including Saints, meaning that quite a few sides will believe that a mid-table finish is achievable.

Whilst I think the top 5 will finish some way clear, and be made up Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham (assuming Bale stays of course!), I honestly believe that outside of that it is a very competitive league.

If everything clicked in to place for Saints then I think a finish around eighth could be secured but there will also be a lot of other sides - the likes of West Ham, West Brom, Norwich etc. who will believe they can finish that high as well.

Back to reality - what are your realistic expectations for the new campaign?

As mentioned in the earlier part of this blog, I think Saints will be targeting a finish of around 10th this year but on the proviso that if they can finish higher they will do all they can to do so.

We need to be able to walk before we can run as a club and, building on last season's solid campaign, should be looking and expecting to target that mid-table position.

Like in any football season momentum is key and getting off to a strong start over the first 10 or so games, which we didn't do last year, is a definite if you want to finish as high as you can.

Who will visiting scouts be keeping an eye on this season?

Although he has just signed a new five-year contract, and was definitely our signing of the summer, I somehow get the feeling that our young left back, Luke Shaw, will still be the attention of most scouts watching Saints play home or away this season.

At 17 (as he was for all of last season), his ability and composure on the ball is similar to that of an experienced veteran. He doesn't panic, isn't overawed defending against the best wingers in the Premier League and gets forward with a pace and ability similar to that of Ryan Giggs in his early years.

I've no doubts at all that Shaw will be England's national team left back for many years to come, once Leighton Baines has had his time in deservedly taking over from Ashley Cole, and of course I hope Shaw will still be with Saints when that happens.

But, although I'm glad he has pledged his long-term future to Saints, five-year contracts don't always mean five years in this day and age - especially when large multi-million pound bids come in for seriously scouted players!

If you had to pick one player who'd be fit for every minute of every game who would it be?

This was a toss-up between Rickie Lambert and Morgan Schneiderlin and, although I believe that Lambert has been our talisman on the pitch pretty much since the day he joined the club, I've instead decided to plump for Schneiderlin!

At just 23 there is little to suggest that Schneiderlin can't become one of the best midfielders to have graced the Premier League. He has so many strengths to his game already but isn't reluctant to put in the hard graft to still improve where he can.He is probably the fittest player in our squad, covers every blade of grass during a game, can pass, can tackle, gets forward, gets back and, most notably last season, has now added scoring goals to his game as well.

He is a lovable character, with a permanent smile, who is always willing to give 100% in the Saints shirt! As a fan of any club that's all you can ask of a player in your team. Morgan consistently has excellent performances and wants to help his team-mates on the field as much as he can.

He was rightly named our Player of the Season in 2012-13 and hopefully will prove to be even better again this season.

On the flip side (without being cruel!), who is the player with most to prove?

For me the player who has most to prove at St. Mary's this coming campaign is Gaston Ramirez.

The Uruguayan arrived at Saints last season with the reputation for being one of the most exciting, young players in the world game but unfortunately, due to a variety of things, didn't really live up to his potential. This season I think he needs too and I really believe he can.

Over the years following the Premier League, we've seen many players come to our shores with a world class reputation only to find the going a little too tough for them - I always remember Mateja Kezman at Chelsea for example who arrived with a prolific goalscoring record in the Dutch league with PSV but who, unfortunately for him, couldn't hit a cow's backside with the proverbial banjo in this country.

Ramirez has the technical ability, there's no argument about that, but what Saints fans want to see this coming season is a little more effort and commitment to go with that ability. He needs to be proud to wear our shirt and give us much effort on the pitch as the other 10 players do. At this level you can't really afford to 'carry' anyone.

This could prove to be a 'make or break' season for Gaston but, having spent a lot of time and money bringing him to the club 12 months ago, I dare say Mr Cortese, along with fans in the stands, will want to see that effort rewarded with consistently strong performances.

If you could sign any one player from any other side in the same division who would you plump for?

Well, as two of the world's top players play in Spanish football, I guess that only leaves one option really. Ironically he is 'one of our own' but there are few better, and in more demand in the world game currently, than Gareth Bale.

Bale, who was brought up through the Saints youth system, has flourished over the last 24 months into the complete player. He has everything you could want in a modern day footballer and its not hard to see why, at the time of writing, Real Madrid are reportedly considering parting with nearly £100m for his services.

Bale's pace and skill means that he creates just as many goals as he scores and, if we're honest, pretty much single-handedly got Spurs so nearly to a Champions League spot last term.

Considering what we sold Gareth Bale to Tottenham for, particularly when you think that part of that deal saw us receive one of the most inept goalkeepers - in Tommy Forecast - to have ever played professional football (former Saints goalkeeping coach Malcolm Webster's words not mine!) it almost brings tears to your eyes knowing that we sold our 'Bale sell-on clause' early with Tottenham just to stave off administration for a few further months in 2009.

Gareth Bale is an incredible player and it will be sad if he leaves English football this summer, particularly for Tottenham fans of course. But if he does fancy a cut-price move back to St. Mary's then I wouldn't hesitate to try and persuade Cortese and Pochettino to do it!!

If you only win one game all season who would take three points from?

Normally, with a question like this, the answer would always be Portsmouth! But, as Accrington Stanley, Burton Albion and Fleetwood Town are currently nearer to Saints in the football league pyramid than Pompey, it may be some time before we ever get that chance again!!

So, like all good football fans, I'd probably go for beating Manchester United at Old Trafford!

I have nothing against United really. We actually gave them two really good games last season and arguably should have taken 4 points off of them. As it was, and is often the case with a ruthless Alex Ferguson team, we ended up with none!

Playing at Old Trafford is quite often the pinnacle for a professional footballer (I say as though I've been in that position!) but, with Fergie retiring and David Moyes taking over, it may mean that 'Fortress' Old Trafford this season isn't what it used to be.

I actually think that Mourinho's Chelsea and Pellegrini's City will finish above Moyes this year as he takes time to adapt to filling such big shoes and the pressures that will inevitably come with that role.

So, as a fan of a 'little' club that generally never gets anything given to them at United, it would be lovely to go up there and take the three points. Maybe with a contentious Rickie Lambert penalty in front of the Stretford End to give Saints a 1-0 win? That would be nice eh!

By Ben Stanfield, FanZone's Southampton blogger. Follow Ben on Twitter at @benstanners.

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