Recruitment Analysis 2019/20: Southampton’s winter transfer window
As many of us fans celebrating the festive season, it also marks the start of an extensive football period that sees many football matches taking place across England over the course of two weeks. For several Premier League teams, they pay extensive attention to this period as it might become the key period to determine where they will finish at the end of the season. For some, this might be one of the toughest periods with many of the big names ready to take on them for the points. Nonetheless, many clubs will find themselves relieved after this period as the winter transfer window is edging closer.
Many players have been scouted, analysed and added to the clubs’ shortlists and they are ready to make the move. Southampton have been one of the most active clubs during this period as they are paying close attention to several names on the market. Generally speaking, they have had an average first half to the season as they find themselves battling out to stay in this division. There are times where they rise up the table and there are few moments where they drop down to the drop zone. But with the appointment of a new director of football in Matt Crocker, Ralph Hasenhüttl and his team are ready to sign a few names with the hope of changing the club’s fortune.
In this recruitment analysis, using tactical analysis, we will provide an analysis of the potential signings that Southampton can make during the winter window. Meanwhile, using statistics, we will answer the question of how will the names being linked with the club fit Hasenhüttl’s tactics.
Marin Pongračić – Red Bull Salzburg
One of the major positions that Southampton need to bolster during the winter transfer window is centre-back. Amid the fact that they have five players who can play in that position, they haven’t lived up to the expectations that Hasenhüttl is expecting them to. This forces the Austrian manager to dip his hands into the market to look for a centre-back who can become a reliable option for him over the second period of the season.
And it is best going back to Hasenhüttl’s home country to look for a name that has been thriving for Red Bull Salzburg in the recent seasons. Marin Pongračić moved to Austria in 2017 even before the move of his fellow countryman Duje Ćaleta-Car to Marseille. He stepped into Marco Rose’s lineup without having any problems and formed a strong connection with André Ramalho in the season after that saw Salzburg completed the domestic double.
In the role of a ball-playing defender, he can become a vital part in Hasenhüttl’s tactics since his tactic relies heavily on playing out from the back. Statistically speaking, he registers the most number of passes per 90 minutes compared to Southampton’s main three centre-backs (Jack Stephens, Jannik Vestergaard and Jan Bednarek) with 63.87 passes per 90 minutes although he involves in the least matches compared to the trio (seven matches played this season).
He also reaches the highest passing accurate percentage with 87.12% while Bednarek has 86.97% to his name, Vestergaard has 84.83% and Stephens has 77.36%. This allows him to step into Hasenhüttl’s 4-2-2-2 formation and occupy his preferred role alongside Bednarek. They will become a decent force at the back and they can start attacks using their passes, which will reduce Southampton’s build-up time significantly.
One of the traits that can be seen from Pongračić is he usually dribbles up the pitch with the ball. This is also the field where the Croatian centre-back leads in terms of stats with 2.58 dribbles while Southampton’s trio all have under 1 dribble to their names. As he brings the ball out of defence, he can make long passes towards the advanced players up front, similar to the shot below. This will give the South Coast-based side another decent attacking option to choose from as they can capitalise Pongračić’s long passes to feed the ball towards the likes of Danny Ings or Ché Adams, who will sit on the shoulder of defenders.
Pongračić has developed good pace to help him in driving forward with the ball and combines with his composure and confident mentality, he doesn’t hesitate to dribble with the ball forward in order to reduce the team’s build-up time. Surprisingly, he also has a few technical moves under his belt to help him bypassing the pressure from the opponent’s players.
The shot below demonstrates a similar situation where Pongračić was surrounded by four St. Pölten’s players. As he entered the pressing block, there were two players immediately approached him with the intention of winning the ball back, but he used a feint to escape the zone and moved into free space to continue the team’s attack.
Defensively, Pongračić is quite intelligent in picking out a position where he can intercept passes and recover possession for his team. Rather than diving into tackles too often, he tends to use his positioning and pace to get in front of the attacking player to nick the ball away from them. Although he only registers 0.48 tackles per 90 minutes, he also has 5.16 interceptions per 90 minutes and 10.43 interceptions per 30 possessions of the opposition, which is a decent number for a defender who has played only seven matches this season.
He is good in 1v1 situations where he gains an advantage in terms of physicality. With the mentality of being active during the team’s defending situations, he is not hesitating to involve in defensive duels to win the ball back. But that mentality also comes with a setback as he commits a high number of fouls with 2.26 fouls per 90 minutes, a concerning number to be honest.
Along with that, he also makes good use of his height (6’2” – 1m90) to gain himself an advantage in aerial duels. If he joins Southampton, he will become the second-highest centre-back in the squad after Jannik Vestergaard’s 6’52” (1m99) record. Indeed, with 5.81 aerial duels per 90 minutes, he once again outperforms the three Southampton centre-backs and at the same time, reaches a decent winning rate in 55.56%.
It won’t be the first time Southampton poach a player from Salzburg and considered the successful case of Sadio Mané, the club will hope Pongračić comes to the club and patch the defensive problems that they are facing. At just the age of 22 and being valued at €6 million, Salzburg might require double or triple the price for his service, but it will prove to be a good value to spend on one of the most talented centre-backs in Europe.
Joakim Mæhle – KRC Genk
Cédric Soares has recently announced that he will leave Southampton at the end of this season after many years of service. It is undoubtedly that the Portuguese right-back has started to outgrow the club and needs to find another club that will provide him with a higher level of football. His fellow countryman, who was also the former club captain, José Fonte left the club and has now seen his career recovered at Lille OSC. Cédric might want to head into the same direction as Fonte after the duo won the Euro 2016 just three years earlier.
This means Hasenhüttl and his team will have to find a replacement for him either in the winter or summer window. Given that Yan Valery might need a bit more time to become a starter for the club, it makes the task of finding a new right-back becomes more urgent and there is a name that has been linked to the club for quite a long time. Joakim Mæhle hasn’t been a popular name for several fans but he has spent three seasons playing for Genk since his move from Aalborg in the 2017/18 season.
The Danish right-back occupies the role of an attacking full-back in Genk’s 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation and a part of his responsibilities is to usually overlap up the pitch and join the team’s attack. He boasts an incredible work rate that allows him to run upwards to involve in the attack while also capable of tracking back to maintain the back-four during defending situations. With Hasenhüttl prefers wing-backs who can attack, taking part in the team’s press and plays an important role in defence, Mæhle will be the player that he wants to have in the squad.
As mentioned, a part of his responsibilities and also one of the traits that he develops throughout his time in Belgium is to drive forward with pace either on- or off-the-ball and involve in the team’s attack. He forms a tight bond with the winger in front of him in Junya Ito as these two tend to swap positions with each other. Whenever one has the intention of cutting inside, the other will drift wide and provide support from the right-wing. This can happen in the opposite way as Mæhle will turn inverted and move into the half-space, leaving the flank for the Japanese winger to occupy.
He can also link up with the centre-backs as his overlapping runs can end up with him receiving long passes from the back. This can become a beneficial strategy when playing against teams who use a low-block as Mæhle can attack the space behind their defensive lines with his runs. It drags back the defensive block and even creates space in between the lines for his teammates to move into, thus, create an attack for his team.
Being able to play wider also brings another advantage for Mæhle and his team. Whenever he receives the ball from out wide, one of the opposition’s players, usually the full-back, will move towards him in order to recover possession for their side. In case they are in the defensive transitioning period and Genk are on the counter-attack, this will create space in between their defenders.
Mæhle can capitalise that after he receives the ball and invites his teammates to enter the space that is created with a through ball, similar to the situation above against Anderlecht. Hasenhüttl can make the most out of this trait as he can use the likes of Sofiane Boufal, Nathan Redmond or Moussa Djénépo in a similar way that Ito is used at Genk. In fact, they are already been used as a winger and are given the license to drift wide when they are on the ball. With Cédric not making many dribbles up the pitch, it hinders the team’s attack during the first period of this season as they have to rely on the left-hand side of Ryan Bertrand. But the arrival of Mæhle will give Southampton another attacking option out wide and, therefore, allow them to have a variety of choices to choose from when they are in possession.
In defensive situations, the Danish right-back makes the most out of his pace to close down the advanced players of the opposition whenever they are close to receiving the ball. There, he will make a tackle and also aims to not committing a foul for his side, which avoids the unnecessary free-kicks being conceded inside their half. His defensive stats also demonstrates this clearly with Mæhle outperforming the two Southampton’s right-back in terms of tackles per 90 minutes with 0.47 while Valery and Cédric only register 0.26 and 0.23 respectively.
In contrast, he has the least interceptions per 90 minutes compared to those two as he only has 4.79 interceptions per 90 minutes while Valery tops the board with 6.55 and Cédric places second with 5.54. In terms of interceptions per 30 possessions of the opposition, Mæhle also places last as his number is 4.79, while the Portuguese ranks the highest with 7.35 and Valery follows up with 6.91. But expect that number of Mæhle to change, though, as Hasenhüttl will require his wing-backs to push up quite often to involve in the team’s press and he will be able to improve in that aspect.
Genk have proven to be a successful academy after producing many well-known names that currently play an important role at big clubs across Europe. With the right development and consistent first-team football, Mæhle will become the next name to be on everyone lips given the fact that he is now occupying a key role at Genk. Southampton is the club that can provide both of that for the Danish wing-back as they are now in search for a new right-back to replace Cédric.
Among the team’s squad, he also has two fellow countrymen in Vestergaard and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, which will make the adapting period much more easy for the 22-year-old. Being valued at €9 million, Genk might ask for a bit higher than that for Mæhle’s service. Although the price might come a bit high for Southampton, they are financially capable to pay that money and he will prove that money being spent on him is worth it.
Aurélio Buta – Royal Antwerp
It is hard to argue that Mæhle will become a very good signing for the club as he will provide high-quality performances and will immediately step into Hasenhüttl’s squad. But with the price the Danish wing-back being valued and the price that Genk might offer, he might become an overvalued target for the South Coast-based side and they might turn their heads to another target who is also playing in Belgium.
Aurélio Buta is a former Benfica graduate who spends time at the team’s academy along with the Portuguese wonderkid that we all know, João Felix. But while Felix soonly becomes one of the top prospects in the world, Buta had to make a move to Antwerp on loan in order to have more first-team football. He then secured a permanent move to the Belgium club in the 2018/19 season and now proved himself to be one of the key players for the team.
Similar to Mæhle, Buta is an attacking full-back who has the pace to overlap up the pitch and track back to cover for the defence. In offensive situations, he makes good use of his acceleration to drive forward without the ball to link up with long balls being made from the back. In the shot above, amid the fact that the Portuguese right-back had a worse starting spot compared to CSKA’s player, his pace helped him get in front of him and turned up at the end of the pass.
This is an efficient strategy that Southampton can exploit given the fact that Southampton defenders tend to use long balls to start attacks. Buta and Mæhle are wing-backs who like to overlap on a constant basis compared to Cédric and Bertrand, which will encourage Bednarek and Stephens to send the ball forward more often. Statistically speaking, Buta registers an average of 1.47 progressive runs per 90 minutes, which is a higher record compared to Southampton’s right-back duo and places behind Bertrand’s 1.6 and Mæhle’s 2.67 progressive runs per 90 minutes. In terms of dribbling, Buta’s number is also decent with 3.05 dribbles per 90 minutes, higher than Southampton’s starting full-backs while the Danish right-back still tops the board with 4.87 and Valery follows with 4.06 dribbles per 90 minutes.
Inside the final third, it is possible to consider him as a decent crosser since he constantly provides quality crosses into the box. With a striker who has the physical advantage in Dieumerci Mbokani, the former Norwich striker will be able to connect with those crosses by picking out a good position inside the box and head the ball towards the goal. A similar thing can be said about Danny Ings, although he has a respectable height in 1.78m – 5’3”. This season, he has 4.79 aerial duels per 90 minutes to his name, a very average number but still understandable. Still, Ings can still pick up the low or whipped crosses that Buta will make down that right-hand side, which will put him in a good position to convert many of those crosses into goals.
At the other end of the pitch, pace once again gains him a significant advantage in duels or tackles. As the opposition’s attacker attempts to sprint forward with the ball, Buta will use his pace in order to get in front of him and shield the ball, similar to the shot below. Given the fact that Southampton’s defensive line is lacking a bit of pace, the addition of Buta into that line will benefit the other defenders in a significant way.
He will provide support from out wide by chasing the attackers and prevent him from entering the final third. Even better, the Portuguese right-back can make a tackle to stop the attack and recover possession for the team. The stats once again demonstrates this clearly, as he has 0.59 tackles per 90 minutes to his name, the highest number compares to Mæhle and the four Southampton full-backs. Also, he registers 0.74 tackles per 30 possessions of the opposition, which will benefit Hasenhüttl’s pressing strategy as he can defence inside the opposition half while still be able to track back and form the back-four once again.
It is fair to say that either Mæhle or Buta will become a good addition to that right-hand side of Southampton. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages which they have shown in the Belgium Pro League, and they will solve the need for a replacement for Cédric at the end of the season. Still, Buta proves to be a better choice for the South Coast-based club since he is currently valued at a decent amount in €4 million and will only need a bit more to lure him away from Antwerp. The only problem that Hasenhüttl and his team will face is the competition from several other English clubs, specifically Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City. If they can beat them for Buta’s signature, he will become a very good replacement for the ageing Cédric Soares.
Dejan Kulusevski – Parma
Moving away from the defensive part of the team, it is worth looking at Southampton’s midfield department. They currently have many good names around the squad who still has several prime years in their careers. As for central midfielders, Oriol Romeu and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg are still running the middle of the park for The Saints and these two are forming a very tight connection between each other. For the attacking midfielders, home-grown James Ward-Prowse is finding his form again after Hasenhüttl arrives at the club while the Austrian manager still has several wingers who can play as an attacking midfielder in Sofiane Boufal, Nathan Redmond or Moussa Djénépo.
With that in mind, it seems a bit unnecessary to find another attacking midfielder/winger who will become a good addition to the squad. Still, there are two names being linked to the club and they can solve Southampton’s biggest problem, goal-scoring. In Dejan Kulusevski, he has been a very interesting player to watch in Serie A this season. On loan from Atalanta, the Swedish winger has enlightened a relegation-contender in Parma and helps them flying on the league table before the winter break.
He is a versatile player, having been used in a variety of positions this season. One of them, which comes the most surprising, is as a central midfielder in a 4-1-2-3. The idea of this might come from the fact that Roberto D’Aversa wants him to develop into a dictating midfielder at the heart of his tactics, which can become an interesting scenario to follow. Still, he is used more frequently on the right-hand side with him being a right-winger of the team. In several matches, Kulusevski is also being tested as a central forward to benefit his goal-scoring ability, thus, allows him to develop the sharpness in front of goal.
One of his aspects that can be seen developing over the course of the season is his positioning and spatial awareness. Kulusevski tends to put him into a good position to receive the ball from the teammates, which also allows him to have space and time to scan the field before executing his next move. Also, these attributes of his help him to pick out pockets of space that are being left behind by the opponent and encourages himself to enter that area. By doing so, he still offers a good passing option for his teammate who is holding onto the ball but progresses the team’s attack at the same time.
Either on- or off-the-ball, it is viable to notice his intelligence and vision that he puts into play. Besides making the most out of his positioning with his intelligence, he also uses it in his dribbles. Rather than just utilising the pace that he has to drive forward and beat his markers, Kulusevski directs a way for him to dribble into which also allows him to lay the ball towards a teammate in case of a defender steps into his way. This strategy prevents the team’s attack from being disrupted and still pushes the team forward in numbers.
While it is hard to argue that he doesn’t register that many dribbles per 90 minutes compared to Boufal and Djénépo with only 6.49 dribbles per 90 minutes while the latter two has 14.46 and 10.37 to their names, his completed percentage is the second-highest compared to Southampton’s wingers as his number stands at 49.59%. Furthermore, he also has the second-highest progressive runs per 90 minutes with 3.16 and the highest number of touches in the box per 90 minutes in 3.59, which are good numbers for a 19-year-old.
Another aspect that he can contribute to the team’s play is how he involves in the team’s press. Doesn’t mind in which position he occupies, his enthusiastic mentality encourages him to join the press and attempts to force the opposition to make mistakes. In the shot below, notice how he makes good use of his pace to catch up with Kalidou Koulibaly and capitalises his heavy touch to steal the ball. The attempt was successful and he had the whole defensive third for him to dribble into, which was converted into a goal later on.
Although his defensive numbers aren’t that high compared to other Southampton’s wingers, this is an aspect that he can expect to improve during his time at the St. Mary’s Stadium. Hasenhüttl will encourage the Swedish player to involve more into the team’s defensive situations as his intelligence style of play will benefit his teammates in a significant way. Still, with 7.62 defensive duels per 90 minutes, he registers the highest number of defensive duels involved in a match compared to the mentioned trio and this will be something that the fans can look forward from him.
Kulusevski has been such a fascinating player in Serie A this season given the fact that this is just his second season in the Italian top flight after his domestic league debut came with Atalanta last season. From a youngster who arrived from Brommapojkarna’s academy, he is now a starting player for Parma who started the last seventeen matches for D’Aversa’s side. His transfer to a big club is inevitable given the performance that he has put on the field this season and Southampton will be one of the clubs who sniffs around for his signature. Being valued at €25 million, this might be a tough ask for the club as the question remains whether they will accept to pay that much or even higher amount of money for him. Still, if this deal manages to go through, it might become one of the biggest transfers for the club and he will immediately become one of the first choices in Hasenhüttl’s tactics.
Jarrod Bowen – Hull City
The second name that is being rumoured for a move this winter is Jarrod Bowen, the Hull City winger. It comes as a huge surprise to see him still remains in the Championship given the fact that there have been so many rumours linking him to big names such as Tottenham, Everton and even Southampton in the earlier windows. But here he remains, playing a key part in Grant McCann’s tactics and still banging goals for fun in the division.
At the age of just 23, he already has 52 Championship goals to his name, an overwhelming record to be honest. But once again, a question is raised even before his move to a Premier League club, will he be able to keep this momentum up when he moves up a division or he will fail under pressure? At the time of writing, that question remains unanswered but it is still worth looking at his performance in the Championship.
Being played as a right-winger in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1 formation, Bowen tends to drift inside more often and finds himself working efficiently inside the half-space. Other than that, he is a versatile player that can be used in different attacking positions such as an attacking midfielder or a striker who leads the line. Doesn’t matter in which position he plays, being a goal-threat inside the 16-yard box is usually his best trait. In the recent two seasons, he had seventeen and 22 goals to his name while making an average of 3.31 and 2.41 shots per game respectively.
As Bowen holds the ball, he usually attracts the attention of the opposition’s defenders and creates space for his teammates to move in. In terms of himself, since he is the type of player who likes to dribble, Bowen will use his technical abilities and pace to beat his markers. Before that, anticipating the direction and space that he wants to dribble in is crucial as this creates a clear path for him to continue his run after bypassing the pressure from the defenders.
Furthermore, it is possible for him to utilise the unoccupied space to send either one of his teammates or even himself into a more active position using his passes, similar to the shot below. During most of his moves, he has the tendency of adding a bit of flair and technique to help him executes it. It shows his high confidence whenever he keeps control of the ball and it is one of the most noticeable traits of his in every match that he plays.
Linking up the play along with the midfielders is also another strength that he constantly shows on the field. Inside the final third, he will actively move close to the ball carrier and offer to carry the ball up the pitch using his dribbling ability. Being selfish isn’t the attribute that he wants in his style of play as he doesn’t want the ball to come at his feet. Instead, he would rather turn himself into a possible passing option during most of the time while still moving in between the opposition’s defensive lines. With an average of 0.38 key passes, 1.39 crosses per game this season and two assists under his belt, he is already turning himself into a vital part in Hull’s transitioning situations.
Off the ball, Bowen has the tendency of making the most out of his intelligent to position himself in pockets of space. While his teammates are winning the ball back, he will scan the field and notice where the defenders are and are there any space that he could attack. This allows him to have a clear perspective of the situation, therefore, put him in an active position to receive the pass from the ball carrier in case his teammates are able to recover possession.
The pace and spatial awareness are two crucial attributes that help him make the most out of his off-the-ball movements. By anticipating the defenders’ move, he can make an early start to move in that free space without being caught offside. There, turning up at the end of a pass wouldn’t be a problem and he could pick up the ball to sprint towards the 16-yard box.
Not only being active during attacking situations, but he also involves in a numerous of defensive duels. As Hull usually press high up the pitch, Bowen is required to support his teammates by closing down the possible passing option around the ball carrier. He must be able to intercept passes and tackle the opposition whenever the ball heads toward his direction. At the same time, by marking potential receiver who comes short to recycle possession, he encourages his teammate to participate in a 1v1 situation with the ball carrier and forces him to clear the ball up the pitch. Both centre-backs Jordy de Wijs and Reece Burke will take care of that, eventually.
The cycle of him being linked to a numerous of clubs this winter will continue as he will attract the attention of many names in the Premier League. For Southampton, though, Bowen will be the player who can solve the team’s goal-scoring problem directly as he can occupy the position alongside Danny Ings up front or playing behind the strikers’ back and provide support for them. Being valued at just €10 million, Bowen will become a huge bargain for any team who can secure his signature not just in this winter window, but also in the next couple of transfer windows. Southampton are not an exception, amid the fact that there is some hesitation after the unsuccessful move of Ché Adams last summer. There are expectations that he will not follow former Birmingham’s striker footsteps, thus, will allow him to become one of the lethal goal-scoring machines among the team.
As mentioned, this winter transfer window will prove to be a crucial stage for Southampton as Hasenhüttl, along with the new director of football Crocker and his team, will have to identify the key positions that they need to bolster in their journey of surviving the cut at the end of the season. It is hard to argue that they are currently having a very decent squad for a mid-table side, but there are still a few positions that need to be fixed before the second half of the Premier League starts.
Above is five potential signings that Southampton are being linked to and should have their eyes focus on as they will prove to be good additions for the side this January. Amid the fact that several of them are being overvalued compare to what the club are expecting to pay, a bit of stretch in their budgets will help them secure their signatures and they will help Hasenhüttl to fix the positions that he is currently having a headache with.
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