Can Koeman and Southampton squad cope with Europa League campaign?
After three Premier League games over the 2015/16 season, Southampton sit in the bottom three; and they occupied a similarly perilous position after as many matches upon their top-flight return in 2012.
Suggestions that Saints shall be relegated, a remote 18/1 chance with Coral, are far from a realistic prospect as was feared back then, but their current plight perhaps reflects the size of challenge facing head coach Ronald Koeman and the south coast club as they step up to European football.
In order to take their place in the Europa League proper, Southampton must score in their play-off second leg when welcomed to Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula by FC Midtjylland. That shouldn’t be a problem given how Saints slaughtered Eredivisie outfit Vitesse Arnhem, who happen to be Chelsea’s feeder club, in the previous qualifying round, but domestic results have already suffered.
Southampton have not scored a Premier League goal since the opening day of the season and, although they are odds-on to beat Norwich City and end August away from immediate danger, there are some selection dilemmas facing Koeman.
Defensive duo Ryan Bertrand and Florin Gardos being missing in the short and long-term respectively, limits options at the back. Jordy Clasie’s injury causes him to miss both Midtjylland and Norwich matches, while fellow midfield shield Victor Wanyama is reportedly unsettled and seeks a reunion with former manager Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham.
Rumoured interest from Manchester United could also turn Senegal winger Sadio Mane’s head, though seeing players poached will hardly be something new to anyone connected with St Mary’s. They have done more than kept heads above water despite losing key performers.
At least Graziano Pelle’s form has continued from his maiden campaign up front, with three goals from six outings so far during his second season at Southampton. The late-blooming Italy international remains a potent threat that must be taken seriously by opposition defenders.
Perhaps at present defensive areas could be stronger, but there is international class and real strength in depth to the Saints attack. Joining Azzurri man Pelle is Republic of Ireland counterpart Shane Long and England cap Jay Rodriguez from the British isles; plus Spain starlet Juanmi and Serbia’s Dusan Tadic from further afield.
Competition for forward places shall only spur Southampton on and the goals should some come in Premier League action, especially when deep-lying playmaker Clasie returns and if academy graduate James Ward-Prowse sees his development continue in midfield.
Balancing campaigns at home and abroad is a challenge that elite coaches rise to; nobody pretends it is easy. Saints boss Koeman has the playing credentials, having fired Barcelona to victory in the 1992 European Cup final, but must now try to cope in the dugout.
With the pulling power and financial muscle of clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool and Man Utd, who have all nabbed Southampton stars in recent seasons; plus Man City and Chelsea virtually certain to finish ahead of them, taking the Europa League seriously offers an alternative route to Europe’s top table for the winners.
Saints are 25/1 to take that title and get among the Champions League elite in 2016/17, but should target this back-door route and plot progress towards it unlike West Ham United, who seemed prepared to sacrifice any shot at a continental crown in order pursue domestic improvement. Like any juggler, Koeman will find practice makes perfect.