Southampton had recorded four successive top-eight finishes prior to the start of the 2017/18 campaign, and their success was built upon having a strong defence that their opponents struggled to break down.
The south coast outfit would have been disappointed to concede 48 times in 38 Premier League matches under Claude Puel in 2016/17, and they would have hoped things were going to improve from both a defensive and attacking point of view when they sacked the Frenchman and appointed Mauricio Pellegrino as his replacement.
The Argentine certainly wasn’t helped in his quest to do that by not having Virgil van Dijk available at the beginning of the season after he announced that he wanted to leave the club just days before the opener against Swansea City, leaving plenty of uncertainty around St Mary’s.
While the Dutchman eventually stayed when the summer transfer window shut and was reintegrated into the starting XI for the rest of 2017, he left for Liverpool at the beginning of January.
The south coast club have lost two huge defenders in Jose Fonte and then van Dijk in the last 18 months, and vice-chairman Les Reed, who can go from zero to hero with Saints fans by delivering these three summer signings, replaced them with Lazio fringe player Wesley Hoedt and Poland youngster Jan Bednarek.
Southampton struggled from a defensive point of view for much of the season – and especially at times in 2018 when Jack Stephens was partnered by Hoedt – with the duo fine with the ball at their feet but too weak physically when going up against big centre-forwards.
The duo are particularly poor in the air and their lack of quality and leadership at the back was shown during the 3-0 defeat against fellow strugglers Newcastle United at St James’ Park in March – Pellegrino’s final match in charge before he was sacked.
It was clear then that the two 24-year-olds needed more support and more of a vocal presence in the backline with them, and while Maya Yoshida and then Bednarek both took their spot in a three-man defence under Mark Hughes before the campaign was out, they still looked like they were missing something.
They conceded three times against West Ham United, Arsenal and Chelsea, before they finally started to step it up in the final five matches – conceding just three times during that period.
While Hoedt and Stephens stood up and were counted in terms of defensive play, it was then their distribution of the ball that let them down and often put Saints back under pressure – only a brilliant last-ditch challenge from the Dutchman stopped Bournemouth’s Jermain Defoe going through on goal after he had given possession away cheaply last month.
Hughes will surely look to add a centre-back leader to work alongside Hoedt or Stephens – or potentially both if he continues with three at the back next season – and it could make all the difference considering how good Yoshida was when he used to play alongside the dominant van Dijk.
The 55-year-old manager should already be looking for potential additions, and it would certainly be a surprise if he wasn’t taking a closer look at West Bromwich Albion’s Ahmed Hegazi despite the fact that the Baggies were relegated to the Championship.
The 27-year-old enjoyed a fine campaign from a personal point of view as he played all but 33 minutes of the west Midlands outfit’s whole Premier League season.
The Egypt international has shown that he is strong in the air, and is particularly effective from a defensive point of view in general as he made a high number of blocks and interceptions for his team.
He also kept captain Jonny Evans out of the starting XI under Darren Moore in their final few fixtures and showed that he can be a leader and vocal at the back.
The Sun have reported that the Egyptian could be available for just £2.5m this summer due to a clause in his contract following relegation, and that is even more reason for Southampton to make him their top summer transfer target.
Hegazi is set to star for his country at the World Cup next month, and Hughes should be looking to get a deal done for the 27-year-old before then in order to be properly prepared for the start of the new season in August.