It’s been a half-season of two halves for Southampton.
Far from the relegation-threatening campaign many predicted during the summer, as five first-teamers and manager Mauricio Pochettino jumped ship to Premier League clubs that finished higher than them last season, the Saints racked up eight wins in their first Premier League twelve fixtures under Ronald Koeman, propelling them to second in the table from September until November.
Suddenly, instead of falling through the Premier League’s trap door, they were being tipped as the dark horses in the Champions League race.
Yet, football is a fickle sport and in dramatic contrast to their early form, a tough run of fixtures, featuring Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, has resulted in Southampton enduring five straight defeats, including a 1-0 loss to Sheffield United in the Capital One Cup quarter-final yesterday evening – arguably their worst result of the campaign. There’s little respite ahead either; the Saints face Everton, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal again between now and the New Year.
I however, still maintain my faith in Southampton’s quality, despite the gulf between them and the Premier League’s bigger sides becoming increasingly obvious over the last few weeks.
They possess a first-choice England defender in Nathaniel Clyne, a top goalkeeper in Fraser Forster, arguably the Premier League’s leading midfield enforcer in Morgan Schneiderlin and perhaps most importantly of all, a dependable goal-scorer in Graziano Pelle, the Italian boasting seven goals and two assists in sixteen starts since his summer arrival from Feyenoord. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton would give anything for performers of such consistency right now.
A couple of bold acquisitions in January, paralleling the astuteness of their summer recruitment, could catalyze a Saints comeback in the second half of the campaign, and their first move come the turn of 2015, in my opinion, should be an audacious bid for PSG’s Yohan Cabaye.
Twelve months ago, the Frenchman would’ve been an unimaginable transfer target for the south coast side, and he certainly doesn’t fit their current trend of low-cost-high-reward acquisitions between the £6million-£12million mark.
But there’s clearly a bit left in the Saints’ transfer kitty, having generated a net profit of around £35million during the summer, and Cabaye is now in desperate need of a new home. He’s continually struggled to jostle a regular first team role from the likes of Javier Pastore, Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta, Marco Veratti and even youngster Adrian Rabiot since leaving Newcastle for Parc de Princes last January and apparently wants out.
His reported £19million valuation would constitute the largest transfer fee in the club’s history, which will undoubtedly trigger alarm bells for those still shaken by the short-lived and ill-fated tenure of Southampton’s record acquisition Dani Osvaldo – a transfer saga still some way from final resolution.
But there are clear differences in this instance. Particularly, whilst the Italian bad-boy’s career peak had come in Serie A, Cabaye is more than proven in the Premier League with 17 goals, 15 assists and 79 appearances already under his belt from two-and-a-half seasons on Tyneside. One of those campaigns almost saw the France international fire Newcastle into the Champions League, whilst his final six months produced a return seven goals in 17 outings. The midfielder clearly understands the nature of the English game and won’t require an extended period to settle in – something all-the-more important for players on the move in mid-season.
Furthermore, Southampton are in need of a hard-working playmaker of Cabaye’s variety. Steven Davis is a fan favourite and 20 year-old James Ward-Prowse remains an incredible technical prospect, but the 28 year-old is a level above both and would offer a key focal point going forward which, in my opinion, has been a bigger issue than defending for Southampton during their recent run-ins with the Premier League’s top sides.
He maintains the industrious ethos of the squad yet blends it with Champions League-standard quality in possession, and when combined with Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama in the more protective, sitting roles, would give the Saints a midfield trio as talented, effective and balanced as any currently involved in the Premier League’s top four race.
Set pieces is another area where Cabaye could make all the difference. Southampton boast the seventh-healthiest goals for column in the Premier League and their squad is blessed with great height throughout – Pelle, Schneiderlin, Wanyama, Fonte and Alderweireld all measure in at 6 foot 2 or over – but they’re currently ranked twelfth in goals from free kicks and corners. The France international’s ability in dead ball situations however, in terms of both scoring and supplying, verges upon world class.
Perhaps most importantly of all, capturing Cabaye would constitute an enormous statement of Southampton’s development over the last few years and their future ambitions. Looking beyond the current campaign, if Southampton are to ever compete at top four level, signings of Cabaye’s calibre are a necessity.
Take Liverpool for example; Brendan Rodgers is still waiting for his marquee acquisition and the negative blowback was only too evident this summer, as the Reds overpaid for unspectacular players the rest of the Premier League elite had already turned up their noses at. Meanwhile, priority targets the Reds lost out on over the last 18 months such as Willian, Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez, have gone on to strengthen their immediate rivals. On the other hand, making one top-end acquisition can quickly open avenues to many more.
Of course, it will be no easy task convincing Cabaye to choose Southampton over some of his better recognised suitors, such as Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, and as is often the case in modern football, his wage demands may be beyond the Saints’ financial reach.
But amid a campaign like no other at St. Mary’s, the south coast side have the opportunity to take advantage of their new-found European-contending status, especially with the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool struggling to hit top gear. £19million is a huge risk for a club of Southampton’s size and prudence, but securing Champions League football this season would dramatically alter their immediate future for the better.