Over the past few seasons, Southampton have comfortably established themselves as a top half team in the English Premier League. A large part of the club’s success has been thanks to their recruitment policy, which has often unearthed hidden gems and been able to seamlessly replace proven stars who have been sold on for large profit.
At the end of the 2013/14 season they sold key men Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Luke Shaw. Argentinian manager Mauricio Pochettino also departed for Tottenham and it was expected that the team would struggle in the following campaign.
With Ronald Koeman installed as the new manager, a measured transfer policy was adopted. The aim was to sign key players from teams in small leagues, or to attract undervalued players from bigger leagues. Although Southampton had employed the same strategy under Pochettino (to some extent), with the likes of Victor Wanyama arriving from Celtic there was a very definite shift in that almost every signing fell into this bracket.
Looking at the purchases made over the past two seasons, there is a high ratio of players who became regulars over time. I would suggest that Southampton display a higher success rate than most other clubs in the league in this regard:
So if we presume that Southampton will continue with their highly successful recruitment model this summer, which players might they target?
In my last article I looked at the most creative players in Europe by investigating chance creation and expected assists using StrataData. Using the same data set from August 2015 to April 2016, I am going to investigate some standout players that could attract Southampton’s interest.
There are two brackets I want to look at:
1) The best players playing in smaller leagues
2) The best players playing at smaller clubs within the top six leagues
It is important to note that this data primarily looks at attacking and creative players. I will use “expected assists per 90” to evaluate attacking midfielders and “all involved per 90” to rate strikers. “All involved” simple means all of the Great Chances, Good Chances and Goals that a player has either assisted or attempted.
Firstly I will consider the “smaller” leagues, namely Austrian Bundesliga, Dutch Eredivisie, English Championship, German Bundesliga 2, Scottish Premiership, and Swiss Super League:
Florian Kainz of Rapid Wien
Kainz has had a fantastic season for Rapid in the Austrian Bundesliga, establishing himself as one of their key players and also breaking into the Austrian national squad. At just 23 years of age and with five years of playing experience in the Bundesliga, the left-winger should be a target for teams in bigger leagues this summer. His contract expires in 2017, so he should be available at good value, and he has plenty of potential to improve.
Naby Keita of Salzburg
Keita has been another top performer in the Austrian Bundesliga this term. The Guinean international plays in central midfield and has been key to Salzburg’s title charge. Not only has he weighed in with 0.87 xAssists per 90, he has also scored 12 goals to date. Keita recently signed a contract extension with Salzburg, so would command a higher transfer fee, but there’s every chance he could replicate the impact of Sadio Mane in a bigger league in the near future.
Andre Gray of Burnley
Having signed from Brentford last summer for a reported £6m fee, Gray finished as top scorer with 25 goals as Burnley won the Championship and were promoted to the English Premier League. Although now very likely to command a price greater than £10m, he will no doubt attract interest from other Premier League clubs and is a clear candidate for a club like Southampton to be interested in.
Vincent Janssen of AZ
Like Gray, Janssen finished top scorer in his debut season for AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie. At only 21 years of age and having recently broken into the Dutch national side, Janssen is understandably being touted for a big money move to one of Europe’s top leagues this summer. Arsenal are believed to have watched the striker, though maybe an intermediary move to a club like Southampton would benefit him more in the short-term.
Now I will take a look at players who play for smaller teams in the bigger leagues, though I have excluded the traditional “big clubs” due to the fact that Southampton would not be able to sign top players from them. The top six leagues as ranked by UEFA are Spanish Primera Division, German Bundesliga 1, English Premier League, Italian Serie A, Portuguese Primeira Liga and French Ligue 1:
It is almost impossible to imagine Southampton signing Riyad Mahrez, Dimitri Payet or Real Madrid youth Marco Asensio who has had an excellent season on loan at Espanyol, so I will consider a few less well-known names who could be on the move this summer instead.
Sofiane Boufal of Lille
Attacking midfielder Boufal has performed exceptionally well in Ligue 1 this season for Lille, also breaking into the Morocco national team. Having signed from Angers in January 2015, Boufal still has 3 years left on his contract and so would command a relatively high transfer fee. However, at the tender age of 22 and with such a solid season under his belt, he looks like a prime candidate to step up to a higher level sooner rather than later.
Hiroshi Kiyotake of Hannover
Playmaker Kiyotake could be on the lookout for a new club this summer, with his current team Hannover suffering relegation from the German Bundesliga. The Japan international has chipped in with 0.86 xAssists p90, along with five goals from midfield, in what has been a really poor Hannover side. Could he join compatriot and friend Maya Yoshida at St. Mary’s this summer?
Again, I would consider it impossible for Southampton to sign Jamie Vardy or Romelu Lukaku this summer, so will move onto other candidates.
Wahbi Khazri appears on both these lists with his data from his time at Bordeaux. Khazri was signed by Sunderland in January 2016 as they looked to escape relegation from the English Premier League. Despite being a regular starter for Sam Allardyce’s side, Khazri’s numbers haven’t been as impressive as the first half of the season with Bordeaux, with his involved per 90 dropping from 3.23 to 1.695, and his xAssists per 90 dropping from 0.84 to 0.4. This can in part be explained by Sunderland being a poorer team in their league than Bordeaux are in theirs, so it may be better judging Khazri after a full season with his new club.
Ousmane Dembele of Rennes
The 18-year-old Dembele has burst onto the scene in Ligue 1 this year, having scored 12 goals since his debut on 22nd November 2015. Dembele has been touted as a future international, with calls for him to make the upcoming France European Championships squad even starting to emerge. It is no surprise that Dembele has been linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs and he is sure to attract interest this summer. Southampton may well be interested, but the player and his entourage could have their sights set a little higher.
*Dembele has joined German giants Borussia Dortmund since the submission of this article.
Ciro Immobile of Torino (Loaned from Borussia Dortmund)
Immobile’s career has somewhat stalled since he moved to Dortmund from Torino in the summer of 2014. Having failed to make a breakthrough in the Bundesliga, the Italian striker endured a frustrating loan spell at Sevilla at the start of this season, which was marred by serious injury. He looked to be back to his best having returned to Torino on loan in January 2016, but again his progress has been curtailed by injury. Provided he can stay clear of any further fitness problems Immobile could be a gamble worth taking for a mid-range club like Southampton, or he could even be given another chance to fulfil his potential with Dortmund.
It will be interesting to look back come the 1st September 2016 and see how many of the listed players moved on to bigger and better things. Hopefully at least one of them will pitch up at St. Mary’s in time for next season, but the main thing for Southampton is simply continuing with their excellent recruitment policy. I dare say their technical scouting department have more than eight names on their “potentials” list!
Mark McAfee (@AvonBets)