MARK Hughes admits his pre-season priority is to 'embellish' the work he's already done at Saints ahead of his first match as permanent manager today.

Saints kick-off their pre-season fixtures against German Bundesliga runners-up Schalke at the Kushan Stadium in China this afternoon (1pm BST) and Hughes wants his side to prove they're building on what they achieved at the end of last season.

The experienced Welshman led Saints to Premier League survival after replacing Mauricio Pellegrino in March and felt the players were beginning to understand his ideas last term.

Now, the 54-year-old, who is currently leading Saints on a two-week tour of China, wants his ethos to become second nature.

“We want to progress them on a physical level, but it’s really about building on the work we did last year when we first came in," he told the Daily Echo.

“There’s a lot of fundamentals that we’ve tried to put in place that should be starting to be second nature and embedded in the minds of the players.

“We’ve got the advantage of the work we did last year and it will be a continuation of that.

“Clearly, we’ve got a bigger window to work in and add things and embellish what we’ve already done.”

With a full pre-season programme ahead, Hughes is keen to focus on building his side's confidence back up after a demoralising campaign.

After the Schalke test, Saints face Jiangsu Suning on July 11 in another friendly, before returning to England for further pre-season fixtures at Derby (July 21) and at St Mary's against Celta Vigo (August 1) and Borussia Monchengladbach (August 4).

“I think maybe the confidence was damaged when I came in and that can happen if you get into the spiral of not winning games," Hughes said.

“Sometimes if confidence is damaged you can’t see a way to get out the situation you found yourself in and that was the overriding impression I got.

“It wasn’t through lack of effort or ability, it was that the confidence level had been diminished because of our inability to get points on the board.

“We’ll try and change that around. At the end of the day, when you look at the stats of the season – and you can make stats look as good as or as bad as you want – actually there was only eight or nine clubs who lost fewer games than we did.

“Clearly, we drew too many games and lost too many games but it’s fine margins in the Premier League and we had 15 or 16 draws I think.

“So if we can change maybe half of those draws into wins which, like I said, these are the margins we’re talking about, then we’ll have an outstanding season.”

Saints are without World Cup trio Maya Yoshida, Jan Bednarek and Cedric Soares against Schalke, with that contingent now taking their post-season breaks after exiting the tournament in Russia.

Meanwhile, new signing Mohamed Elyounoussi will link-up with the squad soon after signing from Basel last week, but misses today's game.

On top of that, neither Guido Carrillo nor Sofiane Boufal will be involved, having both been left at Staplewood to sort out their futures.

Apart from that, Hughes has a good chunk of his squad to pick from, including £7m signing from Celtic, Stuart Armstrong.

Sparky plans to give the majority of his players 45 minutes at the Kushan Stadium, meaning there could be an opportunity for Netherlands midfielder Jordy Clasie, who spent last season out on loan at Club Brugge, while Harrison Reed and Sam Gallagher, who also spent 2017/18 out loan at Norwich and Birmingham, may get a chance, too.

“In terms of what we can do, it’s still very important we get good work into the guys that are here," Hughes said.

“We can do a lot of good work because we’ve got good numbers, got players coming back from loan as well, which will add to the squad.

“They’ll have to take on board a lot of information quickly because they haven’t been here last year when I came in.

“That will be a process they have to go through as well.

“I’m looking forward to it, it’s less intense this period and pre-season is great. You get all the benefits of being a footballer and football manager without really needing to win games.

“But it’s only a short window before you have to get to the important stuff, so this period is just about making sure we’re ready to go.”