It was the legendary Manchester United manager Matt Busby who once said: “If they’re good enough, they’re old enough.” 

Wise words from someone who won multiple league titles and the European Cup. Yet, as Southampton’s 2021/22 campaign limped over the line, many supporters (and journalists) felt far more connected with Alan Hansen’s infamous critique of Alex Ferguson’s Class of 92 side: “you can’t win anything with kids.”

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Two months down the line and it’s clear Southampton have blocked out the noise and the demands for experience. Instead, they’ve committed further, diving deeper into their strategy. With four new signings through the door (five including B-Team addition Alex Iwumene), the eldest arrival is goalkeeper Mateusz Lis who at 25-years-old is still youthful for his position and likely to head out on loan this season anyways.

The other three - Gavin Bazunu, Armel Bella-Kotchap and Romeo Lavia - come with an average age of 19.3. The imminent addition of Joe Aribo - 25 - will bump that number up slightly but the point remains the same: Southampton believe in their process and they are determined to stick with it.

The risk is obvious. Including Aribo, Saints’ summer signings thus far will have combined for zero Premier League appearances heading into the 2022/23 campaign. Following the hugely forgettable end to last season, this will place a target on Ralph Hasenhuttl and the Southampton board should any sort of similar implosion occur.

Daily Echo: Gavin Bazunu poses with his Saints contract. Image by: Southampton FCGavin Bazunu poses with his Saints contract. Image by: Southampton FC

On the flip-side, there’s certainly an admirable energy to the way Saints have conducted themselves this summer. It takes guts - and it takes belief - to stick with the plan in the face of relative failure and outside pressure.

Some clubs wouldn’t see it out. Southampton clearly are determined to.

With Martyn Glover leaving for Leicester City, Saints have gone in a slightly unorthodox direction recruiting his replacement. Joe Shields - previously Head of Youth Recruitment at Manchester City - was identified as the number one choice despite his lack of first team experience and after the appointment was announced on Friday, the Daily Echo understands that the seasoned scout will be officially starting his tenure at St Mary’s at the end of July.

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The opportunity to work at the senior level is believed to have been a major factor in Shields’ desire to join the club but even though the role will be different from anything else he’s done, his work both scouting and recruiting young players is no doubt a major factor in Saints’ conviction that he is the right person for the job.

Under his guidance City recruited countless promising young players including Gavin Bazunu and Romeo Lavia as well as Jayden Braaf and Jamie Brynoe-Gittens - both now at Borussia Dortmund. The job is different at Southampton but the link between what Shields has proven to be good at and what Saints wanted from a Head of Recruitment is clear.

All this constitutes a deep and unrelenting belief in the current Southampton ‘way’ - a belief that their strategy can not only keep the club away from relegation but help make ambitions of a first top-ten finish under Ralph Hasenhuttl a reality.

You can term it a form of ‘Moneyball’ but the underlying foundation is simple: looking for a gap in the market. Finding players that for whatever reason aren’t valued as highly as they should be. In Southampton’s case - and no doubt the culture of their manager and club aids it - they see the gap as ‘inexperience’. It’s a word that scares off plenty of clubs, paving the way for Southampton to pounce in slightly less crowded waters.

Last summer that strategy came into focus with the £5m arrival of Tino Livramento from Chelsea. Then just 18-years-old, the right-back had yet to make his Premier League debut but talent was all Saints saw and by the end of his maiden campaign on the South Coast, he racked up 28 league appearances (a number that would have been higher without his serious injury at Brighton).

In addition to Livramento, Dynel Simeu, Lyanco, Adam Armstrong and Armando Broja joined Hasenhuttl’s squad - all under the age of 25 and with a combined 15 Premier League appearances.

This summer, Romeo Lavia could be seen as the poster-child for the strategy in place. 18-years-old - and like Livramento with zero Premier League games under his belt - Southampton pulled the trigger and got their man for a significant fee in excess of £10m.

It’s a lot for a player with Lavia’s level of experience but once again, Southampton are paying for something they see as more valuable than a filled CV - talent. Gavin Bazunu is the same. Two years older than Lavia, his 20 somehow feels even younger considering his position of goalkeeper. 

Two seasons in League One was enough to convince Saints that he is their goalkeeper for now and the future - something that feels like a smart bet when listening to those who know him speak about his talent and maturity.

There’s clearly a feeling that the talent they can get for the money they have is greater with young players than it was with those more experienced. They’re banking on the 20-year-olds who are more talented but might be less than 27-year-olds. Ceiling over floor.

Daily Echo: Bella-Kotchap poses at his Saints' announcement. Image by: Southampton FCBella-Kotchap poses at his Saints' announcement. Image by: Southampton FC

In the first summer of Sport Republic’s ownership the model is clear - that in itself is no surprise with Martin Semmens saying as much shortly after the takeover was complete.

"It's not going to change us and you're not going to see Philippe Coutinho arrive here in the transfer window, that's not our model,” Semmens told BBC Radio Five Live.

"But it probably allows us to be more flexible and reactive when the next Tino (Livramento) is available and allows us to push to make the top ten thing more of a reality."

The flexibility Semmens speaks of has already been seen this summer. Would Saints have spent upwards of £10m on Lavia or Bazunu under previous ownership? It’s impossible to say no as more than that was splurged on Adam Armstrong but it is clear that there is now a feeling the club can take risks on untested youngsters they feel fit the model. 

In some ways, £10-£14m - depending on add-ons - for an untested 18-year-old feels more significant than £15m on a striker who had notched 28 Championship goals. Everyone could understand the reasoning for spending that kind of money on a (semi) proven goalscorer. That’s the kind of money it usually takes to find goals. But for a central midfielder with virtually no track record? Or a 20-year-old goalkeeper? That’s a harder sell to the public neutrals. 

But ultimately none of that matters and Southampton won’t care what the neutral thinks. The Saints’ hierarchy clearly believes in what they’re doing - regardless of whether anyone on the outside does.

Part of Saints’ confidence in their work is that these players - while perhaps they’ve just burst onto the scene recently - have been on the club’s radar for much longer. Bazunu was already admired during his days at Rochdale while Lavia was spotted playing for Anderlecht’s U15s prior to joining Manchester City.

The flexibility Semmens mentions can also be seen in the way Southampton have conducted their business thus far this summer. While Saints spent around £40m on their six permanent signings last year, that number was offset by the near £60m raised from selling Danny Ings, Jannik Vestergaard and a collection of fringe assets. 

There is still more than a month left to go in this summer’s transfer window and there will certainly be a desire to complete outgoing business as well as incoming. But it’s more about shifting those on the edges of the squad rather than selling any kind of key asset like Ings. With Aribo, Saints will have already spent in the region of £42m without any sales.

This - coupled with the length of time they have scouted these players for - has enabled Southampton to move quickly. Only Leeds have signed more first-team players than Saints and that’s a testament to the speed and organisation of their window thus far. While Bazunu had been linked with the club for a number of weeks, the deal for Bela-Kotchap was kept completely quiet until the day he signed while similarly the move for Aribo went from tentative speculation to a virtual done deal in a matter of days.

While Aribo may have ended up at St Mary’s regardless of how Saints conducted the deal, there is reason to believe the secretive nature helped. It’s understood that Crystal Palace held an interest in the South-London born midfielder but they chose to focus on Swansea’s Flynn Downes instead. As late as last weekend, Palace thought they’d had a deal wrapped up for Downes but he instead opted for a move to West Ham on Thursday. It’s impossible to know if Palace would have fully firmed up their interest in Aribo but at this point it doesn’t matter.

Daily Echo: Joe Aribo pictured in action for Rangers. Image by: PAJoe Aribo pictured in action for Rangers. Image by: PA

Following the midfielder’s impending arrival there is still work to do. Saints have rebuilt much of their spine, bringing in two goalkeepers, a centre-back, a defensive midfielder and central/attacking midfielder. They now have perhaps the toughest task ahead of them - goals.

With Shane Long gone and Armando Broja’s loan expired, the need for strikers is obvious. At least one is mandatory but an argument could easily be made that two or even three forwards are needed to bolster Hasenhuttl’s options out wide and up front. 

While much of the focus was set on Saints’ leaky defence last season - understandably - they didn’t fare that much better at the other end. James Ward-Prowse led his side in goals with ten but the four strikers combined for just 16 - the last of which came in February.

Che Adams will continue to be trusted while Adam Armstrong is expected to stay at the club after the failure that was his first season at St Mary’s. But it’s overwhelmingly obvious that that isn’t enough. Fans know that and the club knows that.

Outside of forwards, there remains an interest in full-back cover - with reports claiming they are now in talks with City for youngster Issa Kabore. Meanwhile, a now-bloated looking squad will need to be cut. Even with the addition of five substitutes, there are too many players at the club who just don’t have a realistic shot at making their presence felt. 

There isn’t a clear path for Moussa Djenepo, Theo Walcott, Nathan Redmond, Will Smallbone or Yan Valery while Ibrahima Diallo’s Saints career looks in jeopardy after the arrivals of Lavia and (soon) Aribo. 

Diallo’s role was already far from guaranteed last season and now it’s only gotten much more difficult. Meanwhile, Jan Bednarek could be sold to recoup some of the money spent this summer - something that would be more viable if Saints are able to follow-up on their interest in Levi Colwill.

Ultimately, as is always the case with outgoings, it’s not just about what the club wants but also about what is possible. Walcott - on substantial wages - was always going to be a tough player to move on.

Fans will never be totally in agreement on transfer business but there is a lot to be excited about in the players Saints have brought in this summer and the way they’ve got those deals over the line - without any sort of fuss.

But that being said, they haven’t brought in much experience.

Already the fourth-youngest side in the league last season, Southampton have gotten even younger. Fraser Forster and Shane Long - 34 and 35 respectively - have each departed the club while 33-year-old Walcott could also still leave before September.

It's important to note that Aribo has made nearly 200 appearances for club and country and also played in last season's Europa League final but the fact remains: Hasenhuttl’s squad this time around will be even younger than before. And after the way they ended last season, real risk exists.

You can already picture the criticism that will come if it doesn't work out - criticism of a similar vein than we’ve already seen (and myself been a part of) last season.

But if it does work - as Southampton clearly feel it will - then it’s something of a game-changer. A club building and succeeding in a different way. The players they’ve recruited this summer are truly exciting additions and that’s an exciting proposition. But ultimately it will be determined by the results on the pitch.

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