For most around Southampton Football Club, it’s been a pretty exciting week. 

On Wednesday, Saints confirmed the signing of 18-year-old midfielder Romeo Lavia from Manchester City. 72 hours later, signing number four had walked through the door - this one a real statement as Nigeria international and Rangers regular Joe Aribo arrived on the South Coast.

READ MORE: Where will Joe Aribo fit in at Saints?

Positivity and anticipation is in the air as Saints continue to push through an ambitious and youthful rebuild. It’s been a good week for Southampton fans.

It has not been a good week for Ibrahima Diallo. 

The Saints midfielder is now two full seasons into his Premier League career and still, it’s mostly question marks that remain. There have been flashes of the talent that convinced Southampton to spend around £12m to bring him to St Mary’s from Brest but nothing more consistent.

A slow and extended integration into his new team and manager Ralph Hasenhuttl’s system saw Diallo wait until Boxing Day of 2020 to earn his full Premier League debut before a muscular injury sidelined him for six fixtures through February and March. 

Daily Echo: Diallo in action for Saints this season. Image by: Stuart MartinDiallo in action for Saints this season. Image by: Stuart Martin

11 appearances in the final 12 games of his maiden campaign - including five of his ten total starts - did however give enough reason for promise despite the relatively disappointing first year in England.

There were easily explainable mitigating factors as well. Diallo only joined the club in early October and that came after just one season in Ligue 1. This was always supposed to be a project, as made evident by Hasenhuttl’s sparing use of Diallo during the weeks following his arrival. And with James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu ahead in the pecking order, there was no shame in sitting on the bench at their expense. 

Plus, it ended better than it started - always a good sign.

Admittedly entering the 2021/22 season, Ward-Prowse and Romeu were very much still present but with a full pre-season under his belt, it seemed like it might finally be Diallo’s time to shine.

READ MORE: Saints' youthful transfer policy an admirable gamble

Unfortunately, season number two started in a similar vein to his first with Diallo failing to start through the opening seven games of Saints’ Premier League campaign. Following the seventh of those games, a 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in which Ward-Prowse was sent off, Hasenhuttl heaped praise on Diallo.

“Ibra is a fantastic player,” the Austrian said. “I must say he has the problem that Prowsey and Ori are always playing in his position. Normally he should play more games.” 

Daily Echo: Hasenhuttl pictured with Diallo. Image by: Stuart MartinHasenhuttl pictured with Diallo. Image by: Stuart Martin

The sliding doors moment he needed had finally arrived and he didn’t let the opportunity go to waste, performing admirably as Southampton picked up four points across the two games their captain missed. But upon Ward-Prowse's return, Diallo was back amongst the substitutes. 

“He’s still only 22, he’s very young. When I think of myself at 22 and I was nowhere near where I am today," Hasenhuttl said of the midfielder's struggles to nail down a starting role.

"There is still a long way for him to go, to improve, and to get better. I am sure he will be able to do that.

"I think he did really well when Prowsey was suspended and he is a player who is going to give the manager more options in the middle. He’s done well but, like everyone, there are still things he can do to get better.”

Despite the kind words and the talk of Diallo giving him ‘options’, rarely was the Frenchman actually utilised as one of his manager's options. After weeks on the fringes of the squad, the now 23-year-old was finally given something of a run in the team at the start of 2022, a run that was curtailed when he was sacrificed at half-time of Southampton’s disappointing 3-1 defeat to Wolves.

A total of 24 minutes came in the next eight games as Diallo once again found himself out in the cold. Starts continued to prove fleeting down the stretch, just three arriving after the Wolves withdrawal.

As the season came to a close, the statistics didn’t paint a picture of any major strides forward. Diallo built on his 22 Premier League appearances from his first season with…23 in his second. The ten starts in his first year jumped to…ten starts in his second. His minutes played improved slightly, by three minutes to be precise. 

Two seasons in, Diallo has played just over 30% of the minutes available to him and that number actually went down from his first to his second campaign - hardly a sign of progress.

Hasenhuttl has been consistently effusive about Diallo’s talent and behind the scenes, it’s noted that he’s always been a positive and engaging presence in the squad. But that hasn’t translated to minutes or performances. It appears that hasn’t translated to trust.

At 30 years of age, Romeu made 36 Premier League appearances last season - the most of his Saints career and even when the dependable Spaniard was visibly tiring through the latter stages there was barely any opportunity for Diallo. Just once last season did he start more than two consecutive Premier League games - the one and only run of three ending with his half-time removal at Wolves.

At their best, Ward-Prowse and Romeu are such a formidable duo that anyone is going to struggle to break through them. But in the final months of the season, Romeu was rarely at his best as Saints toiled through a spell of atrocious form, yet Diallo still hardly got onto the pitch. 

When Diallo did start, it was usually a case of Hasenhuttl choosing to switch up his formation, bringing him in as a third central midfielder or slightly wider on the left - as seen in the 1-1 draw at Elland Road. Hasenhuttl's hesitation to use Diallo - and the pivot away from his typical 4-2-2-2 when he does utilise him - strongly suggests there is a lack of trust.

Last season was supposed to be Diallo’s big jump. The adaptation period over, it was time to kick on. It didn’t happen. And now things have only gotten much more difficult.

While Romeu is another year older and entering the final 12 months of his contract, Diallo will now have to contend with Romeo Lavia at the least as well as Joe Aribo. And what Diallo is good at, matches what the new signings have been brought in to provide. 

Speaking about what Diallo can give his team, Hasenhuttl said in October: ​​“He is a different player, I must say, definitely a very dynamic one. I wouldn’t say more dynamic (than Romeu and Ward-Prowse), but I think the end speed is good from him and that gives you a few other opportunities in the midfield. He can drive the ball through the centre quite well, and also, against the ball, he is aggressive and can win duels.”

Those strengths of Diallo’s separate him from Romeu and Ward-Prowse and explain why Southampton were so determined to sign him two summers ago. Unfortunately for Diallo, Saints have now signed two new players who embody those strengths. 

As outlined here, Lavia is a defensieve midfielder who thrives on driving the ball forward while his aggression and tenacity have been central components to his style of play ever since he came through the Anderlecht academy. 

Aribo’s primary skills? Carrying his team up the pitch and making magic happen with the ball at his feet. And while Saints’ newest signing will likely play further forward - as looked at here - the former Rangers midfielder is hyper-versatile and if it’s a matter of trust, or a lack of trust in Diallo - it would be no surprise to see Aribo deputise in the midfield two when necessary.

Diallo is still at the club but the role he plays and the attributes he brings, have already seemingly been replaced.

Daily Echo: Diallo's bit-part role could be reduced even further this season. Image by: Stuart MartinDiallo's bit-part role could be reduced even further this season. Image by: Stuart Martin

Perhaps Diallo could thrive further forward as Hasenhutl has occasionally used him - yet the manager insists that the player’s best position is as a No 6.

At this stage in his career, Diallo needs to play consistent football and it’s hard to see that happening at Southampton. He played less than a third of Saints’ total minutes as their third-choice option last season and now he could be falling all the way down to fifth-choice. In some ways, this is all quite harsh on a player that has never been given more than four consecutive games in a Saints shirt. But this is a harsh world and with a newlook engine room, harsh decisions will have to be made.

Admittedly with five substitutes allowed, there are more minutes available but Hasenhuttl has already shown that just because the minutes are there, doesn’t mean he’ll give them to Diallo.

With two years let on his current deal, this feels like a make-or-break period for the midfielder’s Saints career. Another year of idleness would not only set Diallo back further but deny Southampton any realistic shot at recouping a bulk of that £12m transfer fee spent on him. At the same time, it’s unlikely any team would be willing to spend that kind of money this summer on a player who has rarely featured oer the past two seasons.

A loan abroad could be the best compromise for all parties, giving Diallo a new start while also allowing him to showcase his talents for either an eventual sale next summer or a renewed opportunity in Hasenhuttl’s team.

No one would have wanted to have this conversation after just two seasons when Diallo arrived in 2020. But this is where we are and it’s a conversation that must occur. Being greedy, Diallo is still a good depth option for Southampton to keep even if that’s just to make another ten starts. But for the player himself, it may be the right time to look elsewhere.

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