Firstly, let’s get one thing clear: this is pre-season and every ‘conclusion’ drawn has to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt because after all, this is just…pre-season. So while we’re going to take a look at a few lessons learnt from Saints’ first pre-season bout, let’s really call them observations.

On Saturday, preparations for the 2022/23 season went up a notch as Saints took on RB Leipzig in Wolfsberg, Austria. The regular 90 minutes were followed by an additional 15 as no less than 24 Saints players made it onto the pitch.

READ MORE: Hasenhuttl provides verdict on first pre-season clash

The German side - Champions League qualifiers after finishing fourth in the Bundesliga last season - triumphed 3-1 but there was still quite a lot for Saints fans to appreciate as Ralph Hasenhuttl commended his side on a “really really good” opening 60 minutes.

Leipzig took the lead shortly after half-time through Angelino’s low free-kick but Adam Armstrong got his side back on level terms with his first goal since November. Parity didn’t last long though as Emil Forsberg regained Leipzig’s advantage before Ilaix Moriba sealed the result with a looping drive from distance.

Daily Echo: Saints in action against RB Leipzig. Image by: Southampton FC streamSaints in action against RB Leipzig. Image by: Southampton FC stream

With four more pre-season fixtures on the calendar before the real thing begins at Tottenham Hotspur on August 6th, what did we learn from Saints’ first run-out of the new campaign?

Gavin Bazunu stakes his claim…and Alex McCarthy does the same

It took less than ten minutes of first-half action for Gavin Bazunu to show why Saints were so desperate to sign him this summer. And it took less than ten minutes of second-half action for Alex McCarthy to show why that signing was so essential.

With Fraser Forster departing the club this summer following the expiry of his contract, Saints went in search of a promising young goalkeeper who could take over as the long-term number one while challenging for the starting job immediately. 

Arriving from Manchester City in June for a fee of around £14m, 20-year-old Bazunu fit the bill with two impressive campaigns in League One and 10 Ireland caps showcasing the future of Saints’ goalkeeping department. 

Daily Echo: Bazunu pictured signing his Saints contract. Image by: Southampton FCBazunu pictured signing his Saints contract. Image by: Southampton FC

The future could be here already. While there’s no need to read too heavily into pre-season line-ups, Hasenhuttl giving Bazunu the first opportunity to impress on Saturday should not be totally ignored. The youngster didn’t waste his chance. 

Bazunu’s stand-out moment came early on when he somehow tipped Dominic Szoboszlai’s vicious hit over the bar. It was his first save in a Saints shirt - and a memorable one at that - but perhaps even more impressive was his calm assuredness with the ball at his feet, routinely finding his teammates with short and long-range passing.

Equally, he commanded his box with the ball in the air, claiming multiple crosses without looking remotely troubled. Said to be “mature beyond his years”, Bazunu’s first 45 minutes as a Saints player was every bit as good as advertised and there is no doubt that he is leading the race to start on August 6th in North London. 

While Bazunu did all he could to strengthen his case, he received a favour from his rival, Alex McCarthy. Chosen to stay ahead of Forster, most Saints fans feel less than comfortable with the idea of McCarthy starting this season. 

Inconsistency - both as a shot-stopper and with the ball at his feet - has plagued McCarthy’s St Mary’s career and it was no different on Saturday. The 32-year-old’s first involvement was to smash the ball out of play under slight Leipzig pressure before the Germans took the lead just a few minutes later.

It’s harsh to place sole blame on McCarthy following Angelino’s well-struck free-kick, but the goalkeeper certainly didn’t cover himself in glory as he took his first step towards the far post expecting the effort to go over the wall before being too slow to get back the other way when the eventual shot arrived at his near post.

READ MORE: The remarkable rise of Saints goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu

Some will blame McCarthy for Leipzig’s second as well, the goalkeeper presenting Forsberg with a relatively kind angle to finish from but the finish was still arrowed into the bottom corner. Meanwhile, Moriba’s third seemed to be in the back of the net before anyone could react.

Regardless though, the marker has been laid down. Bazunu is no average goalkeeper and he showed just that on Saturday - let’s see if McCarthy can rise to the challenge but as of now, the new signing has to be leading the race for the starting job.

Ralph’s Surprising Tactical Set-Up

Perhaps most notable in Southampton’s first game of 2022/23 is that through 105 minutes of football, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side didn’t once utilise their traditional 4-2-2-2 system. Last season, Saints set up in the 4-2-2-2 in 32/38 Premier League games, a number that was down from the previous campaign.

Again, it’s impossible to take everything from pre-season as set in stone, but normally managers use these friendlies to instil the fundamental elements of their tactical plan and to do that successfully, one would expect the team to be in the formation that gets primarily used in the season.

That being said, there was no 4-2-2-2 for Saints on Saturday. They set up in 5-1-2-1-2 system with Kyle Walker-Peters and Moussa Djenepo operating as wing-backs. New addition Romeo Lavia acted as the sole holding midfielder with Ibrahima Diallo and Moi Elyounoussi pushing forward from either side of midfield. Meanwhile, the expertly versatile Joe Aribo began on the right side but really acted as a second striker alongside Nathan Tella.

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The system seemed to suit the majority of the players that started the first half with both Armel Bella-Kotchap and Mohammed Salisu encouraged to push out from defence and be as aggressive as they wanted thanks to the extra security alongside them. Diallo and Elyounoussi both had the freedom to roam the pitch but were shielded from the responsibility of truly breaking down Leipzig in the final third while Djenepo looked surprisingly thrilling with space to run into on the left flank.

The one player that seemed slightly compromised by the back five was Joe Aribo who was forced to play much of the first half with his back to goal - certainly not his strength - as outlined here.

But the team did look balanced and defensively solid - albeit unspectacular going forward. A raft of changes were made on the hour mark - all ten outfield players replaced - yet the system remained rather similar. With Che Adams and Adam Armstrong on the pitch, it was a much more natural front two but the overall structure didn’t change drastically. 

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While I don’t want to repeat myself too many times, it must be noted again that this is just the first of five pre-season games and the absence of James Ward-Prowse could have caused a reshuffle but it’s certainly something to monitor: the squad, with a dearth of experienced centre-backs, traditional full-backs and natural strikers, appears quite well placed for a back five or a 4-3-3 rather than Hasenhuttl’s typical 4-2-2-2.

Toothless Up Top

Whether it was intentional or not, Hasenhuttl’s first-half team selection sent out a message. Admittedly, it’s not a shocking message in any way, it’s something everyone knows: this Saints team is desperate for help up front.

Desperate may not quite be the right word as there is still more than a month left in the transfer window for Southampton to upgrade their attacking options but it was clear from Saturday’s defeat that it must be THE priority.

Starting with Tella as the lone striker with Aribo supporting him, Saints looked rather toothless in the opening 45 minutes. Tella struggled to cope with the physicality of Leipzig’s defence especially as his side failed to build any sort of consistent attacking threat, instead lumping the ball forward regularly. The 23-year-old did miss one huge chance shortly before half-time when he horribly miscued Djenepo’s cut-back.

Tella can be a decent striker alternative, but Saints needed a focal point in the first half and they didn’t have one. When the ball was played forward, it rarely stuck, Leipzig able to easily regain possession when Saints went direct.

With Adams and Armstrong in the side, Saints carried more of an attacking threat but all that did was ram home the point: Southampton must invest in quality up front.

Whether Hasenhuttl opts for his usual 4-2-2-2 or changes things up as he did against Leipzig, Saints need more quality and depth in attack. With Armando Broja and Shane Long both departing this summer, the squad is down to two recognised strikers and neither provides guaranteed goals. 

In an ideal world, they wouldn’t just bring in a competitor, but Southampton would splurge on someone who can lead the group. It wouldn’t just help, it could very well be the difference-maker this season and the friendly against Leipzig simply highlighted that.

On the bright side, Adam Armstrong got off to the best possible start. The irony is that he actually got off to a terrible start, miscontrolling the ball twice in his first few seconds. But that doesn’t matter because of what he did shortly after when Will Smallbone swung the ball into the box. With the ease of a striker who can’t stop scoring - not one who has barely scored - Armstrong glanced the ball off the post and in for Saints’ first goal of pre-season. 

Daily Echo: Adam Armstrong in action for Saints last season. Image by: Stuart MartinAdam Armstrong in action for Saints last season. Image by: Stuart Martin

While results truly don't matter at this stage in the (non)season, everyone associated with Southampton will have been delighted to see Armstrong get off the mark. It won’t count in his official tally but it’s his first goal of any kind in 253 days and that shouldn’t - and didn’t - go unnoticed. After the relative disaster that was his first season at St Mary’s, Armstrong needs a fresh start this time around and thus far it appears he’s getting it, starting on the right foot with his well-taken header on Saturday.

Of course, he started pretty brightly last season before it all came crashing down, but no need to dive too deeply into that. This is a new season and hopefully the first signs of a new Adam Armstrong. Saints need him to step up in a big way.

Fringe Opportunities

Whilst Armstrong ended the season on the outskirts of the squad, there has always been an expectation - or at the very least a hope - that he will be a big player this coming campaign. Saturday’s friendly strengthened that belief. 

However, it also gave credence to the claims of a few other fringe players.

The first and perhaps most notable is the aforementioned Moussa Djenepo. Starter of just five Premier League games last season, many expected Djenepo to depart this summer and he could still should Saints receive a satisfactory offer. 

But he is still at the club and given a chance on Saturday, he didn’t let it slip. Operating as the left-wing-back, Djenepo was Saints most dangerous player in a first half of limited opportunities. Unpredictable and inconsistent, Djenepo flourished with the extra space afforded to him by the wing-back role, less reliant on close control in tight areas and more dependent on pace, stamina, and his ability to carry the ball over long distances.

Another player who did himself no harm was Will Smallbone. With rumours linking Smallbone with a move away from St Mary’s and limited minutes last season, it’s no certainty that he remains in Hasenhuttl’s plans for the coming campaign. That being said, with the window still ajar and given an opportunity to impress in the second half against Leipzig, he did just about everything he could.

The assist for Armstrong’s header will no doubt grab the headlines, but it was his general energy and intent to make things happen that really served to impress. Playing on the right of the midfield three with Oriol Romeu in the middle and Stuart Armstrong on the left, Smallbone helped carry his side up the pitch and looked the most likely to break through Leipzig’s defence. In addition to his cross for the goal, Smallbone nearly created a second when his cross was met by Thierry Small at the back post.

He still doesn’t consistently affect the game enough, but there’s a certain magnetism to Smallbone when he gets on the ball in space, a level of creativity that doesn’t exist in abundance in Hasenhuttl’s squad.

Smallbone and Djenepo were the two fringe players who impressed most but Small showed superb willingness and enthusiasm if not the calm touch required in the final third. Following his torrid first outing against Coventry City, this was a step forward for the left back although he could still benefit from the consistent game-time a loan would provide.

Daily Echo: Smallbone spent much of his time on the outskirts of the Saints team last season. Image by: Stuart MartinSmallbone spent much of his time on the outskirts of the Saints team last season. Image by: Stuart Martin

It wasn’t however, a great day for Tella - as discussed - nor Jack Stephens who failed to close down the space for Leipzig’s second goal as Saints were sliced apart. Yan Valery too was quiet at right-wing-back before being replaced by youngster Diamond Edwards. Needing a big pre-season, it’s hard to see where Valery fits into Saints plans this season.

All in all, there was enough to like about Saints’ defeat to Leipzig to keep the excitement flowing following a busy transfer window. Hasenhuttl’s side looked fit and fresh, pressing well and creating enough to keep the game close.

But there is still clearly significant work that needs to be done.

Saints’ pre-season continues on Monday evening when they play Klagenfurt before returning to home soil to face Watford, Monaco, and Villareal.

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