It's official: Saints pre-season is closer to the end than the start. Back on British soil, Ralph Hasenhuttl's side played out a 0-0 draw with Watford in their third of five pre-season games.

While it's still crucial not to read too deeply into pre-season fixtures in which the results largely do not matter, there is now less than two weeks until Saints kick-off their Premier League campaign at Tottenham Hotspur.

That date is fast approaching and with each passing match, we get slightly more of an idea as to what version of this Saints side will turn up for the 2022/23 campaign.

So what did we learn from Saints' latest pre-season runout? Let's get into it...

Daily Echo: Hasenhuttl picured on Saturday. Image by: Matt TempleHasenhuttl picured on Saturday. Image by: Matt Temple

Deja-Vu...

Well, we must start with the rather large and boring elephant in the room: once again, Saints failed to score. The 0-0 draw with Watford took Southampton’s tally to one goal in 285 minutes of pre-season football. That last caveat is crucial - it is still pre-season - but the totally toothless nature of Hasenhuttl’s side thus far in 2022/23 is an obvious concern.

Utilising a back five for the third-straight game, Hasenhuttl oped for just one striker at Wealdstone on Saturday, Adam Armstrong getting the nod for the first half. On paper, it appeared to be a 5-4-1 system but Stuart Armstrong largely acted as a second forward, roaming all over the Watford half, linking up play and causing significant havoc. 

But still, Saints failed to create any sort of consistent spell of pressure or notable clear-cut opportunities. Joe Aribo had his side’s best chance of the first half when Stuart Armstrong found his steaking run through the middle with a smart ball over the Hornets defence but Aribo couldn’t beat Daniel Bachmann with his attempted lob.

Daily Echo: Aribo attempts to chip Bachmann. Image by: Matt TempleAribo attempts to chip Bachmann. Image by: Matt Temple

Replacing Adam Armstrong at half-time, Che Adams tried his luck with an overhead kick late on but it was never that close to breaking the deadlock.

The Saints hierarchy are clearly aware of the problems in the attacking third with the arrival of Sekou Mara from Bordeaux a step in the right direction. But Hasenhuttl doesn’t believe that alone will be enough.

“No, definitely bring more,” the Austrian answered when asked if Mara would be the final attacking signing. 

“We will bring some new players in and we will see how good they are and how quickly they can be a part of the team.”

As previously discussed, Saints issues going forward won’t be magically solved with a new striker (although it would help) as they continue to struggle when it comes to creating chances. Still, with more than a month left in the transfer window, there is time to upgrade.

Aribo Flashes 

Alright, let’s get into something a bit more fun. After a quiet start to life in a Saints shirt, Joe Aribo displayed the clearest indication of the quality that saw him become such a central component of Rangers’ Europa League final run.

For the first two pre-season fixtures, Aribo started as a right-forward, tucked just behind the striker - Nathan Tella and then Adam Armstrong. With neither of those forwards particularly physically dominant, Aribo was forced to take on the brunt of the hold-up-play duties and that meant far too much time spent with his back to goal.

While Aribo is strong and can mount a physical challenge on the strongest of centre-backs, that isn’t where he excels most. Aribo is best with space in front of him where he can drive with the ball and create chances for himself and his teammates. On Saturday, Saints began with a system that resembled a 5-3-2 much more than the 3-4-3 that we’ve largely seen this pre-season.

Daily Echo: Aribo in action against Watford. Image by: Matt TempleAribo in action against Watford. Image by: Matt Temple

Rather similar, the main difference was Aribo’s positioning. Dropping much deeper into a midfield trio alongside James Ward-Prowse and Romeo Lavia, Aribo showed real flashes as he got on the ball more and was able to carry his side forward.

Terrific in tight areas, he showed a promising link-up with Kyle Walker-Peters on the right wing, helping facilitate Saints’ most dangerous attacking moments.

Additionally, he got on the end of Saints’ best chance with the type of run into the box from deep that has become so central to his game in the last few years. As discussed last week, he’s been making those runs ever since arriving at Southampton but his teammates have just not been on the same wavelength. Although, he couldn’t take his chance, it was certainly promising to see Stuart Armstrong pick out his run on this occasion.

It will still take time and there is much more to come from Aribo but the signs on Saturday were as promising as we’ve seen yet.

In defence of the defence

Since we’ve beaten the proverbial dead horse of Saints’ lifelessness up front, we must address the flip-side. Three pre-season games in and while Southampton don’t appear capable of scoring, they look very capable of keeping the other side out.

With Romain Perraud recovering from the broken foot suffered at the tail-end of last season, Hasenhuttl has in some ways been forced into a back five system. That being said, Saints haven’t even experimented with a back four and as the season gets closer and closer the chance that this will be their preferred formation rises.

While many feels this set-up is limiting Saints attacking prowess, it does appear to be giving them more stability. And it’s hard to criticise Hasenhuttl for trying to make his team more secure and less vulnerable. 

Last season Southampton conceded 67 goals - third-most in the Premier League - and the season before they conceded 68 - second-most. Defensively, Saints have been absolutely atrocious over the last few campaigns and that needs to change.

Daily Echo: Djenepo has largely been utilised as Saints' first choice left-wing-back during pre-season. Image by: Matt TempleDjenepo has largely been utilised as Saints' first choice left-wing-back during pre-season. Image by: Matt Temple

Thus far the back five seems to be doing that. The aggressive and sometimes inconsistent approaches of Mohammed Salisu and Armel Bella-Kotchap seem to fit incredibly naturally with the three centre-back system while even the much-maligned Jan Bednarek - offered extra protection - has looked solid and capable.

Walker-Peters is a terrific wing-back, able to get all over the pitch and aid the attack, while Moussa Djenepo has surprised many with his competence at left-wing-back so far. Meanwhile, new goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu is a real breath of fresh air with his supreme confidence and ability on the ball.

Speaking after Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Watford, Hasenhuttl touched on his side’s increased solidity: ​​“The stability in the defence is definitely there, you are not so exposed and don’t give as many chances away I don’t think.

“It doesn’t mean that you concede less goals, normally we don’t have a lot of chances against us in a back four, but it is sometimes a little more disciplined and a little more controlled.”

Watford created very little and Klagenfurt largely only found joy attacking the inexperienced wing-backs - Thierry Small and Diamond Edwards. Meanwhile, two of Leipzig’s three goals came against Saints’ clear second-choice defence, with the other a free-kick.

In some ways, Saints new set-up is working. They have looked far more effective defensively and that should not be ignored. But this team has been desperately lacking balance thus far and if they can’t create anything of their own, it will be a long season regardless of how good this new defensive backbone is.

Balance is the keyword and it's balance that Saints have spent pre-season searching for. They have two more opportunities to get there before the real thing begins at Spurs on August 6th.

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