Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Saints squad looks quite different today than it did just a few short months ago.

Outgoing transfers haven’t affected things too much with Fraser Forster, Shane Long, and Will Smallbone departing while Armando Broja has also returned to parent club Chelsea following the conclusion of his loan spell on the South Coast.

Outside of Broja, who many fans had grown frustrated with, and Fraser Forster, who has been replaced, the bulk of last season’s key contributors remain. But the incoming business means this is a very different group.

With just under a month left in the transfer window, Saints have made six new signings bringing in goalkeepers Gavin Bazunu and Mateusz Lis, centre-back Armel Bella-Kotchap, midfielders Romeo Lavia and Joe Aribo and striker Sekou Mara.

Outside of Mara who only arrived at the club early last week and Lis who could still depart on loan, the new additions have made their presence felt through pre-season and each have a real shot at starting Saints’ first game of the new season at Tottenham Hotspur.

But the unknown and untested nature of much of this squad means there are still many questions that remain. So what will Hasenhuttl’s XI be for the trip to North London?

Some places, such as James Ward-Prowse’s at the heart of the Saints midfield, are largely predetermined but throughout the week we will be looking at the key squad battles to try and decide on the 11 players are who will step out at 3PM on Saturday.

For the purpose of this exercise, we will assume Hasenhuttl will utilise a form of the 3-5-2 system trialled through the entirety of pre-season.

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First up the goalkeepers…

Gavin Bazunu vs Alex McCarthy

Going back at least a year, the plan has been for a goalkeeping competition to take place ahead of the 2022/23 campaign.

With Fraser Forster and Alex McCarthy both in their 30s, Saints always intended to let one walk at the end of last season and bring in a much younger keeper with the potential to be the long-term starter as well as compete immediately.

All that has come true with Forster departing at the expiry of his contract and Bazunu arriving from Manchester City. And while many would like the Irish international to get the nod, Hasenhuttl has made it clear in pre-season that the choice had yet to be made.

Bazunu was given the first opportunity - starting against RB Leipzig - but McCarthy came on for the second half before playing the full 90 minutes against both Klagenfurt and Monaco. Sandwiched in between those friendlies, Bazunu played 90 minutes in the 0-0 stalemate with Watford before being chosen for the final warm-up clash against Villarreal.

That XI against Villarreal felt much closer to Hasenhuttl’s first-choice side than any other of his starting teams which should give Bazunu the advantage but it is still no certainty as to who the manager will pick.

The case for Gavin Bazunu…

Well, the argument for Saints’ new goalkeeping recruit is an obvious one. His talent is major and very real. He might only be 20 years old but age has never stopped him before.

“When he came into training, I knew he was good but then he started to produce amazing moments in games, elite level goalkeeping,” former teammate at Shamrock Rovers Sean Boyle told the Daily Echo of Bazunu. “Big moments in big games. And that’s what he is, he’ll stand up to anything. He’s just turned himself through hard work and determination into a top-class goalkeeper and honestly, I’m delighted for the kid.”

Breaking into the Rovers team at 16 before enjoying two League One loans at Rochdale and Portsmouth before leaving his teens, Bazunu has always defied his age with his talent and maturity, two things that have already been on show in a Saints shirt.

Daily Echo: Bazunu pictured after signing for Saints. Image by: Southampton FCBazunu pictured after signing for Saints. Image by: Southampton FC

It took less than ten minutes of his debut against RB Leipzig for the first of those characteristics to shine, leaping impossibly quickly to tip over Emil Forsberg’s vicious drive from distance. It was the kind of highlight-reel moment that has become regular in Bazunu’s young career.

Granted though, in his next pre-season outings, the full 90 minutes against Watford and then Villarreal, he didn’t have too much to do in the way of landmark saves.

That brings us to the second of Boyle’s points: Bazunu’s maturity. Anyone who has worked with the shot-stopper speaks about his mentality and mindset. He’s been a leader ever since he grabbed his first pair of gloves and entered the Shamrock Rovers academy at the age of 13.

Standing at 1.89m (6’2”), Bazunu is no giant (one inch shorter than McCarthy) but he uses his size well and has no problem coming for crosses and putting his body under pressure. He did make one error when mistiming a Villarreal corner and eventually punching it behind for a second corner instead of catching it but other than that he’s shown soft hands to claim high balls, the voice to make his presence heard in a crowded box and the judgment to decide when to leave his line.

Additionally, his ability with his feet places him at a clear advantage. Hasnehuttl wants his goalkeeper to be the first point of attack when his team have the ball and speaking after the defeat to Villarreal the Austrian said:

Daily Echo: Bazunu and his teammates ahead of the 0-0 draw with Watford. Image by: Matt TempleBazunu and his teammates ahead of the 0-0 draw with Watford. Image by: Matt Temple

“It is something that can help you release the pressure and can help the centre-backs find the right moments to attack.”

If the choice comes down to who is better with their feet then Bazunu is the obvious winner. This isn’t a slight against McCarthy who actually completed 55/56 total passes against Monaco, but it’s more a reflection of just how good Bazunu is at the modern elements of goalkeeping.

Speaking to the Daily Echo earlier this summer, former Rochdale goalkeeping coach Dave Millen who worked with Bazunu at the now-League Two club described him as a “midfielder with gloves.”

Whether it’s short, medium or long-range passing, Bazunu has terrific ability with the ball at his feet and the calmness to demand it and make himself part of his team's build-up play. His tendency to advance outside of his box also means he can take up the role of ‘sweeper-keeper’ to attack balls over the top, something that was needed on multiple occasions against Villarreal.

The case against Bazunu…

As with many of Saints’ newest additions, the main argument against Bazunu immediately coming into the team revolves around experience and age. In some ways, Bazunu feels younger than the rest of Saints’ recruits considering his position of goalkeeper tends to be full of late peakers. 

Of last season’s starting Premier League goalkeepers, only one - Ilan Meslier - was under the age of 23, and should Bazunu get the nod for Spurs he will be comfortably the youngest goalkeeper amongst all Premier League clubs. 

Daily Echo: Bazunu warming up with goalkeeping coach Andrew Sparkes. Image by: Matt TempleBazunu warming up with goalkeeping coach Andrew Sparkes. Image by: Matt Temple

Boyd doesn’t believe this is an issue. 

“Gavin’s a calming presence, he brings calmness to the team,” the former Shamrock Rovers forward explained. “The kid can play with his feet, old school people might not like it but Gavin is a keeper of the new era. He wants to play, he wants to start attacks and he’s brilliant at it to be fair.”

Granted some of the age and experience conversation might come down to the players around Bazunu rather than Bazunu himself. If Hasenhuttl wants to utilise the limited experience in his squad, he doesn’t have much to pick from. Of players aged 30 or older, only Stuart Armstrong and Oriol Romeu joined McCarthy in appearing in pre-season.

Bazunu’s time will come and it may come immediately. But if Hasenhuttl feels he needs some older heads around this youthful team, the Irishman could be sacrificed for McCarthy.

The case for McCarthy…

While McCarthy is not many fans’ choice for the starting job, it’s important to remember there have been good spells.

The 32-year-old was instrumental in helping keep Saints up at the back-end of the 2018/19 campaign while he went through promising spurts in the first half of last season before suffering a serious injury against Brighton.

That being said, McCarthy is who he is. He’s an all-round decent keeper, a decent shot-stopper with decent command of his box. Nothing he does is particularly brilliant but you largely know what you’re going to get with McCarthy and that element of stability could be appreciated amongst a squad of relative unknowns.

Daily Echo: McCarthy pictured during Saints' lap of honour after the defeat to Liverpool. Image by: Stuart MartinMcCarthy pictured during Saints' lap of honour after the defeat to Liverpool. Image by: Stuart Martin

As already discussed, he’s one of few viable options over the age of 30 (admittedly a semi-random 'experience' threshold chosen) and is one of the longest-serving players at the club having arrived on the South Coast in the summer of 2016.

While he might not be trusted by all supporters, he clearly retains the trust of his teammates and manager, evident by Hasenhuttl giving him a real chance in pre-season and his defenders frequently using him as a passing option.

In pre-season, McCarthy played the second half of the 3-1 defeat to RB Leipzig before starting the 0-0 draw with Klagenfurt and the 3-1 win against Monaco. He was quietly good against Klagenfurt in a really poor team showing, making one excellent save in the second half behind a supremely young defence.

Finding himself on the bench for the defeat to Villarreal is obviously not a good sign for McCarthy’s chances but Hasenhuttl has remained coy throughout pre-season as to who will be chosen between the sticks on Saturday.

The case against McCarthy…

Just because McCarthy is the stable choice, doesn’t mean he’s perfect. The Reading academy graduate has had issues protecting his near post, something seen last season when Takumi Minamino struck for Liverpool in May and again in the pre-season clash with Monaco when Aleksandr Golovin managed to squirm a shot between the goalkeeper and his near post.

Meanwhile, the free-kick conceded to Leipzig’s Angelino didn’t cover McCarthy in glory.

Daily Echo: McCarthy attempting to save Joel Matip's header at St Mary's. Image by: Stuart MartinMcCarthy attempting to save Joel Matip's header at St Mary's. Image by: Stuart Martin

His distribution and ability to play the sweeper-keeper role is also not as refined as Bazunu. McCarthy deserves credit for his commitment to this part of the job through pre-season but there were still too many misplaced passes or brief moments of panic.

He also doesn’t quite carry the ability to pull off the kind of game-winning brilliance Bazunu has shown himself capable of. You never know if that will be needed but Bazunu’s ceiling is significantly higher than that of McCarthy’s and it means that his best moments aren’t replicable by his more senior teammate.

Verdict: Gavin Bazunu

Starting the very first game of pre-season seemed to immediately put Bazunu ahead in the running while his place in the final team of the pre-season campaign is likely an even greater indication that he will be starting at Spurs.

The early flashes we’ve seen of Bazunu are hugely promising but the truth is we’ve still only seen flashes. With the back five and increased defensive solidity, it seems to have provided, Bazunu and McCarthy have both largely been well protected. For the latter, that’s fine as we’ve seen a lot of him already but for Bazunu it means there is still much in the unknown.

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We don’t know how he will fare under intense periods of pressure or how he will respond to the inevitable and costly mistakes that come with this position. But he has shown enough to deserve the chance to prove he has all those elements of his game. Considering the character and make-up of who he is, there doesn’t appear any major reason for worry around Bazunu’s lack of experience - this article should help convince you of that.

If McCarthy does start against Spurs it would be a surprise but it wouldn’t change anything in the medium and long-term. Bazunu hasn’t joined the club to sit on the bench as second-choice and his time will come soon. I’d expect it to come immediately.

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