Tottenham Hotspur, away. Leeds United, home. Leicester City, away. Manchester United, home. Chelsea, home.

Daunting is one word. Perhaps terrifying is another if you’re more inclined to think down the pessimistic route. Regardless, of what you want to call it, the fixture list randomiser has thrown Saints an absolute gauntlet to traverse at the start of the 2022/23 Premier League season.

Obviously, we all hope Saints can defy the odds against some of the division’s top sides as they managed on multiple occasions last term, but it’s by no means a guarantee that Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side will be starting this campaign on the right foot. 

In Spurs, they face last season’s fourth-place finishers who have only strengthened this summer before welcoming United and Chelsea to St Mary’s - 3rd and 6th in 2021/22. Leeds and Leicester offer more palatable opportunities but the nature of their presence in between the juggernauts just places added pressure on top of those already important clashes.

Would it surprise anyone if Saints were in the relegation zone at the end of August? Probably not. And that’s okay.

Daily Echo: Armel Bella-Kotchap (far left) and Romeo Lavia (second right) are two of Saints' new young recruits. Image by: Matt TempleArmel Bella-Kotchap (far left) and Romeo Lavia (second right) are two of Saints' new young recruits. Image by: Matt Temple

If ever there’s a time for patience, it’s now. Granted, patience is easier to ask for than it is to actually feel following last season’s dismal end to the campaign. The quiker that slide is forgotten and placed in the rearview mirror the better and that means winning games and creating new, warmer, memories as soon as possible.

But that desire and hope is slightly ignorant of the realities. This isn’t a squad set-up for immediate results. As previously discussed, Saints have ignored the cries for experience and committed to rebuilding with their own strategy, bringing in talented young players with room to grow and develop. It’s been an exciting rebuild over the past ten weeks and most supporters are happy with the business completed thus far - although everyone recognises that more is needed - but the nature of this transfer window comes with its risks and pitfalls.

The first is obviously the unknown element. Of Saints’ six first-team additions (including Mateusz Lis), not one has played in the Premier League while four of them are 20 years old or younger. Not only do these players need to adjust to their new surroundings, new teammates, and new league but someone like Romeo Lavia also needs to adapt to playing regular high-stakes professional football. Meanwhile, Sekou Mara only arrived at the club just over a week ago and also has extremely limited top-flight experience.

Turning 20 on the day of his first (unofficial) Saints appearance against Villarreal, the striker struggled as he failed to properly carry out Hasenhuttl’s pressing instructions while not managing to make much of an impact with the ball at his feet - the very few times he got it.

Daily Echo: Mara in action for Saints against Villarreal. Image by: Matt TempleMara in action for Saints against Villarreal. Image by: Matt Temple

As can so often be the case, sections of social media ignited into worried uproars over the newest recruit but early struggles should be the expectation, not a surprise. 

“Sékou is coming here to score goals and has shown in the French league he can do this, now he needs to work hard and show he can do this in the Premier League,” Hasenhuttl said after Mara joined the club from Bordeaux.

“He is a young guy who will need time to adapt to a new country and a new league, but we are excited about his potential and what he can become in the future.”

That last line from the Saints manager says it all. Mara has arrived for the future as well as the now but he is a project and an element of a much larger project.

All these caveats mean there will be a learning curve and there must be room for patience. The medium and long-term hope is that this ambitious rebuild gives Saints the platform to finish in the top ten semi-regularly while avoiding the kind of late-season collapses that have become frustratingly normal over the last couple of seasons.

Daily Echo: Bazunu (aged 20) is another of Saints' young recruits. Image by: Matt TempleBazunu (aged 20) is another of Saints' young recruits. Image by: Matt Temple

But of course, the other side is the matter at hand. The now. And Saints really might struggle as their players get up to speed against fierce competition.

Some of their new additions do look ready to go despite their limited age and time on the South Coast. Joe Aribo flashed his stupendous talent in the second halves against Villarreal and Monaco while Gavin Bazunu already looks capable of taking on the number one goalkeeping duties. Even the aforementioned Lavia, with no experience of his own, has carried himself and played in a manner far beyond his age thus far.

But this was all during pre-season and when the floodlights come on for the first Premier League outing and the crowd starts to build with anticipation and nerves, there is no way to know how these youngsters will react. Perhaps it’s a pessimistic notion, but I’d expect Saints to toil through the month of August. 

I’m sure this crop of budding talents will do great things and have big moments but I’m equally certain they will make mistakes and against the likes of Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo, those errors will likely be punished. 

Patience though must remain through the down moments. These players must be allowed to make mistakes and must be given the opportunity to move past them. That second part though is key. They can’t keep making the same mistakes as we, unfortunately, saw from more experienced members of the squad last season. But if they make a mistake and learn from it - even if the team is punished in the moment - then that is acceptable and hopefully beneficial in the long run. It’s an allowance that must be given to players who are still learning.

This group can’t suddenly be expected to reach their potential immediately. That’s one of the problems with potential, it’s not necessarily there at the start, only the seeds are.

That doesn’t mean, however, that losing is just automatically okay because this squad is young. There will be real pressure around St Mary’s should they lose their first five games but this was never designed as a squad to peak in August. This is a squad designed to peak as the season goes on and truthfully, as the season(s) go on. 

The rawness of this squad and the limited minutes playing together means it may not click at once. That coupled with the new formation trialled throughout pre-season - a 3-5-2 - leaves natural room for growing pains. 

You can’t pick your fixtures and the gods have thrown down virtually as tough an opening run as possible. In an ideal world, the players will see this as an opportunity. No one is expecting them to defy the odds and take down some of these giants so in a way the pressure is lessened. Any points against Spurs - and to an extent United and Chelsea - will be seen as a bonus and an early sign of this squad’s capabilities. Defeats to the trio will be status quo restored as it was supposed to be.

But regardless, this squad needs time and that’s only heightened by its incomplete nature. Saints have been busy this summer, far more than in many recent windows, but that still doesn’t mean all their needs have been filled. Hasenhuttl has made no secret of his desire for increased firepower up front while full-back cover would not go amiss. With just under a month left to go in the transfer window, there is still time to find the right final pieces of the puzzle but that obviously doesn’t help with the trip to North London on Saturday.

So patience must exist.

Daily Echo: Aribo celebrates his goal against Villarreal. Image by: Matt TempleAribo celebrates his goal against Villarreal. Image by: Matt Temple

And all this brings us to the manager, Ralph Hasenhuttl. Last season saw Hasenhuttl come under perhaps the most pressure he has faced since arriving at St Mary’s in 2018. 

A hugely promising campaign fell apart in the final three months and for one of the only times in recent memory, Saints fans seemed to turn on the manager during the 4-1 defeat at Brentford. 

It felt like something of a breaking point, leaving many to wonder if a fresh start was needed. Under new ownership in Sport Republic and with an extensive rebuild expected, heading into the summer seemed to be the time to cut ties with Hasenhuttl if it was going to happen. Fans would have largely respected the decision and the start of a new era could have a new leader at its helm.

Instead, Sport Republic chose to part ways with three members of Hasenhuttl’s coaching staff, a clear indicator that the late-season collapse wouldn’t be tolerated, yet also alleviating Hasenhuttl of some of the blame. Since then, the squad has been rebuilt largely in Hasenhuttl’s image (and Sport Republic’s) bringing in young energetic and untested talents.

The pressure on the manager naturally seems to have dissipated slightly. The end of last season would have been the obvious time to part ways if it was going to happen. Why let a manager oversee a major rebuild if he’s not in the future plans? 

Admittedly, the nature of Sport Republic’s model and the mindmeld it has with Hasenhuttl’s own vision of Southampton means that the summer window would have likely gone similarly with or without the Austrian. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is the one in meetings explaining to targets how they will fit into his team and he is the one who has been given the first shot at helping them adapt to this new challenge.

Daily Echo: Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl. Image by: Matt TempleSaints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl. Image by: Matt Temple

It makes no sense to keep Hasenhuttl in charge of such a young squad if he’s not going to be given the time to mold this new group. Surely stability rather than upheaval is what this group needs?

That doesn’t mean he’s untouchable though. Clear progress needs to be made and it can’t happen slowly. But at the same time, if the month of August ends with Saints staring up from the foot of the table, it would seem grossly unfair not to allow the manager the same kind of patience we should allow the players at his disposal.

You could argue we’ve already seen the first steps of progress with vastly improved performances against Monaco and Villarreal compared to the struggles against RB Leipzig, Klagenfurt, and Watford. And the switch to a back five does show signs of increased pragmatism and flexibility, something Hasenhuttl has been criticised of in the past. Those signs of progress need to continue into the real thing now.

While much of this summer feels like a fresh start, the reality is that pressure exists on Hasenhuttl thanks to last season’s collapse. His leash - from fans at least - is no doubt shorter than it has been at virtually every point in the past. 

There’s no specific thresholds of when enough is enough. At some point, should results not go their way, patience will run out and that is how it should be. This is the Premier League not youth football and the stakes on the line are very real. Progression and growth are important with these young players but points and maintaining Saints' Premier League status are far more crucial. 

It’s a delicate balance and there’s no science to patience and emotion. If these young players don’t hit like we all hope -  and many think - they will, then Saints will be at very real risk of relegation in a strong division. And if they don’t get going, at some point it will be time for a new manager to try to change that. 

But this squad needs the benefit of patience as they start their Premier League journey and that means the manager needs the benefit of that patience as well. This project will take time to develop; it’s unrealistic to expect the rewards overnight.

A message from the Editor

Thank you for reading this article - we appreciate your support in reading the Daily Echo.

Subscribing to the Echo means you have unrestricted access to the latest news, features and Saints coverage - all with an advertising-light website.

You will also have full access to Saintsplus, your new home for Southampton FC tactical analysis, features and much, much more.

Don't take my word for it - subscribe here to see for yourself.

Follow the latest breaking news in the Southampton area by joining our Facebook group - Southampton News - Breaking News and Incidents

Follow the latest court and crime news on our dedicated Facebook group - Hampshire Court and Crime News