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 from last season’s squad although Armando Broja has also returned to parent club Chelsea following the conclusion of his loan spell on the South Coast.

READ MORE: Who starts in goal for Saints' season-opener at Spurs?

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 as well as 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 this Saturday.

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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 who 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.

Yesterday, we addressed the ongoing goalkeeping battle and today we will be looking at Hasenhuttl’s choices for the back five.


Jan Bednarek vs Armel Bella-Kotchap vs Yan Valery vs Lyanco vs Jack Stephens

With MohamMed Salisu a likely shoe-in on the left side of Hasenhuttl’s centre-back trio, that leaves two spots up for grabs. Based on the construction of the defence through pre-season, it appears that Hasenhuttl wants his outside central defenders to be aggressive off-the-ball and capable of carrying it up the pitch when his side they are in possession.

Meanwhile, the defender in the middle of the trio has frequently been placed on mop-up duty, acting as the last line of protection should the two aggressive outside centre-backs get caught out.

Neither Jack Stephens nor Lyanco got on the pitch for Saints’ final pre-season friendly against Villarreal and the duo can likely be removed from consideration for a starting role in Saturday’s trip to Tottenham.

Daily Echo: Saints defender Lyanco is unlikely to start vs Spurs. Image by: Stuart MartinSaints defender Lyanco is unlikely to start vs Spurs. Image by: Stuart Martin

And despite regular criticism last season and reports earlier in the summer that he could depart the club, Bednarek seems a near-certainty to be in Hasenhuttl’s first XI of the Premier League season.

The Polish international appeared in all five of his side’s pre-season fixtures, starting three of them. Operating at the centre of the back three (or five depending on how you look at it), Bednarek has quietly put together an impressive pre-season campaign.

The presence of two aggressive front-foot defenders alongside him seems to get the best out of Bednreak who can sit deeper and clean up. Far too often last season, Bednarek would try to push forward to win the ball and get horribly caught out high up the pitch, leaving acres of space behind him.

He’s a better defender when he can just focus on defending the space around him rather than an entire half of the pitch and this system allows him that comfort.

If we pencil in Salisu and Bednarek, that only leaves one centre-back spot available, the right-side battle between Yan Valery and Armel-Bella Kotchap.

The case for Bella-Kotchap…

Arriving in June from Bundesliga club VfL Bochum, Bella-Kotchap perfectly fits the profile of the raw but talented young players Saints have looked to fill their squad with. Still just 20 years old, Bella-Kotchap made 74 appearances in Germany before making the move to St Mary’s.

The early signs have been promising. Clearly not one to play with fear, Bella-Kotchap prefers to act on the front-foot, getting out to meet opposition forwards as quickly as possible while initiating contact. Naturally, that means he commits his fair share of fouls and finds himself out of position on occasion, but these elements are perfectly suited to the back five system in place.

With added protection, Bella-Kotchap can afford to take the risks that naturally come to him with the knowledge that there is protection behind him should he get it wrong. Physically imposing, Bella-Kotchap will fancy himself against most Premier League strikers but he is far from the finished article.

His concentration and positioning is less than perfect, while we saw him get beaten on the right flank for Villarreal’s opening goal. Of course, considering his level of experience we must expect mistakes and the back five seems designed to allow these mistakes while trying to alleviate the cost they bring to the team.

Daily Echo: Bella-Kotchap in action for Saints during pre-season. Image by: Matt TempleBella-Kotchap in action for Saints during pre-season. Image by: Matt Temple

While it might be exciting, it’s hard to see Salisu and Bella-Kotchap working together in a back four but with the extra centre-back between them, both can flourish without having to completely alter their naturally aggressive playing styles.

Perhaps, somewhat surprisingly, it’s also been Bella-Kotchap’s ability going forward that has impressed. A benefit of this new shape is that it usually allows one of the centre-backs to push up the pitch when Saints have the ball.

Twice against Villarreal, Bella-Kotchap strode forward before playing a pinpoint cross to the back-post where Moussa Djenepo was streaking through. It remains to be seen if he can do this on a regular basis but it’s a great weapon to have.

The case for Yan Valery…

Coming into the summer, Valery’s Saints career was heading in the wrong direction. Originally brought in as a right-back, the Frenchman struggled to impose himself out wide before Hasenhuttl decided to try him at centre-back. That also didn’t yield regular football and he largely only played last season when Hasenhuttl switched to a back five.

Well, fortunately for Valery, they now appear to have moved to such a system for the foreseeable future.

Valery was involved in four of Saints’ five pre-season matches and his stock seemed to rise as the new season came closer and closer. In the first pre-season game with RB Leipzig, he played half an hour at right-wing-back before being replaced by youngster Diamond Edwards.

He then started the 0-0 draw with Klagenfurt at right-centre-back and in a pretty mediocre team performance, Valery impressed with his physicality as much of the Austrian side’s surprising attacking potency came down the other wing where Thierry Small and Jack Stephens were torn to shreds.

Valery wasn’t involved against Watford - not a promising sign - but he returned to the team for the 3-1 victory against Monaco, playing 89 minutes and doing so excellently. The 23 year old was then the first option off the bench to replace Bella-Kotchap for the latter stages of the 2-1 defeat to Villarreal.

Daily Echo: Valery in action for Saints last season. Image by: Stuart MartinValery in action for Saints last season. Image by: Stuart Martin

The Monaco performance displayed the clearest signs of progress from Valery while also highlighting where he has struggled. Midway through the first half, Valery found himself sucked inside and as the ball came over his head, Monaco striker Wissam Ben-Yedder was on hand to volley at goal. It ended up comfortably wide, but lapses in concentration have plagued Valery’s young career thus far and it was another example of that.

On the positive side, outside of a few shaky defensive moments, Valery put together a relatively complete centre-back performance. Perhaps most impressive was his speed and strength when forced to recover, helping bail out his defence on at least one occasion - as seen below when Breel Embolo seemed to be running clear.

Additionally, Valery has flashed real potential with the ball at his feet. Just moments into the second half against Monaco, he drove forward, beat multiple defenders, and fired a tame snap-shot straight at the Ligue 1 side’s goalkeeper.

Clearly, Hasenhuttl is encouraging his wide centre-backs to get forward with either a wing-back or central midfielder dropping in to keep the defensive numbers. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest Valery is the best Saints centre-back at carrying the ball out of defence and that should be a major plus in his column.

Verdict: Armel Bella-Kotchap

The truth is, this decision has likely already been made. For much of pre-season, Hasenhuttl’s ‘first-choice’ XI - or the team that seemed closest to such a thing - was anchored by the back three of Salisu - Bednarek - Bella-Kotchap. That was the set-up for the defeat to Villarreal and it’s likely to be the same on Saturday in North London.

Bella-Kotchap was brought in to play and he seems to fit the back five system like a glove. Outside of his error against Villarreal, he’s hardly put a foot wrong in pre-season and the aggression to win the ball high up the pitch compliments the rest of the defence around him. With his surprising crossing ability added to that, he seems the obvious choice to start against Spurs.

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The only element complicating matters is the impressive pre-season form of Valery. Not many would have really expected this battle to be so tight but Valery has earned opportunities with his performances. His recovery speed offers Saints a get-out-of-jail-free card when they’re stretched at the back while his progressive dribbling is sure to cause lots of problems.

Just because he may not start ahead of Bella-Kotchap, doesn’t mean Valery’s pre-season has been wasted or been any sort of failure. The defender has launched himself back into consideration and could have a big part to play this season if the back five sticks around. That’s a win in itself for a player who was largely written off just a few months ago.

Next up, we'll take a look at the left-wing-back battle between Moussa Djenepo and Romain Perraud...

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