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.

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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.

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.

Over the last two days, we looked at the ongoing goalkeeping battle and Hasenhuttl’s choices for his three centre-backs.

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Now onto the rather surprising left-wing-back debate…


Moussa Djenepo vs Romain Perraud

Well well well, not sure many saw this coming. Happy to admit, that I certainly didn’t. When the full-time whistle went on Saints’ 2021/22 campaign, it also seemed like it would signal the end of Moussa Djenepo’s disappointing spell at the club.

Yet two months later, the Malian international is still a Saints player and in with a real fighting chance of starting on the opening day of the season. The competition though - in Romain Perraud - is fierce. This is not an easy one to call, but let’s dive into it.

The case for Moussa Djenepo…

Granted it’s just pre-season, but in the fledgling days of 2022/23, Djenepo already managed to rack up more than 10x the minutes he did in the back-half of the 2021/22 campaign (330 vs 25).

Circumstance has helped open the door for Djenepo. Clearly not rated by Hasenhuttl as one of his ‘number ten’ options in the 4-2-2-2, there’s certainly no chance the winger would be depended on at full-back. But the switch to a back five - coupled with the broken foot Perraud suffered near the end of last season - has presented Djenepo an opportunity at left-wing-back and he has grabbed it with both hands.

Opportunities are rare in football and when they are afforded, the player needs to run with them. And to Djenepo’s credit, he has.

Daily Echo: Djenepo in action for Saints during pre-season. Image by: Matt TempleDjenepo in action for Saints during pre-season. Image by: Matt Temple

As previously looked at, Djenepo provides an element of unpredictability and willingness to try something different that is often missing from Saints' other attacking players. On top of that, his desire to drive at defenders will naturally draw opposition players towards him while hopefully leading to free-kick opportunities in James Ward-Prowse range around the box.

Operating at left-wing-back gives Djenepo the freedom to go anywhere on the left flank with the knowledge that he is protected defensively. The extra space he gets running in from deep also helps with his relatively gangly and unrefined dribbling technique that sometimes struggles in tight areas.

And while we think of wing-back as a defensive-first position, the reality has often been the opposite in pre-season with Hasenhuttl’s wing-backs tasked primarily with helping out the attack.

Below is one example against Monaco where Djenepo and Kyle Walker-Peters - the two wing-backs - are the furthest forward Saints players.

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This obviously suits Djenepo quite well.

Twice in Saints’ final pre-season friendly against Villarreal, it was Djenepo who ghosted in at the back-post and get on the end of a pair of Armel Bella-Kotchap crosses. The winger failed to do much with his two chances, but it was yet another sign of the added dimension he can give Hasenhuttl’s attack.

The case for Romain Perraud…

Whereas Djenepo is unpredictable and inconsistent, Perraud is largely the opposite. Not quite as attackingly potent as Kyle Walker-Peters or Tino Livramento, Perraud largely found himself behind the talented English pair when they were all fit. Now with Livramento out for the foreseeable future, Perraud will no doubt play a major role this season.

But still on his way back from a serious injury of his own, Perraud managed just 52 minutes in pre-season, starting one game - the 3-1 win against Monaco where he was withdrawn at half-time. 

Whether or not he’s ready for Saturday, it will be a huge relief for Saints to have Perraud as an option. Slightly overshadowed by the emergence of Livramento, Perraud put together an extremely encouraging first season in England, making a total of 23 appearances and rarely enduring a bad game.

Daily Echo: Perraud in action for Saints last season. Image by: Stuart MartinPerraud in action for Saints last season. Image by: Stuart Martin

Reliable at the back, Perraud has the stamina to get forward and the ability to make a difference as seen by his stupendous strike in the FA Cup against West Ham. But first and foremost, in his eyes at least, he is a defender.

Reflecting on his first season in the Premier League, Perraud said: “I think my first job is being a defender and I prefer not to score and keep a clean sheet, this is my mindset.

"When I come on the pitch, I try to help my team, firstly defensively, it is my first job to be aggressive against the ball, give everything for my team-mates, for the club. And after, when I can, do some runs to help my team, with crosses and shooting if I can, this is my way to play.”

This approach is obviously in direct contrast to the attacking and discipline-less Djenepo. The natural winger should provide more danger going forward but Perraud is clearly the more reliable defensive option.

Not always spectacular, Perruad has very few weaknesses, doesn’t tend to make garish errors, and plays with real energy and fight.

Verdict: Romain Perraud

With Perraud still on the mend from his broken foot, there is an excellent chance that Djenepo does start in North London, particularly after his impressive pre-season campaign. But due to the nature of the game, we’ve gone with Perraud.

Facing the rather daunting challenge of Antonio Conte’s Spurs, Saints must focus first on keeping the ball out of their own net rather than scoring. Armed with Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Dejan Kulusevski, this is obviously much easier said than done. But a difficult job will become far closer to impossible if they make the kind of destructive defensive errors that were far too common last season.

For this reason - the desperation for defensive reliability - Perraud is the better choice. Choosing Perraud would make Hasenhuttl’s back-five a more defensive version than it has often been in pre-season, but this is a game where his side will naturally have to soak up pressure and remain solid and compact.

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An argument could certainly be made for Djenepo’s impact on the counter-attack but utilising someone as erratic and inconsistent as Djenepo in a position that will likely have to defend quite heavily (despite the offensive nature of his role in pre-season) seems a major risk.

That’s not to say there won’t be opportunities for Djenepo. With only two fit full-backs in the squad, Hasenhuttl has naturally had to get slightly creative and that’s led him to Djenepo at wing-back. It’s worked well enough that it should remain an option going forward.

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