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.

Daily Echo: Saints players pose ahead of the new season. Image by: Southampton FCSaints players pose ahead of the new season. Image by: Southampton FC

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.

Daily Echo:

Today, we’ll discuss the midfield...

As previously discussed, captain Ward-Prowse is an automatic selection in a midfield that has gone from a two to a three at various points throughout pre-season, including shifting at half-time against Villarreal.

The key component here is Joe Aribo. Able to play pretty much any position on the pitch, the hugely versatile Nigerian international has already been used in a wide assortment of ways by Hasenhuttl. 

Aribo started his first Saints game against RB Leipzig up front alongside Nathan Tella before operating in a similar role next to Che Adams for the second half of the 0-0 draw with SK Klagenfurt. But returning to home soil to face Watford, Aribo’s position changed as he played deeper in a midfield three with Stuart Armstrong further forward as a second striker.

Despite the 0-0 draw at Wealdstone, Hasenhuttl saw enough in the experiment to try it again and when Monaco rocked up to St Mary’s, Armstrong again played up front with Aribo deeper on the right side.

This was how Saints started in the final pre-season clash with Villarreal but after failing to impose themselves in the first half, Hasenhuttl shifted things slightly for the second, moving Aribo further forward with Stuart and Adam Armstrong.

Aribo’s rare ability to pull the rabbit out of the hat and create a moment of magic - as seen against Villarreal - coupled with his versatility means he is a near-certainty to start at Spurs regardless of the system Hasenhuttl plays. 

That leaves us with one more spot in midfield up for grabs.

Daily Echo:


Oriol Romeu vs Romeo Lavia

In many ways, this decision is a microcosm of the battles in the squad as a whole, pitting youth vs experience. In Lavia, Saints have the ultimate representation of their transfer strategy, no doubt hugely talented but also entirely unproven having yet to make a Premier League appearance. Romeu on the other hand, has been one of if not Saints’ most reliable performer in recent years.

If Hasenhuttl opts for a more defensive approach, Aribo could start on the bench with both Romeu and Lavia in the side but based on the manager's chosen pre-season XIs, that seems unlikely.

The case for Lavia…

Spotted by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola while playing in Anderlecht’s academy at the age of 15, Lavia arrived on the South Coast this summer for an eye-watering fee of around £12m, matched only by his even bigger reputation.

As the only teenage member of City’s academy to be included in last season’s Champions League squad, it’s no secret that the Premier League Champions rate Lavia extremely highly. It's something that is evidenced by their insistence on the inclusion of a buyback clause in the deal that took the midfielder to St Mary’s this summer.

Growing up idolising Spain legend Sergio Busquets, Lavia plays the role of the modern defensive midfielder extremely well. Without the ball, he’s become known for his tenacious chasing and biting tackles while he has the speed and lateral mobility to go from one side of the pitch to the other with ease. Additionally, he has always been an effective presser, something that no doubt appealed to Hasenhuttl.

Daily Echo: Lavia poses after signing for Saints. Image by: Southampton FCLavia poses after signing for Saints. Image by: Southampton FC

Perhaps even more impressive though, has been Lavia’s early signs with the ball at his feet. Constantly moving to come short and provide an option for his defenders, Lavia wants the ball at all times.

Granted, we’ve only seen him in pre-season, but he appears to play with no fear, looking to be involved as much as possible and never daring to hide. He clearly relishes the opportunity to show off the more brilliant sides to his game, often initiating contact so he can turn away from pressure with a slippery drop of the shoulder while his forward passes have helped carry Saints up the pitch.

Through pre-season Lavia largely played with the ‘first team’ outside of the 3-1 victory against Monaco and he seems to have the most pieces of the puzzle Hasenhuttl is looking for in his defensive midfielder. He’s positionally more disciplined than Romeu and faster to recover should he be caught out of position. 

Much more on the impressive teen can be found here.

But there’s a very valid argument for Romeu too.

The case for Romeu…

Last season, Romeu was virtually the first name on Hasenhuttl’s team sheet. Only Ward-Prowse started more Premier League games than Romeu’s 34 and despite turning 30 last September, the Spaniard actually made the most appearances he ever has in a league campaign for Saints. That certainly doesn’t sound like a player slowing down.

One of Saints’ most comfortable players on the ball, Romeu was frequently the midfielder to help his side escape from tight situations with clever one and two-touch passing. Additionally, he was largely the leader of the press despite his defensive midfield role.

In truth, with his desire to get around the pitch rather than sit in front of the defence like a traditional defensive midfielder, Romeu suits one of the extra midfielders in a three more than the deepest player in a two. And it does seem that might be the plan for the upcoming campaign.

Daily Echo: Romeu in action for Saints last season. Image by: Stuart MartinRomeu in action for Saints last season. Image by: Stuart Martin

Speaking about Romeu in July, Hasenhuttl said: “I think as a lonely six, it’s always a little bit difficult because he’s not such a holding midfielder. I know he’s not the quickest in this position but he knows how to score goals in this area.”

Thus far in pre-season, Hasenhuttl has largely utilised one defensive midfielder or 'number six' and either one or two more advanced midfielders alongside. It’s clear that the manager recognises Romeu’s deficiencies in this system as he doesn’t have the speed nor stamina to cover the massive amount of ground required in this ‘lonely six’ role.

Unfortunately for Romeu, where he lacks also happens to be where Lavia excels.

But all this talk of the right profile and what Romeu can not do, ignores the crucial, sometimes transformational, impact he has on this team. Last season Southampton were at their best when Romeu was at his best and as his form deteriorated - possibly through exhaustion - over the final third of the season, his team’s form went with him. 

In a team largely devoid of traditional leaders, Romeu makes a massive impact on and off the pitch and it’s completely understandable if you feel he has to get into the team regardless of formation or the other options.

There are less tangible elements of football that are needed to win, particularly when the pressure is on against a top side like Spurs, and Romeu is full of those intangible qualities.

The Verdict: Romeo Lavia

Daily Echo:

All that being said, I believe this spot will go to the inexperienced youngster over the trusted servant. It’s entirely possible both get the nod with Aribo further forward but if Hasenhuttl decides to fit only one into the team, Lavia appears the frontrunner.

The new recruit was a regular with the first-team group throughout pre-season, performed extremely well and fits perfectly with what Hasenhuttl wants from his defensive midfielder. There will be opportunities for Romeu - a lot of them - but if it’s battle between the Spaniard and his much younger teammate, it could be a long season for the 30-year-old.

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