The old adage goes “If you love someone, then set them free.” 

This summer, Saints had their own experience with tearful goodbyes as Oriol Romeu departed the club for Girona after seven memorable years at St Mary’s.

Romeu developed into a modern-day cult hero through 256 Saints appearances that included 68 yellow cards and - somehow - not one red. One of just a few experienced players in last season’s squad, Romeu captained the side in James Ward-Prowse’s absence before leading his team out this season for the trip to Cambridge United.

For years, Romeu’s name has been bellowed from the St Mary’s terraces with real energy, the central midfielder claimed as one of the city’s own by virtue of his incomparable commitment and never-ceasing appreciation for the privilege of playing for Southampton Football Club. 

But Romeu’s departure was tough to swallow for more than just peripheral reasons. The Spaniard made 34 Premier League starts last season - second-most after Ward-Prowse. He was a constant and essential piece of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s puzzle, enjoying some of his best form in the glory period from January to March. But things changed for him in the summer with the arrival of Romeo Lavia.

As discussed in the days leading up to Lavia’s signing, the two midfielders share a lot of similarities in their styles of play. But Lavia is younger, quicker, better on the ball, and crucially for Saints…younger. 

Daily Echo: Lavia celebrates his maiden Saints goal vs Chelsea. Image: Stuart MartinLavia celebrates his maiden Saints goal vs Chelsea. Image: Stuart Martin (Image: Lavia celebrates his maiden Saints goal vs Chelsea. Image: Stuart Martin)

But Lavia was still an unknown quantity when he rocked up on the South Coast, having made zero Premier League appearances for Manchester City. Any unanswered concerns were quashed almost instantly though as Lavia displayed his prodigious talent and even greater potential from the offset. That in turn, left Romeu in something of a hole.

With one year remaining on his Saints contract and no discussions over a new deal, the door had already creaked open for a relatively surprising Romeu exit. By the final weeks of the window, the departure grew in likelihood as Romeu’s role on the relative fringes of Hasenhuttl’s team became clear.

An opportunity to join Girona started to become more and more realistic but just as the deal seemed set to go through, a spanner hit the situation as Lavia suffered a fairly serious hamstring injury in the 2-1 victory against Chelsea.

Speaking after the game, Hasenhuttl acknowledged that Romeu’s future would have to be reassessed after the loss of Lavia.

“We are not sure because of the injury to Romeo Lavia now. We must have a look what we do.”

Yet, despite the implication that Romeu might have his move quashed, bad news about an extended absence for Lavia was followed shortly by the Spaniard’s permanent departure. Make no mistake about it, Saints could have used Romeu this season and consecutive 1-0 defeats to Wolves and Aston Villa has done nothing to sway the sceptics otherwise.

But this wasn’t a short term decision from Saints. Rather it was a crucial part of their long-term recruitment and transfer strategy. On the same day that Romeu ended his seven-year Saints journey, Yan Valery ended his own seven-year stay.

A regular for Hasenhuttl during the pre-season, Valery earned a starting spot for the first game of the new campaign at Tottenham Hotspur but a relatively disastrous first half saw the Frenchman hooked at the break. That proved to be his final Premier League appearance. 

Most had expected Valery to depart on loan but the Frenchman was swayed by the opportunity to head back to his homeland on a permanent basis.

Explaining the decision to the Daily Echo, Hasenhuttl said: “It was not easy but he was always a very respectful character. 

“Especially in the last two years, he had a massive change in his character because he became a father. You can see that does something with a young person. And I think for him to go back to France was a very big chance and we didn’t let him down there and tried to help him and support him, the same we did with Romeu. 

“A guy who is always respectful and working hard for this club gets all the support he needs to get from us.”

Daily Echo: Romeu could always be counted on during his spell with Saints. Image: Stuart MartinRomeu could always be counted on during his spell with Saints. Image: Stuart Martin (Image: Romeu could always be counted on during his spell with Saints. Image: Stuart Martin)

This quote says a lot about why Saints sanctioned the moves for Romeu and Valery. Letting go is a crucial part of how the club wants to build. Admittedly, much of that has been in regards to the talented youngsters they bring in with an eye to sell them for a huge profit in the future.

CEO Martin Semmens explained last winter why the club doesn’t want to stand in the way of their talents eventually moving on.

"You have got to be real and honest with people, the way we have dealt with our fans and our community is just to be honest with people, our plan and what we are doing," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"The big question is do we plan to keep those players or do we want to sell them? That's the most interesting bit of our club. People assume we just want to sell them to make money, but it has absolutely nothing to do with money. It is to do with the pathway.

"If you don't let Tino Livramento go to Liverpool one day when they come in for him, then the next one doesn't come in. We think about it, if you imagine a five-pointed circle, it is about finding the best young players in the world, providing the best environment for them, playing them, which is where Ralph [Hasenhuttl] comes in, because he leans across in those recruitment meetings and says 'I will play you in the Premier League' and then they come.

"We then improve them on a daily basis and when Liverpool do call and say 'we want that player', you have to let them go, otherwise the next young one coming out of Man City's academy will go, 'well I don't want to come, because you won't let me go'.

As Semmens explains, the club believes they are able to attract the likes of Livramento and Lavia in part due to their willingness to trust them but also because of the mobility available to them. 

Daily Echo: Valery pictured in pre-season. Image: Matt TempleValery pictured in pre-season. Image: Matt Temple (Image: Valery pictured in pre-season. Image: Matt Temple)

Saints won’t hold players against their will like we’ve seen from certain Premier League clubs and therir star players. Perhaps that’s the wrong decision and Saints should put up more of a fight; Wilfried Zaha for example, has been hugely essential to Crystal Palace’s Premier League survival over the past half-decade even if there has been periods of disharmony. But ultimately, Saints see letting go as a key reason why they were able to attract the talent in the first place.

The best of the current crop will move on. But the club trusts their ability to replace them with talents of an equal stature.

But this doesn’t only apply to the next generation of exciting arrivals. Girona is no random destination for Romeu but rather a top flight side in his native Catalonia. Relatively new father Valery gets a move closer to family and friends where he can play regularly.

An argument could be made that neither of these moves help Saints from a competitive standpoint. Romeu is a real loss and despite losing his place to Lavia, he would have played a lot of minutes this season. Meanwhile, Valery had largely become reserved as a back three specialist but he showed himself to be useful there. With Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek also departing as Armel Bella-Kotchap and Duje Caleta-Car arrived, Saints are no doubt stronger at centre-back but also slightly lighter in terms of numbers.

But part of Saints’ draw is that while football is the crucial element, they want to be a place for humans as well as footballers. If you give, you can take as well. Or as Hasenhuttl says: “A guy who is always respectful and working hard for this club gets all the support he needs to get from us.”

While Hasenhuttl has often been described as a human-first manager from his earliest days in Germany, this appears to be the desired attitude of the club as a whole.

“In the first part, they should be good footballers,” Hasenhuttl told the Daily Echo of how Saints’ willingness to facilitate moves away helps them bring in transfer targets. “That helps massively with feeling at home here and to help us but absolutely, the other part, I think when you are a little bit long as a manager like I am, you see the bigger picture as well to help them to support them in their lives. This is also our task to do and we know this and everybody in my staff and around the players will support them.”

Saints could use Romeu right now and the cynical in me says they should have kept him. But sacrifices must be made for the long-term and part of Saints’ policy is letting go. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that it will help curate the kind of environment that leads to important signings in the future. Time will tell if they’ve struck the right balance.

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