Very few would’ve predicted Town to be second in the table after two Premier League fixtures with the opportunity to make it three wins from three going into the international break.
However, David Wagner’s men have defied the critics and the odds but they will now face their sternest test yet when Mauricio Pellegrino’s unbeaten Southampton side roll into town.
After a frustrating 0-0 draw with Swansea City on the opening day of the season, when Southampton did everything but score, they rectified things with a 3-2 victory over West Ham United.
Now, they will be looking to spoil Town’s mood and bring three points away from the John Smith stadium to break Town’s 100% record and continue their unbeaten run.
Ahead of Town’s second home fixture of the Premier League season, we got in touch with The Ugly Inside to discuss all things Southampton, his views of Town’s start to the season and his thoughts on the game itself.
1. What have you made of Southampton’s summer so far?
Saints summer has been under the cloud of doubt that hangs above Virgil Van Dijk’s future, we’ve not given in to the so called bigger clubs (so far) and selling our best assets like we have in recent years. This summer signals the hopefully the start of a stubborn character from Saints, we’re now in a greater position financially and there’s no need to sell our players. Away from that, Pellegrino’s master piece has been a work in progress. We had a fairly OK pre-season picking up 2 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss. The signings we’ve made are great fits to the club and with plenty of potential to develop into great players. The fans already have warmed to Pellegrino and his approach of the football we’ve so far.
2. Have you been impressed by Mauricio Pellegrino; how does he compare to Claude Puel?
A resounding majority of the fan base has been impressed by Pellegrino so far. Tactically is a vast improvement on Puel whose approach was conservative football, side to side passing, a hesitant to take our chances whereas Pellegrino has returned attractive, free-flowing football at St Mary’s. We’d much rather see us lose a game 4-3 for example but by playing attractive football than be bored with consecutive 0-0 draws. Off the pitch he seems like he is the authoritative figure, reports suggest Puel lost the dressing room last season and lost the confidence in the players. Within days of Mauricio taking up the position he had already restored confidence in the players and you could see it on the pitch.
3. Have you been impressed by your summer signings or is more needed?
Each signing has been a Southampton signing. With that I mean they are well thought out, scouted months-years in advance and bought in at the right age and ability. We have a history of buying in or developing young players into great footballers and this summer is no different. Mario Lemina our record signing, a shrewd signing considering the current climate of the transfer market and at only £16 million from Italian giants Juventus, he’s certainly one to excite the fans. Lemina possesses a physical presence in midfield to complement Oriol Romeu and the engine to run from box to box and carry the ball.
We’ve bought in two central defenders Jan Bednarek £5 million from Lech Poznan and as of Wednesday, Wesley Hoedt £15 million from Lazio. Defence was the key area to strengthen as we lost our two first choice centre backs last season in van Dijk and Fonte. Hoedt is finally an overdue replacement for Fonte whereas Bednarek is one for the future. If Hoedt is fit he could be in line for a debut on Saturday.
4. Who will be your key players this season?
If we get him firing like he was when he first signed then Manolo Gabbiadini will be the main man to put the ball in the onion bag this season. Loves to play off the last man and has excellent movement in the box to pounce on to anything.
Our anchor and massively underrated in Premier League but the heart of our midfield, Oriol Romeu. His big physical presence is exactly what Saints need to break up play, get stuck into some hard hitting tackles, release the ball quickly, he does nothing fancy and he’s much loved at St. Mary’s. Take him out of the equation and we’re severely lacking in strength in midfield.
However the obvious key man would be Virgil Van Dijk, but his future remains to be seen. If he can accept he won’t get a move and get his head down and work head he will undoubtedly win us more points.
5. What are your hopes and realistic ambitions for the remainder of the season?
Realistic ambitions should be to challenge for European football. However, the competition in the league is rife and there are about 3 mini-leagues in the Prem. The top 6, the next 6 and whatever’s left (relegation candidates). We should have the ambition to challenge and break the mould that Everton seem to have on 7th, a lot of teams around us like Stoke, West Ham, West Brom, Leicester and even Bournemouth will all have similar ambitions.
6. Where do you see Southampton finishing come May?
Personally, I see us finishing around 7th. We should at least be improving on our points tally from last year which in normal circumstances would have been lower half only above the drop zone. The gap between 7th and 8th was vast last season and if we manage to get some momentum going we should be able to carry points through to the end of the season and comfortably finish top half.
After discussing in length Southampton, we moved onto the perceptions of Town, particularly after such a blistering start to the season.
1. What have you made of Huddersfield’s start to the Premier League season? Can you draw any comparisons between Town and the Southampton side that was promoted under Nigel Adkins?
Huddersfield have played without fear, unlike Newcastle, Huddersfield have nothing to lose and whatever Wagner is drinking, it’s infectious on his players. You must be in dream world after two wins, two clean sheets in your debut Premier League season.
2. What do you make of David Wagner and the signings he has made this summer?
In a very similar capacity like Saints, Huddersfield have gone under the radar with shrewd signings. Mounie seems like a very decent addition with a pedigree of scoring goals in France and the ability to bully defenders. Tom Ince is a player that has never really been given a licence to shine at the top level, I believe he has talent but it has not been nurtured. Wagner will be the guy to get the best out of him. Aaron Mooy, a player you already had on your books last season will undoubtedly be your star man this year like last.
3. How do you rate Town’s survival chances this season?
If Huddersfield can continue in playing without fear and keep up the consistency then you will easily survive. Everyone had wrote you off before a ball had even been kicked and you’re proving everyone wrong so far. Keep it up and you’ll be safe by Christmas.
4. Do you think their style of play will suit the Premier League?
For the neutral watching, Huddersfield is refreshing. If you carry your never say die attitude from last year into this season you could have few classic matches on your hands. Everyone absolutely loves wildly open free-scoring football matches and if anything could attract you some better players.
5. Who in your opinion are Town’s standout players?
As briefly mentioned above, Mounie and Mooy are the key players for you. If you stay up those two, in particular, will inevitably have other clubs sniffing around.
6. What did you make of Town’s back to back Premier League wins? Positives to be taken or did you still see ominous signs that back up the ‘relegation certainties’ tag?
It’s hard to be critical on a debut team winning their first two games comfortably and without conceding a goal. The team looks solid and plays together and unit and clubs will have a handful on breaking you down. However, the time will come that will be somewhat of a reality check for the players and that will be Wagner’s biggest test in reacting to heavy defeats and test of character on the players.
Finally, we discussed the game itself and how it could potentially pan out on Saturday afternoon.
1. What did you make of Southampton’s 3-2 victory over West Ham United? Do you have any concerns about giving up a two-goal advantage to ten men?
We never make things easy. In the second half, we got complacent and allowed West Ham in twice to equalise. Both shots should have been dealt with and Forster should have done better. We controlled the game with possession and fair amount of chances that were not clinical. Fair play to Bilic in getting a reaction from his players and it hurt us. Eventually, Pellegrino made the right substitutions in bringing on Long and Austin to go for broke but like we saw on Wednesday it doesn’t always work.
2. How do you see the match going, tight and cagey like Newcastle made it? Or do you think Southampton will play openly and expansively making it a more end to end encounter?
Saints will try and be expressive and get the ball out to wide positions but we need to be clinical. We haven’t been clinical enough in front of goal to believe we comfortable. No doubt it’s not going to be easy to break Huddersfield down. Personally, I believe it will be tight and cagey and perhaps only a goal in it either way.
3. What will be the key battles that could decide the outcome of the match?
In the centre of our defence. If we play Yoshida and Stephens at the back again which we’ve seen for the last 6 months this is where your target man can bully our defenders. Physically Yoshida and Stephens easily get bullied by much stronger and bigger strikers. On many occasions, Stephens has been outmuscled in the air and a prime example was on Wednesday night. He failed to deal with a corner from Wolves and allowed a free header to concede the first goal. We’re missing the imposing frame, speed and agility of Virgil van Dijk to win us aerial duels. However, if our new signing Wesley Hoedt is fit he will start at centre back. Last season he won 86% of his aerial duels in Serie A which was the best in the league. This could be the solution to our problem in defence.
4. How are you feeling going into this match?
This game will be no pushover and historically newly promoted sides always tend to do well at home in their first few games. It would be naive to say we’re going to win by a big margin. I feel this could be a really tight affair and neither side wanting to give the ball away.
5. What’s your score prediction?
With that being said, I do believe we do have enough star quality and strength to see the game out. I don’t expect a flurry of goals but I predict Saints will edge it 2-1. It’s likely we’ll probably concede but we should have enough fire power up front to call upon and take our chances.
Without a doubt, this will be Town’s toughest test yet. Despite Southampton’s loss mid-week, I’m sure that Pellegrino won’t be experimenting on Saturday and instead, he will return to his tried and tested methods. Both defences look fallible and as expansive sides, both will be looking to take advantage of it. Regardless of the result, it will be an entertaining match-up for the neutral and for all of those involved.