Football Features

The seriously gifted Southampton side that finished above Liverpool in Jurgen Klopp’s first season

By Steve Jennings

Published: 20:41, 28 June 2020

Since the turn of the century, St Mary’s Stadium has played host to some of the Premier League’s biggest names – and we’re not just talking about visiting players.

Indeed, several Southampton players have shone on the south coast before going on to play for some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Dejan Lovren all play for clubs to have won either the Champions or Europa League in recent seasons. Elsewhere, the likes of Theo Walcott, Calum Chambers, Morgan Schneiderlin and Rickie Lambert also initially left Southampton to play in Europe’s elite competition.

Most of these departures have occurred in the years since Southampton made a triumphant return to the Premier League for the 2012/13 campaign. But regardless of who has left the Saints in that time, they have always somehow managed to replace their old stars with new ones.

That said, the last two seasons have been a struggle as a failure to replace top-class talent has seen Southampton battling to stay in the division.

Gone are the days when the club could dream of breaking into the top six, but that’s exactly what they did in 2015/16 under Ronald Koeman’s management.

One look at their team that year and it’s easy to see how they finished above misfiring duo, Liverpool and Chelsea. Here’s what happened next to every player in the Southampton side that secured a sixth-placed finish in 2015/16.

Goalkeeper: Fraser Forster

Age: 32
Current club: Celtic (on loan from Southampton)
Southampton appearances: 125

Forster gradually took over from Maarten Stekelenburg as Southampton’s first-choice goalkeeper in 2015/16. The former Celtic star was clearly the safer pair of hands, conceding just 17 goals in 18 league games and keeping six clean sheets, his form earning him a call-up to England’s Euro 2016 squad.

The 32-year-old played every league game the following season but his performances drastically dipped in 2017/18 and he was dropped. He has featured just once for this Saints since December 2017 and is now back at Celtic on loan.

Right-back: Cuco Martina

Age: 30
Current club: Everton
Southampton appearances: 36

In the second half of 2015/16, Martina became Koeman’s right-back of choice ahead of Cedric Soares after scoring his only goal for the club – a stunning strike against Arsenal – in his first start. However, inconsistency saw him struggle to hold the place down going into the following season, when Soares earned his spot back.

Martina made just nine league appearances in 2016/17 and was released at the end of the campaign. Koeman, who had left for the Everton job, took Martina with him to Goodison Park, but a string of poor performances saw the 30-year-old loaned to Stoke City at the beginning of last season before going on another loan at Dutch club Feyenoord.

He’s back at Everton but hasn’t featured in a first-team match of any sort since the end of the 2017/18 campaign. He will leave the club at the end of the season following the expiration of his contract.

Centre-back: Jose Fonte

Age: 36
Current club: Lille
Southampton appearances: 288

Fonte played a key role in Southampton’s promotions from League One to the Championship and from the second tier to the top-flight. He was subsequently handed a new contract and the captaincy in the summer of 2014. Despite another impressive season in 2015/16, Fonte failed to agree to fresh terms with the club on a new deal.

In the following campaign, he departed midway through the season to join West Ham United. Just a year later, the Portugal international signed for Chinese club Dalian Yifang, and just six months after that he was back in Europe with Ligue 1 side Lille, where he remains.

Centre-back: Virgil van Dijk

Age: 28
Current club: Liverpool
Southampton appearances: 80

From his first game in a Southampton shirt, it was clear the Saints had a special defender on their hands. But Van Dijk has surprised everybody with just how special he has become in a Liverpool shirt since leaving Southampton in January 2017. Indeed, he has turned Jurgen Klopp’s side into contenders for the Premier League and Champions League.

His debut season for Southampton, 2015/16, was impressive but not enough to provoke interest from Liverpool and Manchester City. That came after his second campaign in England, but it took until midway through 2017/18 for a bid to be accepted. Van Dijk is now considered among the world’s best centre-backs and has been crowned European and English champions with the Reds.

Left-back: Ryan Bertrand

Age: 30
Current club: Southampton
Southampton appearances: 200

A mainstay on Southampton’s left-side for almost five years, Bertrand has been a picture of consistency since joining from Chelsea. He has struggled to improve his overall level to the point of earning a return to a top-six club, but if offered, the top teams probably wouldn’t say no to having the 30-year-old as a squad option.

Bertrand formed an impressive partnership down the left with Dusan Tadic (more on him later) in 2015/16, which gave Southampton another attacking element while opponents were attempting to deal with Sadio Mane (him too) on the other flank.

Central midfield: Victor Wanyama

Age: 29
Current club: Montreal Impact
Southampton appearances: 97

Mauricio Pochettino attempted to take a number of players with him from Southampton to Tottenham in 2014; reports at the time suggested Spurs wanted Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez to follow the Argentinian to White Hart Lane. He ended up with just one, though, and it took a couple of years to get Wanyama.

The Kenyan was signed to bolster Spurs’ midfield after the Londoners missed out on the title in 2015/16, while Wanyama was excelling in Southampton’s midfield. He replicated those displays in his first season at Tottenham but knee injuries curtailed his progress thereafter. He’s since moved to MLS club Montreal Impact, managed by Thierry Henry.

Central midfield: Jordy Clasie

Age: 29
Current club: AZ Alkmaar
Southampton appearances: 49

Koeman brought Clasie with him to Southampton from Feyenoord in the hope the midfielder would adapt quickly to Premier League life and inject some much-needed creativity into the team. But despite sporadic moments of inventiveness, Clasie took too long to adapt to his surroundings – he failed to score a single goal in his debut season.

That said, he was being picked ahead of James-Ward Prowse and Oriol Romeu in the final few games of the 2015/16 season, although he missed the final match through injury. There was no recognisable improvement from Clasie in 2016/17 and he has since been loaned to Club Brugge and former club, Feyenoord, before joining AZ Alkmaar on a permanent basis.

Attacking midfield: Sadio Mane

Age: 28
Current club: Liverpool
Southampton appearances: 75

Like Van Dijk, Mane has developed into an even better player than many imagined he would at Liverpool. The winger bagged a hat-trick against Manchester City in his penultimate home game for Southampton, a performance that confirmed his potential and tempted Liverpool into making a summer move.

Mane is now one part of the Reds’ fearsome front three, scoring 78 goals across all competitions to help Liverpool win the 2018/19 Champions League and the 2019/20 Premier League, while on a personal level, he finished fourth in the 2019 Ballon d’Or voting.

Attacking midfield: Steven Davis

Age: 35
Current club: Rangers
Southampton appearances: 226

Southampton lured Davis from Rangers upon their promotion in the summer of 2012. He scored on his debut against Manchester City and went on to become an important member of the squad in the coming years. He scored five goals in 34 league games in 2015/16, his best goalscoring season for the club.

The Northern Ireland international’s influence waned, however, and he returned to Rangers on loan in January 2019 — a transfer which has since been made permanent.

Attacking midfield: Dusan Tadic

Age: 31
Current club: Ajax
Southampton appearances: 162

Tadic could have possibly joined a top-six club during the best spell of his Southampton career. Instead, he left for Ajax last summer after an inconsistent season for the Saints. Little did anybody know how much he needed a move.

The Serbia international has been a revelation in Amsterdam, scoring 53 goals in 94 appearances across all competitions. His magical display against Real Madrid in the Champions League functioned as a retort to those who criticised Tadic for swapping the Premier League for the Eredivisie in 2018. It was clearly the right move for an immensely talented player who helped Ajax reach the semi-finals of the Champions League last season.

Striker: Shane Long

Southampton’s Shane Long celebrates scoring his sides second goal during the Premier League match at St Mary’s, Southampton.

Age: 33
Current club: Southampton
Southampton appearances: 206

Long scored 10 Premier League goals in 2015/16, the only time he has ever reached double figures in a top-flight season. The Irish striker has always been best known for his propensity to chase lost causes and get in behind the opposition, but his goal tally has taken a big hit in recent years.

With just three goals in 25 games across all competitions this season, it’s a surprise Long still gets as many minutes as he does. He is still able to stretch defences with his clever and purposeful runs, but Southampton often need someone to find the net as they battle against relegation.

Substitutes

Koeman also had plenty of capable options on the bench, some of whom are still with the club.

James Ward-Prowse has recently re-discovered his best form and is edging closer to a place in the England squad. Oriol Romeu remains a useful squad option, too.

Cedric Soares and Maya Yoshida are out on loan at Arsenal and Sampdoria respectively.

Maarten Stekelenburg, the substitute goalkeeper in 2015/16, is set to leave Everton for Ajax at the end of the current campaign, while Jay Rodriguez is a Burnley player and Charlie Austin is at West Brom.

Italian striker Graziano Pelle made 30 league appearances in 2015/16, scoring 10 goals, but his minutes were reduced towards the end of the campaign ahead of a move to China. He still plays for Shandong Luneng.