Sunday, December 3, 2023

A year of Saints signings: Has recruitment under Sport Republlic been a success?

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The club’s fate – the Premier League or the Championship – remains undetermined.

The manager’s fate – Ruben Selles currently signed on until the end of the season – is still unclear.

And for the group of players, many of them underwhelming in this disappointing year, there is still much to be decided.

READ MORE: Saints international round-up as defender returns unscathed while Adams departs

Any assessment thus far requires the caveat that things can change. Heroes can still form and wrongdoings can quickly be forgiven at the business end of the season. But after more than a year under Sport Republic’s ownership, how can we assess their recruitment?

Through three windows, and really only two windows considering their quiet start after arriving last January, the general recruitment strategy from the Saints’ ownership is clear.

In total, Saints have signed 14 senior players either permanently or on loan over the past two windows. The average age of that group sits at 22.3 with eight of those additions 20 years of age or younger.

Rather conclusive, this also isn’t remotely surprising. Sport Republic have made it clear that they intend to invest heavily in relatively untested young talent with the aim of developing them alongside the team before selling for a profit.

Daily Echo: Gavin Bazunu was one of multiple youngsters to join the club in the summer.Gavin Bazunu was one of multiple youngsters to join the club in the summer. (Image: Southampton FC)

And regardless of your thoughts on Sport Republic’s first year at the helm, they’ve certainly put their money where their mouth is. The 14 new signings have cost in the region of £127m and those purchases have come with virtually no sales.

Having limited assets of value has helped that last point but Saints have no question been a buying rather than selling club under Sport Republic. Whether that changes with relegation or now that the stock has risen on some of their young stars is another question that can only be answered in time.

The squad has become younger and on an individual-by-individual basis, more talented and more valuable. Yet, Saints are rock-bottom in the Premier League.

This is the dichotomy surrounding Saints’ recruitment. Looking at the individuals who have arrived paints a picture of notable and multiple success stories.

But as a whole, clearly something has gone wrong and it could well end with Saints in the Championship for the first time in over a decade.

The summer window saw major change as Saints set out to rebuild the spine of their team. Out went significant experience as Fraser Forster, Oriol Romeu, and Shane Long all departed permanently while Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek – only to return six months later – left on loan.

That naturally left a host of holes and Sport Republic attempted to address those with some of the top young players from around England and Europe. 

Gavin Bazunu joined to challenge Alex McCarthy for the vacated number one job while Armel Bella-Kotchap signed from Bochum to address the lack of options in central defence. 

Meanwhile, Romeo Lavia was plucked from Manchester City’s academy to replace the soon-to-leave Romeu. Down the line, another raw attribute was added in the form of Sekou Mara.

The rest of the window saw ‘elder’ players sign with 25-year-olds Joe Aribo, Duje Caleta-Car, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles joining the club. Finally, deadline day was greeted with more young talent, Samuel Edozie and Juan Larios the latest to make the switch from the Etihad.

January was a mix once again as Charly Alcaraz and Kamaldeen Sulemana – each 20-years-old – signed on as long-term projects while experience was added in the form of Mislav Orsic, James Bree, and Paul Onuachu.

Daily Echo: Paul Onuachu joined Saints in the final hours of the January window.Paul Onuachu joined Saints in the final hours of the January window. (Image: Southampton FC)

In some ways, the state of the January window – thus far – paints the story of the wider success and failure of the club’s recent transfer business. When it’s comet o recruiting the next generation, the untested talent yet to truly get the chance to shine, Saints have largely flourished.

While many Saints fans might not have even heard of Alcaraz prior to the January signing, he has quickly become a vital cog in Ruben Selles’s squad.

The same can be said for Kamaldeen, who has appeared in each of the eight games since his arrival, impressing in moments despite failing to score or assist thus far. Both should continue to play prominent roles in the relegation dogfight.

But things are far murkier for the experienced additions, the ones expected to arrive and hit the ground running. Orsic, Saints eldest signing under Sport Republic at 30, might already be planning his exit after a disastrous move that has seen him play just six minutes in the Premier League. 

Bree, no doubt signed at the request of Nathan Jones, has played just over half an hour since the former Luton boss was sacked.

And Onuachu? Well, his Saints career has quickly nosedived. The Nigerian forward was snapped up on deadline day to help solve Saints’ goalscoring achilles heal. But after eight weeks at the club, he is yet to open his account and now finds himself potentially third-choice behind both Che Adams and Sekou Mara. Onuachu hasn’t started any of Saints’ last four league matches while playing half the minutes Mara has. 

There’s still plenty of time this season for Onuachu to leave his mark but at 28-years-old he will have been expected to make his presence felt this season rather than some arbitrary point in the future.

Looking at the summer and the same pattern starts to emerge. The two most experienced permanent arrivals – Caleta-Car and Aribo – have both been almost entirely ostracised from the first team while Ainsley Maitland-Niles, also 25-years-old, has been in and out of the side, but largely out.

The good from the window is the almost surprising success of the youngsters who have risen to the level required and started to make a name for themselves. Lavia, is of course, the shining light as he’s gone from zero Premier League minutes to international recognition. But he’s not the only one. 

Armel Bella-Kotchap has taken great strides forward and went to the World Cup with Germany in November. And while Mara is still a work in progress, he’s clearly trusted by Ruben Selles and has racked up 19 Premier League appearances thus far.

Daily Echo: Armel Bella-Kotchap has flashed significant potential since joining Saints in the summer.Armel Bella-Kotchap has flashed significant potential since joining Saints in the summer. (Image: PA)

Even Edozie, who has disappeared under Selles, enjoyed productive periods of the season, notably with Jones at the helm when he appeared in 11 straight league games.

Bazunu is the real question mark of the group, remaining Saints’ starting goalkeeper all season despite significant rocky periods, although it must be said that his form has improved in recent weeks.

The split in Saints’ recruitment success is clear. When scouting and signing young talent, they’ve largely excelled and it should continue to pay dividends in seasons to come. But when finding the experienced players to fill out the holes in the squad, Sport Republic have mostly failed.

Perhaps this is because the pool of known quantities is far more saturated with buying clubs than it is for big-money youngsters. Whatever the exact reason, it provides something of an explanation for Saints’ struggles this season.

With a significant rebuild required last summer, Saints did a decent job of bringing in the individuals to fit the missing pieces – on paper at least. But in utilising data to do their searching and in focusing almost entirely on unproven talent, they may have left themselves short in the more intangible departments.

A young defence with impressive performers last season including Kyle Walker-Peters, Tino Livramento, and Mohammed Salisu was desperately in need of experienced leadership to help mentor them as individuals and as a group.

Instead, it was two 20-year-olds – Bazunu and Bella-Kotchap – who joined prior to deadline day when Caleta-Car was added to the ranks seemingly as a backup option.

Meanwhile in midfield, Lavia has been a revelation but have Saints truly replaced the know-how and emotional drive of Romeu? It’s a tough question to answer but their collective struggles gives reason to believe they didn’t.

Daily Echo: Romeo Lavia has impressed majorly since signing for Saints from Man City.Romeo Lavia has impressed majorly since signing for Saints from Man City. (Image: Stuart Martin)

And up front, Saints still haven’t been able to find a reliable source of goals, someone who can create chances for themselves and then bury what they create. In some ways, they are still searching for their Danny Ings replacement but in the shorter-term, they still haven’t adequately replaced Armando Broja.

All in all, it’s not easy to assess the success of Saints’ recruitment under Sport Republic. A lot of good has been done and the money they’ll receive for the likes of Lavia will provide evidence of that. 

But equally, there’s been an element of naivety to the transfer business, a feeling that Saints don’t have to do it like everyone else, they can build in their own way. And while that is admirable, the Premier League is punishing and thus far Saints have been punished.

Would greater experience have solved their problems? Would a marquee striker signing in the summer have changed the trajectory of the campaign? 

These aren’t easy questions to answer but if Saints do go down then their recruitment simply must be categorised as a failure. In the simplest terms, it would mean that they didn’t do enough or didn’t do enough right.

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