The end of an incredibly long campaign is almost upon us on the south coast, and Claude Puel’s Southampton side will be looking to end the season in style when they welcome Stoke to St Mary’s this Sunday.
It’s been a season full of ups, downs, injuries, disappointment, elation, pride and divide. However, the end of 2016/17 is nigh and it’s time for the Saints fans to come together to push the side on to a big, much-needed three points at home.
In all honesty, Saints have very little to play for. Of course it would be good to consolidate eighth place and fend off the likes of West Brom below us, but I feel as though Puel should look towards Stoke’s visit as a good opportunity to utilise his squad.
He’s come under some heavy criticism this season for being too trigger happy when it’s come down to rotation, and more recently for what can only be described as blind faith with some players, but now would be a positive time to give some of the fringe players a chance.
Players such as Cedric Soares, Oriol Romeu, and Dusan Tadic among others have had absolutely huge seasons, and have played week-in week-out for Saints this season. So, it’d be a nice game for them to get a rest and a good chance for others to step forward.
Cedric himself appeared to take a knock against Manchester United, going down three times before Jeremy Pied came to the fore, and I feel as though the experienced Frenchman should be awarded only his second ever start for the club. He’s been patient in waiting for his chance and it’d be good to see him gather a little bit of momentum and match fitness at the end of the campaign. It’d also provide Cedric with a much-deserved rest, because he’s fought til the death in every game he’s played and has been one of Saints’ outstanding players this season.
Romeu, for example too, has been an absolute rock for Saints throughout the course of the season. He’s cemented his place in the first team and is arguably the most important player for us right now, but it’s time to give him a well-earned rest as well.
Puel isn’t short of midfield options, and it’d be great to see a different midfield pairing to the usual of Romeu and Steven Davis.
Jordy Clasie is perhaps most deserving of a recall given his inexplicable absence from recent games, given that when he’s played in the last couple of months he’s taken his chances. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg would also benefit from a match at the end of the season to not only bolster his experience of Premier League football further, but to give him a confidence boost. As a young player, being chopped and changed and not even being included on the bench against a team like Manchester United, it must be demoralising.
Harrison Reed would also benefit from having a start, or at the very least a substitute appearance. If we want him to achieve his full potential, he just has to break out of the Under-23 setup soon. He has undoubted quality and has potential, but has to start kicking on soon, having been patient this season.
In terms of attacking players too, Puel has a plethora of options to choose from and should relish the opportunity to pick an exciting front three or four for this game against a shaky Stoke back line.
Tadic should be benched given his disappearance against United, and a chance should really be given to Sofiane Boufal – and I’m not talking about the chances that Puel has given him prior to this match.
Starting him sporadically then hauling him off after 70 minutes at the latest will do him absolutely no good, and nor will handing him defensive responsibility by sticking him out wide. Let’s see Boufal in a free role behind the striker, floating between the lines and let’s see him for a full 90 minutes. He can play without pressure against Stoke.
Puel should also consider handing young Josh Sims a starting berth as well. He’s been out of contention for some time now but is without a doubt an exciting player that the fans, including myself, have taken to. He gives another outlet out wide, and his unpredictability and in some cases inexperience has often troubled defenders this season. It’d be a really good opportunity for Sims to test himself against full-backs who, with all due respect, are really not the best.
Lastly, I think Puel should give Charlie Austin a start. He’s been patient and must have been frustrated during his recovery from a dislocated shoulder, but it’d be brilliant for both the player and the fans to see him back on the St Mary’s pitch. He’s a real fans’ favourite and has a killer instinct that is rare to find nowadays. Whether it be up top alongside Manolo Gabbiadini or in place of him, Austin should be given the chance to lead the line for Saints.
There are plenty of good rotational options at Puel’s disposal, now it’s down to the man to pick these wisely and find a happy balance.
Let’s end the season on a high.