Southampton supporters received some welcome good news this week: the captain and heartbeat of the team, James Ward-Prowse, who joined the club at the age of eight, signed a new five-year contract despite interest from Premier League rivals.
“You can earn a lot of money anywhere but you seldom have a chance to become a legend,” says his manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl. “It is a clear message, a clear statement from him for the club. When you are at club so long you get a special position in the club and in the heart of the fans.”
There is something mildly reassuring about Ward-Prowse opting to stick around at a time when pillars such as Danny Ings and Jannik Vestergaard have departed for Aston Villa and Leicester respectively, clubs that appear to be getting away from Southampton, the latter for some time.
Ings and Vestergaard were always likely to move on given they had entered the final year of their contracts but there were no such concerns about Ward-Prowse – also a target for Villa – whose previous deal had four seasons left to run. “I have never had the thought that he could leave us,” Hasenhüttl says.
Sometimes it is dangerous to read too much into long-term deals that, in crude terms, ultimately cover the club financially by protecting the value of an asset, in turn forcing any admirers to stump up huge sums down the line. Southampton did so with Liverpool when Virgil van Dijk was sold for £75m, then a world-record fee for a defender, 18 months into a new six-year contract. Last September, Jack Grealish signed a new five-year contract at his boyhood club, Aston Villa, whom he also joined aged eight, containing a £100m release clause that was activated by Manchester City this month.
As Hasenhüttl has acknowledged, a lengthy contract extension, no matter how special the marriage feels, does not necessarily mean the 26-year-old Ward-Prowse will be at Southampton forever. But he is the poster boy of the academy, a clean-cut model professional – this year he became the first midfielder in Premier League history to complete successive seasons without missing a minute – and a key driver for Southampton in a tricky season.
Worries about who would replace Ings’s goals have been overtaken by concerns about who will fill the void left by the 6ft 6in Vestergaard in the middle of defence. Southampton have agreed a £6m deal to sign Torino’s Brazilian defender Lyanco but, despite the forensic succession planning and scouting, it is impossible to avoid the sense they are chasing their tail a little. The timing of those departures, just before the season started, left holes to plug at both ends of the pitch.
Another problem is a recurring – and perhaps psychological – one. Since Hasenhüttl took over at Southampton two and a half years ago, they have lost 60 points from winning positions – more than any other Premier League side. At Everton last week they took the lead before ending up on the wrong end of a 3-1 defeat. “There’s always two sides [to us], eh?” Hasenhüttl says, with a wry smile.
Last Saturday, Adam Armstrong scored 22 minutes into his Southampton debut with a sharp finish, an immediate riposte to questions about whether he could adjust to the top flight, but Hasenhüttl knows they need to tighten up in defence if they are to avoid getting dragged into a relegation fight for the fourth time in five seasons.
Teething problems are to be expected in a new-look defence – the full-backs Tino Livramento and Romain Perraud also made their debuts at Goodison Park – but at centre-back they have struggled to convince for a while. Jack Stephens and Mohammed Salisu, who played 13 minutes together at centre-back last season, started at Everton.
Armstrong, an explosive striker signed from Blackburn, is the most senior summer recruit at 24 and despite losing the experience of Ings, Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand, whose contract expired in the summer, Hasenhüttl is adamant his squad is more balanced than this time last year. On Friday, he highlighted how his youthful RB Leipzig team featuring Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano and Naby Keïta finished runners-up in the Bundesliga in 2016-17 and time on the training pitch, which was hard to come by given the condensed nature of last season, will be crucial to how Southampton fare.
“We need time to find each other,” Hasenhüttl says. “We have made a few good young signings, young players with potential. We start building them up, we start working with them; we start making them better so that they become really good Premier League players and maybe one time in the future they will leave us for a bigger club – whatever – and this is the way we go. It is still important that we are successful and that we stay in the league.”
Sunday’s home game against Manchester United is a tough early examination. United, unbeaten in 26 away league matches, could give £41m signing Raphaël Varane his debut at St Mary’s and Jadon Sancho, a player Hasenhüttl came up against in Germany – “He will definitely have a good impact in the Premier League” – could also feature.
United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea have all spent about £100m on furnishing their squads in the close season and while Hasenhüttl concedes bridging the gap to the league’s elite does not get any easier, he is adamant Southampton, who beat Liverpool at home last season, can spring a surprise.
“The gap will always be there,” he said. “This is the highest level in European football, the Premier League. Everybody wants to be a part of it. We don’t only want to be like the food for the big ones – we also want to get our points.
“When you face the best teams in the world, very often it is very difficult to win against them but we have shown in the past that when you have a good day that anything is possible. There is always a chance. Why not?”