Most Southampton fans have reason to feel optimistic about the club's prospects for the 2013-14 Premier League campaign.
Every member of the primary starting 11 returns from last year's team, and are joined by a couple of prominent signings, Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama.
While most are expecting a top-half finish and/or a big run in one of the cup competitions, Southampton would be wise to not let their guard down against another potential relegation dogfight.
After all, the Saints found themselves in the relegation zone for a majority of the first half of the season, occupying one of the bottom three spots for a total of 12 weeks last season. Southampton didn't clear the magical 40-point hurdle until the next-to-last week of the season and finished the campaign with 41 points.
Mauricio Pochettino's side also finished the season on an uninspiring six-game winless streak, collecting just four draws over the six games.
While Southampton have strengthened the defensive half of the lineup with Lovren and Wanyama, the Saints did concede the fifth highest amount of goals in the Premier League last season with 60 goals allowed. That was in spite of the Saints leading the Premier League in tackles and interceptions last season with 21.6 tackles and 20.5 interceptions per match, according to WhoScored.com.
Another potential area for concern is that Southampton have yet to strengthen the two of the weaker positions on the squad, right winger and goalkeeper.
Jason Puncheon scored six goals last season, but never seemed to fully gain the trust of Pochettino. The right-winger only played the full 90 minutes once in his last 10 matches and was primarily used as a substitute.
An endless array of options are available to the Saints manager, from playing Jay Rodriguez, Gaston Ramirez or Steven Davis out of position, to Guly do Prado, to employing Southampton academy graduate Lloyd Isgrove out wide. But expect a heavy rotation of players until someone stands out or Pochettino and club chairman Nicola Cortese bring in a reinforcement.
Southampton have a number of goalkeeping options to choose from, but none of them really were that convincing last season.
Artur Boruc, Kelvin Davis and Paulo Gazzaniga all failed to stop two-thirds of the on-target shots they faced. Boruc and Davis made 1.12 and 1.17 saves per goal allowed respectively, according to Squawka.com, percentages of just 53 and 54 percent. Gazzaniga was better with 1.82 saves per goal allowed, but a 64.5 percent save rate isn't exactly world class.
Pochettino also has American Cody Cropper, who was the No. 1 keeper for the U.S. at the U-20 World Cup in Turkey this summer, at his disposal. But Southampton will have to have better play in-between the sticks, whether it comes from someone currently on the roster or through another transfer signing, in order to avoid a relegation dogfight.
Another possible area of concern is the lack of scoring from sources other than Rickie Lambert. The Liverpool native, who just earned his first call-up into the England national team, scored 15 of the Saints' 49 goals last season. No other member of the team scored more than six. If Lambert's production falls off or he gets injured, that could be a major source of worry for Southampton fans.
A number of the teams in the bottom half of last year's table have also splashed a large amount of cash this offseason. Norwich City have spent £25 million, Aston Villa £10.9 million, Sunderland £19 million and newcomers Cardiff City £17.2 million, according to transfermarkt.co.uk. Certainly the bottom half of the Premier League will be stronger than ever.
While the odds of Southampton being relegated aren't very likely, being 8-1 according to SkyBet, the Saints will want to get off to a good start to ensure the question doesn't linger into April like last season. The final fixture of the season is at St. Mary's versus defending league champion Manchester United. That's a match you don't want to have to get three points out of to avoid the drop.
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