Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Ings. The Southampton youth system has given a lot to football over the years. St Mary’s remains the place to go if you want to see the dazzling young stars of the game. Tino Livramento, Mohammed Salisu and Moussa Djenepo are all 23 or under and have established themselves as first team regulars. The twist? None of them are Southampton academy graduates.
In fact, very few of the players who have enjoyed Premier League minutes at Southampton this season are from their once-prolific academy. Midfielder Nathan Tella has made six league appearances, but he is very much an outlier. Theo Walcott has played six games too, but is 32 and returned to the club in 2020 after a 14 year absence. James Ward-Prowse is homegrown, and has played 13 times in this campaign. But at 27 years old, he is hardly reflective of the current state of the club’s youth policy.
An example of the pivot in focus under Ralph Hasenhuttl can be found in the signing of Thierry Small. The 17-year-old was signed in the summer after he chose not to accept a new contract at Everton, the club where he had emerged from the youth ranks. Southampton’s focus has shifted from trying to grow high-potential players, and they now seem determined to seek them out from other clubs.
This approach has led to some exciting talent taking to the St Mary’s pitch. Tino Livramento has grabbed headlines this year. The full back was highly-regarded at Chelsea, but left for the south coast in search of first team football. At 19, he is already an ever-present in Hasenhuttl’s side. Midfielder Ibrahima Diallo came through the ranks at Monaco, and was signed from Brest at the start of least season. The 22-year-old has got ten league games under his belt this season, and is an important part of Southampton’s plans.
There are countless more examples of the Austrian coach favouring players whose peak is ahead of them. Kyle Walker-Peters is 24, and was signed from Tottenham Hotspur after finding his way from the academy to the first team blocked. Romain Perraud is the same age, and was another excellent find from Brest. Djenepo is still only 23, and is enjoying his third season at St Mary’s. 24-year-old Adam Armstrong is a Newcastle United youth star who comes to Southampton via a stint in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers. Mohammed Salisu and Lyanco are also players whose best years are still to come.
This model is nothing new. In fact, another former Bundesliga coach’s use of this transfer policy has been under the microscope recently. The idea of buying young players for bargain prices, and developing them into high-value assets is something Ralf Rangnick espoused during his time at the head of the Red Bull football empire. It is no coincidence that Hasenhuttl managed RB Leipzig, working under Rangnick during the Manchester United interim manager’s time as Director of Football. Southampton’s shift from a talent factory to a finishing school for promising players from elsewhere under Hasenhuttl can be attributed to his background at Leipzig, a club who has done this sort of thing extremely effectively during their short life.
Southampton are no longer looking to bring through the next Gareth Bale. Their focus now appears to be bringing in the next Erling Haaland. The Saints are looking to polish rough diamonds, benefit from their improving abilities on the pitch, and then use the money from their sale to fund the next batch of future stars. It’s a departure for Southampton, but one that can pay dividends in the long run.