Claude Puel has once again defended his decision to make wholesale changes in the FA Cup – insisting his Southampton side would have been unable to face Swansea on Tuesday if he had not done so.
Saints were hammered 5-0 by Arsenal on Saturday after Puel opted to make 10 alterations for the fourth-round meeting with the Gunners.
The fixture came on the back of Southampton securing their place in the EFL Cup final with a victory at Liverpool and with Premier League games against the Swans and West Ham this week.
A 3-0 win over champions Leicester remains Southampton’s only league win of 2017, but Puel is fighting on despite missing a host of first-team regulars.
The Frenchman was defiant after the heavy defeat in the FA Cup, stating he would name the same team if he was given the chance to rethink his line-up.
And he went further when previewing Southampton’s trip to struggling Swansea as he declared he was “protecting” his players from burn-out following a hectic schedule.
“I prefer not to comment on all the injuries but for tomorrow we have between eight and 10 players not available,” he told reporters at his pre-match press conference.
“It is a lot but it is the fault of the calendar for us, with all these games it is difficult and if I didn’t protect some players against Arsenal we could not play this game against Swansea or the next against West Ham.
“I had to do a choice against Arsenal but it was important to do this with all of the injuries and in this difficult moment for us.”
With their run to the EFL Cup final coupled with Europa League and Premier League commitments, Puel feels his squad are in a unique position in regards to the amount of fixtures they have faced.
“It is a squad since the beginning of the season that has played a lot of games. I think we are the first team in Europe playing all these games – 36 official games,” he said.
“This is first position for us, with international players also playing during every international break.
“It is not normal and sometimes it gets to the point where the body can do no more. I had to protect some of my players against Arsenal.
“I believe we can do a better match but it was not possible and hard to accept this for us and to keep good focus for the next game where players can make a difference with a good physical level and good fitness.”
One of the biggest losses from those currently unavailable to Puel is centre-back Virgil van Dijk, with the Dutchman in superb form this season.
His absence with a foot injury will be felt more given Jose Fonte was sold to West Ham earlier in the month – and Puel admits he may make a late move for a defender having still had no time-frame put in place for a return to fitness for Van Dijk.
“We know Virgil van Dijk will stay weeks out of the team and it’s important to find a good balance without him for three weeks,” he added.
“We will see how many times he will not be available but for the team but for the moment, it’s important like against Liverpool to see a balance in defence.
“Perhaps there is a possibility at the end of the transfer window to see about this position.”