Southampton completed the signing of Mohammed Salisu on Wednesday on a four-year contract from Spanish side Real Valladolid. The centre-back arrives amidst hype from supporters on the south coast – they are hoping he might finally fill the giant Virgil Van Dijk-shaped void that has long plagued their defence.
Van Dijk left the Saints in January 2018, joining Liverpool for a world-record fee and leaving his former employers with quite the conundrum. That season, the Saints wobbled to a 17th-place finish with an error-prone Jack Stephens and an ageing Maya Yoshida picking up most of the defensive duties that the Dutch international left behind.
In truth, the Dutch colossus had mentally departed long before the transfer. He was selected on name alone, with his mind already on Merseyside. The struggling manager at the time – Mauricio Pellegrino – struggled to drop his only world-class talent without raising a lot of eyebrows.
Saints’ first attempt at a replacement was already with the club, but Wesley Hoedt did little to impress in his spell with the Saints and his cultured left foot belied his complete lack of positional awareness. Couple this with social media spats with the fanbase and it became clear that replacing the big man with this particular compatriot was simply not going to work.
Hoedt – who has spent the last two seasons on loan with Royal Antwerp and Celta de Vigo – was signed for a fee of £15m and was optimistically seen as a worthy successor to the outbound Van Dijk. Another Netherlands international, arriving with good pedigree from his spell at Lazio, the club had staked huge faith (and big money) on his development. The signing of the former AZ Alkmaar man – barring a Ralph Hasenhüttl-fuelled turnaround in form – looks like an abject failure in every respect.
Whilst Hoedt will almost certainly be leaving the south coast again in this window – either permanently or on another loan adventure – Salisu’s direct predecessor is still around the first-team squad at his new club.
Jannik Vestergaard arrived for another sizeable fee of a reported £18m in the summer of 2018. It was attempt number two at replacing Van Dijk and the Saints hierarchy were crossing their fingers, toes and God knows what else in the hope that he would stem the team’s porousness in a way that Hoedt never could.
It’s safe to say the Dane has made a slow start to life at St Mary’s. A giant of a man, appearances alone meant no one expected him to be sharp on the turn or quick to execute a flurry of skill on the ball. What fans did expect, however, was for the 6’6″ defender to win the odd header and dominate from set-pieces. Vestergaard has delivered on neither of these small asks on a consistent basis.
Saints’ opening match of last season saw them steamrolled 3-0 on a miserable day in Burnley. The gale-force winds saw Sean Dyche’s side employ the sensible tactic of playing long – not a tactic Southampton are shy of, with both teams in the top four for the highest number of long balls last season.
These raking diagonals caused mayhem in the Saints back line and the Dane appeared bereft of the ability to control his body. His most shameful moment came when he failed to connect with a rudimentary lofted ball in his general direction, missing his header and inviting Ashley Barnes to hammer home the opener.
In ‘that result’ against Leicester, some of his attempts to contain Jamie Vardy resembled an overweight tabby cat lumbering about after a nimble little mouse, ever eluding its hunter. The former Monchengladbach man looked firmly out of his depth.
Vestergaard would not currently be in Hasenhüttl’s first XI, but towards the end of the season he performed adequately when injuries and suspensions occurred – leaving him undoubtedly more in favour than the enigmatic Kevin Danso, on loan from FC Augsburg. Interest has been touted from the likes of Leicester and while he hasn’t alienated himself in the same style as Hoedt, not many would lament losing the Dane if Saints were able to recoup some of that fee.
Mohammed Salisu will arrive in a strange position. A third crack at attempting to replace the world’s best player in his position should weigh heavy on such young shoulders, yet perhaps the relatively inexperienced Ghanaian who was part of La Liga’s sixth-best defence last season could prove the right man for the role. Certainly, our La Liga expert believes he is capable of playing at a much higher level.
Saints’ central defensive pairing of Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens has looked better of late, but there remains no doubt that Southampton’s problems begin and end with their inability to defend – with Bednarek and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy responsible for a startlingly high six errors leading to goals last season.
However Salisu slots into the side, his first task will be convincing the manager he’s willing to work harder out of possession than he ever has before. His second task will be proving he’s a more worthy heir to the throne than the last two candidates.
Connor Spake – follow him on Twitter