The value in this transfer owes a lot to Queens Park Rangers’ dysfunction: media reports speculated that during the Summer of 2015, the club had the opportunity to sell Charlie Austin for a healthy eight-figure sum. Less than six months later and with his contract running down, Austin left for £4m and that’s very much to Southampton’s gain.
Maybe there was originally a logic to that decision. Had Austin stayed for the whole of the season and scored enough goals to take Rangers back to the Premier League, the lost revenue would have been incidental. As it stands, though, they have essentially arrived at a worst-case scenario: the fee received wasn’t particularly substantial and the club have now lost their primary threat halfway through the campaign.
It’s hard to justify.
In any case, Austin will do well at St Mary’s. Graziano Pelle has been a big success since arriving eighteen months ago but, beyond his supposed disaffection with English life, he’s quite a one dimensional forward. That’s not to say that he isn’t capable of being highly effective, just that those behind him have to play in a particular way to get the best out of him. He’s enormously powerful and not only is he good in the air, but he also knocks the ball down in an intelligent way, but he doesn’t have the kind of mobility required to be a genuinely diverse threat.
Conversely, one of the advantages of Shane Long - as has been shown in recent weeks - is that he does move very well and that he’s comfortable in more than one area of the pitch. He’s not a natural forward and he’ll never be at his best with his back-to-goal or when asked to hold possession, but he seems to make Southampton a more fluid team - at the very least, he broadens the passing options for the players operating behind him and he changes the depth of an opponent’s defensive line.
So maybe Austin offers a mid-point between the two. He lacks the outright size of Pelle and isn’t as useful outside the penalty-box as Long, but he does move exceptionally well inside the area. A lot of his goals - both this season and last - have come from opportunism and from his ability to react quickest in congested areas. He’s capable in the air, but he’s an exceptional one-touch finisher who has that sought-after knack of getting across defenders and of reacting first to second-balls.
Is he a club-changing signing who will strap Southampton onto his back and march them up the league? No, but that isn’t to say that he doesn’t have an obvious use. Whether he becomes a week-to-week starter or not, at £4m he’s a very shrewd pick-up who will give Ronald Koeman the option of tailoring his approach depending on the opponent.
There are a couple of reasons why Southampton have fallen short of what they achieved last season: the absence of Fraser Forster has been pertinent, the loss of Nathaniel Clyne and Morgan Schneiderlin has unquestionably hurt, and Jordy Clasie perhaps hasn’t adjusted as quickly as anticipated, but a third forward - one who splits the merits of Long and Pelle - has probably been an under-appreciated flaw. When a team is successful, rival sides pay more attention to what they do well and there’s been a definite sense that opposing managers have worked out Koeman’s Southampton and countered some of their strengths.
There’s also some merit in Austin’s personality and that’s probably part of the multi-layered logic behind this signing. He’s a solid character: for obvious reasons he appreciates what it is to be a footballer, he doesn’t come with any red flags, and he’s a very honest sort of professional. He’ll work extremely hard, he’ll never be the source of any negative headlines, and he’ll quickly become a fan-favourite. Those merits may all be slightly cliche-based, but they all have their value and they are all desirable.
That’s only Problem One of several - Southampton’s standard of defending and the protection offered from midfield has to improve, too - but Austin will be a significant positive on many levels.