Who's this guy touted as Rickie Lambert's replacement at Southampton? Peter McVitie takes a look at Feyenoord hotshot Graziano Pelle...
This summer looks to be one of great change for Southampton. Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana have already left St Mary’s during the close season and it is up to new coach Ronald Koeman to try and prevent the degradation of the team.
With star striker Rickie Lambert having already departed to join Liverpool, the 52-year-old Dutchman’s first job is to replace the 6ft 2in England international who was one of the team’s main sources of goals in recent years. It’s no easy task, but Koeman’s answer to the problem could lie at his former club Feyenoord with centre-forward Graziano Pelle.
Recent reports suggest the Premier League side are preparing to launch an £8 million bid for the forward and it would make perfect sense for the pair to reunite in England.
The Italian striker has been the star at Feyenoord for the last two years. With his power, strength, finishing ability and control, it was easy for Koeman to simply build the team around him and allow him to bang the goals in.
Players like Jay Rodriguez, Steven Davis and James Ward-Prowse around him and providing great service, he could replicate the partnership he had in Rotterdam with Jean-Paul Boetius, Ruben Schaken, Lex Immers and Tonny Vilhena which allowed him to net 55 goals in 66 games across two season in the iconic red and white.
Like Lambert, Pelle benefits a great deal from acting as the pinnacle of a team’s attack. He can act as a target man, putting his strength and aerial ability to use, or as the fulcrum in a side which, like Feyenoord and Southampton, will play more passing-based, technical football.
That he is so highly regarded and respected in the Netherlands may come as a surprise to any who had witnessed him before his time at Feyenoord.
When Koeman signed Pelle on transfer deadline day in August 2012 to replace goal machine John Guidetti as the club’s main striker, it raised more than a few eyebrows across the Netherlands. The striker joined the Rotterdam giants on loan from Parma, but was already well known in the Eredivisie.
He had spent four years in the Dutch top flight before, having teamed up with Louis van Gaal and latterly Koeman himself during his days at AZ. In that period, the club won only the second league title in their history, however, the Italian forward was a complete flop throughout his time there.
His best season in Alkmaar was his last, in which he scored six in 18, but only managed eight in the league across the previous three years.
That record is indicative of the forward’s entire career, though. Before he signed for Feyenoord, his best record in a single season was 10 goals in Serie B with Cesena in 2006-07; he had been a resounding failure all the way through his career. While tall, dark and exceedingly handsome, he was essentially useless. So when Koeman looked to replace the outgoing Guidetti, who become a legend to the Feyenoord fans with 20 goals in 23 games in his only season, no one would have guessed he would team up with the lumbering Italian again.
Guidetti was a nimble, youthful, bright and deadly striker who had a great relationship with the fans and had secured his place in their hearts with a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Ajax. So why on earth was Koeman replacing him with an older, ungainly and clearly substandard attacker?
It seemed a preposterous idea, and Koeman’s confident quote that "I am convinced he can score at least 15 goals this season,” seemed laughable, but it turned out to be a genius move from the former Barcelona player. The 6ft 4in striker immediately slotted into the vibrant, youthful and energetic team which provided incredible service to him and began to bang the goals in with aplomb.
He announced himself with a brace in a 5-1 trouncing over NEC before scoring the winner in a 3-1 win against VVV. While he looked bright in these matches, there was nothing to suggest he would be the answer to all of Feyenoord’s problems. The week after that win in Venlo, however, he showed he was capable of not only succeeding the bright Swede, but was about to surpass him.
In the heated derby match in De Kuip against Ajax, Feyenoord were trailing 2-1 to Frank de Boer’s men. It looked certain the reigning champions were set to inflict another defeat on their fierce rivals. However, as the clock ticked into injury time, Bruno Martins Indi lobbed the ball to Pelle outside the box, the No.9 shrugged off with ease the challenge of Toby Alderweireld as, in one impressive and smooth movement, he controlled it with his knee, turned and blasted it beyond Kenneth Vermeer and into the top corner.
From then on, he was off. His record was so impressive, Feyenoord signed him outright in January 2013. Pelle went on to score 27 goals in 29 Eredivisie matches as Feyenoord challenged the big-guns to the title until the dying weeks, losing out on second place and the Champions League to PSV on goal difference.
The 2013-14 season was another remarkable one for the Lecce-born player. He was made captain of the team for a large part of the season and showed to be an inspiring leader through his determination and commitment. However, with Feyenoord hot on the heels of Ajax at the top of the table, Pelle grew tense and frustrated as his wonderful work up front was being rendered irrelevant by defensive weaknesses.
Feyenoord gained merely one point from the four games they played against giants Ajax and Twente. That they finished a mere four points behind the Amsterdam side makes those slip-ups so much more significant. In all four games, Pelle had scored the opening goal for his side but was cancelled out eventually. In the 2-2 draw with Twente, Cuco Martina was allowed to smash one in from the edge of the box in injury time to cancel out Pelle and Jean-Paul Boetius’ efforts.
Goals and games
- 2012- Feyenoord 55 in 66
- 2012-13 Parma 0 in 11
- 2011-12 Sampdoria 4 in 16
- 2011-12 Parma 1 in 11
- 2007-11 AZ 16 in 89
- 2006-07 Cesena 10 in 37
- 2005-06 Crotone 6 in 17
- 2005-06 Lecce 0 in 10
As the final whistle blew, Pelle stormed down the tunnel, kicking the equipment the TV stations were setting up for their post-match interviews. The following week, his frustration got the better of him again in home defeat to Ajax. He put the whole result in jeopardy after his goal when he elbowed Joel Veltman, but was lucky to get away without being sent off. The seething striker then insulted the Fox Sports interviewer, claiming he was biased towards his side’s fierce rivals live on TV.
His actions resulted in him losing the captain’s armband but his importance remained and, after a suspension for the elbow on Veltman, he returned to lead the lines, scoring three goals in his last four games to ensure his team finished second to Ajax once again.
Now, after two years of reinventing himself in Rotterdam, he is set to move on and look for a new challenge.
It’s always difficult to judge how strikers will get on in different leagues after succeeding in the Eredivisie, but Pelle seems to be one who can go on to succeed if he finds a club which suits his style. That he failed so miserably in his first spell in Netherlands suggests that his turnaround is down to him and not the defensive deficiencies of the league. His first touch and all round game have improved in his time at Feyenoord, furthermore he is much more confident and sure of his talent.
In his search for a new club and Koeman’s for a new striker, we can only hope the two find each other and the coach once again gets the best out of the big goal machine.