In this limited series, Balls will speak to those on the ground in order to take a look at the progress of three members of the Ireland squad who are attempting to establish themselves at both club and international level.
Part 1: Michael Obafemi
When it comes to young Irish players breaking through, it is often a case of more hope than expectation from fans when it comes to the prospect of making it to the very top of the game. Everyone would love for an emerging talent from these shores to become one of the very elite of the sport, but the nature of professional football means that is far from a given.
Gavin Bazunu is different.
Right from the first time he pulled on an Ireland shirt at senior level, it was clear that he had the talent to eventually compete among the world's best in his position. He had bided his time by going on loan in the lower leagues of English football, but now aged just 20-years old, he has already established himself as a Premier League no.1 at Southampton.
That is no mean feat for a player of his age. In fact, he is the youngest goalkeeper to start more than two games across Europe's top five leagues since the start of the campaign.
In saying that, things have not all gone his way. A quick look at the underlying statistics would tell you that he is among the lowest performing goalkeeper in the division, even if it doesn't always feel that way.
So how has this season actually gone for him?
Despite arriving at Southampton this summer without a single minute of top flight football under his belt, the club's supporters were immediately excited by his signing.
I think there was excitement. With a lot of signings people don’t know who they are when they’re linked at first, but with Gavin Bazunu I think some did because he had already been on loan at Portsmouth.
Loads of scouts had gone to watch Gavin at Portsmouth and so many were impressed, not just in the Premier League but also abroad as well. Southampton were really keen to bring him.
When those links came through, a lot of fans were excited...
The main concern was his age and whether he was old enough to take that responsibility on, because he was going to come in as no. 1. That was clear from the beginning.
I was out in Austria for pre-season, so I was there for his debut against RB Leipzig. I think it was less than ten minutes into the game when he pulled out this wonder save. It was the perfect introduction for him, it went all around social media.
His distribution in that game was fantastic, he was pinging it all around the pitch and starting moves from the back. He couldn’t have made a better introduction.
— Hank (@Rauschgiftsucht) July 16, 2022
You can see why that particular save drew such a reaction.
Of course, things have not been all plain sailing for Gavin Bazunu this season. He has found himself in a team that leaks a huge number of goals, keeping only one clean sheet this season. They currently sit in 19th place in the division, recently sacking manager Ralph Hasenhuttl and replacing him with Nathan Jones.
On a personal level, there have been some real moments of quality from the young Irish goalkeeper. Equally, there have been a few incidents in which he would have hoped to have done better.
One stat is of particular concern, called 'post shot expected goals minus goals allowed'. Essentially it measures how many goals you would expect a goalkeeper to concede based on the quality of chances they have faced this season. The best goalkeepers usually top this stat as it is quite a good measure of their shot-stopping ability in comparison to average.
For example, according to fbref.com, Alisson Becker leads the way in the Premier League, conceding 7.6 goals less than you would have expected considering the chances he has faced. On the other hand, Gavin Bazunu is the worst in the division on this metric. He has conceded 7.2 goals more than expected. Unfortunately for Ireland, the only goalkeeper that comes close to matching this mark is Mark Travers (although he has performed worse overall considering he has played half the amount of games).
Considering all of this, you would expect the pressure to be coming on him from the supporters. Mark says that hasn't really been the case.
Overall, I think he has done well. There have been some goals that have crept in, like the first one against Liverpool last weekend.
The headline is that Saints have only kept one clean sheet in the league this season, so they are desperate for that. That is something that Nathan Jones has already put his stamp on, saying that before they worry about scoring enough goals they need to stop conceding them and keep clean sheets. That was almost a pointed thing at Gavin to say we have to start from the back and build from there.
He has already earned that credit in the bank, which is strange to say for a new signing. But because he is young and pulls off those amazing saves, there are points to his game where you stand up and go ‘that is really special what he has just done there’. He has often done it without even looking like he has batted an eyelid.
I think for him it’s going to be about confidence and playing in behind that defence. The back four has changed quite a lot. He is going to get better with time.
The international break has probably come at the right time for Southampton, with Nathan Jones now having the opportunity to work with the majority of his new players for an extended period of time.
Bazunu is included in that bunch. His inclusion against Liverpool would suggest there is little prospect of the new manager looking to change his no. 1.
The Next Step
Indeed, it seems that the only way that Gavin Bazunu will come out of the Southampton team for the foreseeable future is if he is poached by another club.
That may come as a surprise considering some of his recent struggles, but it is unlikely to have lowered his long-term potential. In fact, this experience could only serve to improve him further down the line.
The Athletic reported back in September that Spurs already have some regrets about not making a move for him last summer, while Chelsea have also been linked in recent times.
It's not difficult to see why. 20-year old goalkeepers with top flight and international experience who possess all of the desired traits you want in that position do not grow on trees. It would be a shock if he does not end up making a move to club further up the division at some point in the not too distant future.
According to Mark, that is something the club are likely already planning for.
I’d say that Southampton are always conscious of that with all of their players. A lot of clubs won’t admit it, but Southampton are incredibly open that they understand that their remit. That is to buy incredibly talented young players for average size transfer fees, for between £6million and £15million, and then sell them on for profit later down the line.
One thing the players understand when they come here is that the club won’t stand in their way if that big offer does come in. Obviously it has to be the right amount of money. They are constantly looking at that.
It wouldn’t surprise me if as we get closer to the summer people start talking about Gavin. He is an international goalkeeper, he is young, he plays it out with his feet. He pretty much fits the bill for what most clubs would want in 2022 from a top goalkeeper.
It is one to keep an eye on but probably not right now, which is good for Saints because they want to keep hold of him.
Gavin Bazunu will enter this month's international break keen to add a few more Ireland caps to his belt. Remarkably, he has featured only twice for the side over the last 12 months due to injury.
As for his long-term future, it feels as though he is only getting started in the game.