Southampton manager Claude Puel has assured that he will continue to pick his teams on merit, and not be dictated by his superiors at the club.
The Saints recently acquired experienced centre-back Martin Caceres on a free transfer, but despite an impressive resume and hefty wages, the Uruguayan international will have to fight for his place in Puel's side.
A signing at last
Following star centre-back Virgil Van Dijk's injury and captain Jose Fonte's move to West Ham, both in mid-January, Southampton had just three recognised centre-backs in the squad. While Maya Yoshida has come on leaps and bounds this season, the Saints suddenly looked very vulnerable at the back.
Aside from Yoshida, Puel's remaining options in the defence were the unproven Jack Stephens and the injury-prone Florin Gardos. Yet while the former has surpassed all expectations in his brief stint as the first-choice centre-half, the consensus around the South Coast that reinforcements were needed urgently.
This call was subsequently answered, albeit belatedly, with Southampton waiting until after the January transfer window to make their move. Nevertheless, free agent Caceres joined the club, in a deal that was welcomed by the entire Saints faithful. At long last, they had bulked up at the back, with the Uruguayan set to be a crucial player for the remainder of the season.
Not a nailed-on starter
The 29-year-old Caceres, although having been out of a club since the end of last season, is considered to be a player of very high calibre for a team like Southampton. Still just the right side of thirty, Caceres shouldn't be past his peak physically (even if he has struggled with injuries recently), but is also familiar with competing at the highest level. The defender has donned the colours of European giants Barcelona and Juventus in his career, as well as accumulating a mammoth 68 caps for his country Uruguay.
Yet despite this, manager Puel is making no promises regarding Caceres' game-time. Rather than being automatically the first name on the team-sheet, his new boss is unsure "if he can start the next game" because he tries to "put in the pitch the best players in the team"
Although Caceres is set to earn £850,000 for just a couple of months' football, the Frenchman maintained that he is under no pressure from Southampton's owners to ensure they get their money's worth from their new purchase, stating that "it's not pressure for me, no obligation with any player".
Instead, Caceres is likely to be eased back into competitive football, with Puel describing Southampton under 23's clash with Chelsea on Monday as potentially a "good opportunity" to ease him back into action after the best part of a year out of the game.
A different challenge
With Southampton spending much of the first half of the season coping with a packed fixture list due to their European and domestic cup commitments, they now face a period with very few games to prepare for.
After tomorrow's encounter with Watford, the Saints will play only once more in March. Puel, who has been far from shy of altering his squad by the match this season, will suddenly have to find a way to keep all his players happy, with minimal game-time available.
Puel is wary of the "frustrations about some players", labelling it as "normal". However, he understands that "it will be important to keep all the players with good confidence and spirit until the end of the season". With Southampton not having a great deal to play for this campaign after the EFL Cup final defeat to Manchester United last Sunday, keeping motivation high will be crucial for them to finish the season well.