“Mark Hughes doesn’t have a Plan A. He seems to just chuck players on and leave them to it. Shocked that he’s been given another chance so soon, even more shocked it’s Saints giving him that chance.”
Given these comments could very well have been attributed to his predecessor Mauricio Pellegrino, I was naturally concerned. Thankfully however, Hughes instilled some fight in a beleaguered squad and Saints avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth.
This season however, the same cracks have reappeared in the team. Southampton sit in 16th with 5 points from 8 games, looking woefully short of ideas and bereft of confidence. Comfortably dispatched by newly promoted Wolves, swatted aside in a similar manner by Chelsea and Liverpool, and letting slip a two goal advantage against Brighton, questions are already starting to be asked about Hughes’ future at Southampton.
The lack of Plan A has been made abundantly clear by Hughes’ knee-jerk formation changes. Having spent the entirety of pre-season deploying a 3-5-2 formation, he completely abandoned it after the first game of the season, returning to the 4-4-2 we saw at the end of last season. While, personally speaking, I was glad to see the 3-5-2 discarded (I pine for the Mauricio Pochettino / Ronald Koeman 4-2-3-1 days) it’s bizarre that a manager could show so little perseverance with the only formation he has trialled in the build up to the Premier League season.
The players are far from blameless themselves: with the exception of a few bright sparks, they have been found wanting in key games far too regularly. A lot of this Southampton squad is guilty of repeating the same mistakes again and again, something a good manager should be able to remedy on the training ground. Weak in the air, Saints concede far too many goals from set-pieces - surely Hughes should be able to recognise this and put a mitigating plan in place?
I’ve seen a lot of ambivalence from Saints fans about the side’s slump this season - another gutless surrender met with indifference rather than a sinking feeling. This is borne by the side’s lack of identity, attacking ingenuity and work-rate. I remember Jack Cork saying “you need two hearts” to play under Pochettino, such was his emphasis on pressing and counter attacking football. This sits in stark, and frankly quite depressing contrast with the ponderous football we now witness week in week out.
So who could (or indeed would want to) replace Hughes at this stage? Ralph Hasenhuttl is a name that stands out - the former RB Leipzig manager achieved a 2nd place finish in the Bundesliga and Champions League qualification, all achieved whilse promoting a high-octane, attacking style of football. This is exactly what I’d love to see at St Mary’s, in a return to a style more synonymous with Pochettino and Koeman than Puel, Pellegrino and Hughes.
Eddie Howe is the other name that spring to mind: with AFC Bournemouth currently sitting pretty in 5th, Howe is an excellent man-manager and has the Cherries playing terrific football with unshakeable team spirit. In all honesty, both seem fairly unrealistic propositions - Saints have gone from Europa League qualifiers to relegation strugglers in just a few seasons and the club no longer appears to be the attractive destination it once was.
Calling for the manager’s head with Christmas only just on the horizon - I must sound like a broken record. There’s only one way this club seems to be going at the moment though, so if we see no marked change in the next few games Saints must act swiftly and show Hughes the door.
Replacing Hughes is much easier said than done, but any manager who promotes high-energy, attacking football has my vote.
Get me excited once more for St Mary’s match days, that’s all I ask.