There was a time, not too long ago, when a match against Southampton filled the Premier League’s big guns with dread. The 2015/16 season gave us victories against Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, sitting in stark contrast with the Southampton of today who have mustered just 7 points from the last 75 available against these same sides.
Truth be told, Southampton were never in the game on Saturday - three goals to the good at half time, it’s never nice to hear a commentator noticing “an opportunity for Liverpool to have a bit of a breather, even whilst on the pitch.” Despite a kind opening run of fixtures, Saints sit 14th with just five points from six games - so just what is going wrong at Southampton?
Two worrying trends are afflicting Saints at the moment - the inability to hold a lead, and the late concession of goals. Both hint at a mental fragility that will be ruthlessly exposed by Premier League opposition.
In the Leicester City game, Ryan Bertrand broke the deadlock after 52 minutes in a match Southampton had dominated. Demarai Gray’s equaliser was struck just four minutes later. Against Brighton & Hove Albion meanwhile, just a few minutes after Danny Ings had doubled our lead, a Shane Duffy header exposed Saints’ defensive frailties letting the Seagulls back into the game moments after they looked down and out. That’s now 13 points dropped from winning positions in only 15 league games under Mark Hughes.
An increasingly grim sense of inevitability now fills Southampton fans as the 90th minute ticks by. Glenn Murray’s 91st minute equaliser for Brighton is far from an isolated instance under the management of Mark Hughes. Indeed, Saints have conceded an injury time goal in four of Hughes’ last nine games in charge of the side, every one of them influencing the outcome of the match. A Premier League team needs to be able to concentrate beyond the 90th minute – Southampton seem utterly incapable of that at this point in time.
Saints need to draw inspiration from the likes of AFC Bournemouth, the Cherries having gained a remarkable 20 points from losing positions since the turn of the year.
Lack of Leaders
Bertrand is one of the best players at the club, of that I have no doubt - I just don’t see him as a leader on the pitch. The fact that he is captain worries me, as surely this position should be taken by a vocal, commanding presence on the field - someone in the Jose Fonte or Virgil van Dijk mould, dare I say it?
Worryingly, leaders are few and far between in the current Southampton squad: James Ward-Prowse has captained England U21s and would surely be a prime candidate but for his woefully unfulfilled potential which sees him struggle for game time. Maya Yoshida’s exclusion from the team continues to frustrate a portion of the fan base, myself included. One of the longest serving players at the club, Maya had an exceptional World Cup, shackling the formidable Belgian front line. He’s a popular figure in the dressing room, and would marshal the defence far more effectively than the stuttering Wesley Hoedt.
Oriol Romeu or Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg seem like the best captaincy options currently at the club. Having heard the latter’s interviews, he seems passionate and unafraid to speak his mind about the club’s failings. In truth though, there’s been an evident shift from a side littered with leaders (Rickie Lambert, Steven Davis, Morgan Schneiderlin, Fonte and van Dijk) to one struggling to rally behind a vocal figurehead. This is something that desperately needs to be addressed, be it in the transfer market or through a change in ethos from the bottom up.
The routine nature of goals conceded of late has had Saints fans questioning just what on earth is happening on the training field. In a bid to shore up last season’s porous defence, 6’7” ‘Great Dane’ Vestergaard was signed, meaning Southampton now possess the tallest centre back pairing in the league. Despite this, neither seem to be able to head the ball, and we employ a zonal marking system at corners and deep free kicks meaning Saints’ height advantage is eaten up by the momentum the charging opposition player carries. Shane Duffy and Joel Matip ruthlessly exposed these shortcomings - it’s clear Mark Hughes needs to return to the drawing board to iron them out as soon as possible.
A visit to high-flying, undefeated Liverpool was never going to yield an attacking masterclass from Saints. Nonetheless, starting with a lone striker in Shane Long, who has scored just five goals in his last 67 Premier League games is mindless - I’d sooner give the opportunity to young Sam Gallagher who has looked hungry in the handful of minutes he’s been afforded.
In conclusion, it’s not all doom and gloom... yet. Nathan Redmond is producing his best football for the club and has brought a directness to his play which was so clearly lacking last season. Meanwhile, Ings looks the mobile, instinctive striker Saints have been lacking; his return can’t come soon enough. It’s still very early days but with tougher fixtures to come, a win against Wolves at Molyneux is looking more and more vital.
None of the above problems are easily fixed in the short-term. Instead, they require enduring change, fundamentally adapting the culture of the club. What ever happened to ‘The Southampton Way’? It’s about time the plan was put back on track.