The Season So Far
Southampton, after so many years of miraculous, joyous overachievement, are suffering something of a malaise. The glory days of Mauricio Pochettino’s and Ronald Koeman’s watchable, exciting, winning sides are a thing of the past and the current Saints team does nothing like as much to inspire optimism or delight in fans, rarely scoring goals or winning games and more often than not producing nothing memorable. Their midweek collapse against Leicester was the most embarrassing episode yet. Southampton are not yet in the doldrums, but they are only four points above the drop zone and the sense of drift is taking hold among players and fans alike.
Manager Mauricio Pellegrino recently spoke of certain players in his squad being “not mentally 100% on the pitch”, and it’s understandable that the likes of Virgil Van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand, long since linked with moves to bigger clubs and in Van Dijk’s case denied a summer transfer to Liverpool, are wondering why they’re still at Southampton and what more they need to do to be able to leave – and this is the key point: what happens to a selling club that doesn’t sell?
For a number of years the Saints have had a workable footballing model in which their most successful performers – players Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama, Luke Shaw, Sadio Mané, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, as well as managers Pochettino and Koeman – get moves to bigger clubs, and are quickly and easily replaced by the next generation of players who want to follow in their footsteps. The youth team provides unpolished gems who keep things stable and give the club more of a long-term identity.
Thus, talented players come to a relatively small club that has no chance of actual glory because they know that this club will give them a chance to perform on a big stage and won’t stand in their way when their dream Champions League club comes calling after a year or two. Why would players be 100% committed when their dream transfer is on hold because their current team has reneged on that written agreement.
The Season Ahead
Before getting back to the days of punching above their weight and finishing in the top half of the table, it seems probable that the Saints will have to shift the players whose minds are elsewhere, reinvigorate the squad and decide whether their selling club model is really worth pursuing. Van Dijk may end up getting his move after all, while Ryan Bertrand, Dušan Tadić and Fraser Forster, senior pros in their late twenties, may have to accept that their dream moves aren’t coming and will have to knuckle down and focus on doing their best for Southampton.
Manager Pellegrino has faced criticism from some observers for failing to motivate the team and for the noticeable slump in results, but surely the Saints could do with having stability in the dugout for a change. Pellegrino comes with glowing references from previous jobs and was only hired a few months ago, so it would be truly mad to sack him now.
Perhaps another of the reasons that Southampton have slumped is that everyone now knows how they’ve played for a few years now, and how they’ll presumably continue to play for years to come. With all of their scouting recruitment, training and youth development based on the first team’s conventional, versatile 4-2-3-1 system, there are no surprises in store for anyone involved.
There are overlapping wing-backs with a good cross on them, fast wingers who tuck inside to become inside-forwards, a creative number ten who exploits the half-spaces and has an eye for a killer ball, and an all-rounder number nine with decent link-up play and good finishing skills.
As this system has become more and more common over the years, it has consequently become easier to defend. As Southampton have gone selling off their best players and replacing them with slightly inferior versions over the years, they too have become less effective.
Their strengths are largely the same as ever: having a defined philosophy and knowing what to do in any given situation is a massive asset and without that tactical stability Southampton would arguably be in more trouble than they are. Several sides have better squads and managers and more money to spend, and yet have returned worse results largely because they lack such clear purpose.
A high-level of organisation and a massive work-rate have been clear strengths of Southampton’s for years and this season is no different: only six Premier League sides have made more tackles so far this season; only six have made more interceptions; only four have blocked more passes; only six have played less football in their own half. This remains a side with a clear tactical identity.
In attack, their full-backs provide a good amount of the attacking threat, with Ryan Bertrand being the more threatening of the two – his three assists this season make him Southampton’s leading provider. More obviously, the quality of Nathan Redmond and Dušan Tadić can open up any side in the final third and Charlie Austin’s recent flurry of goals will come as no surprise to those who have followed his career and seen how good a finisher he is.
Their shooting is the elephant in the room: their conversion rate is absolutely woeful. They have taken a total of 218 shots so far this season, more than twelve other Premier League sides, but they have only scored 17 goals. Watford, on the other hand, have 26 goals from 196 shots and Burnley 16 from 171. They are either or both shooting from terrible positions or finishing easy chances badly, and something has to change if their league position is to improve. They largely do everything else right but no other side lets opponents off the hook like Southampton.
There are also lingering doubts over the quality of Fraser Forster in goal, whose statuesque tumbles against long shots have become famous among analysts. Opposition players have now known that shooting from distance against Forster is a good idea for a long time, and it’s a wonder he’s still so vulnerable to the daisycutters that many other goalkeepers stop ninety-five times out of a hundred.
Chelsea are likely to rotate again but we can just about predict the scale of it.
With Southampton’s motivation publicly questioned after their horrific showing against Leicester, any kind of selection is possible here. Examples could be made of just about any player.
If Conte plays with a 3-4-2-1 and gives Eden Hazard options around him, Chelsea will win by a couple of goals here. If he goes back to 3-1-4-2 and allows Southampton to crowd Hazard out, it will be rather more frustrating.