The Season So Far
Football can be a cruel game. Southampton seemed for so long to have everything under control: their holistic football model; their excellent scouting and recruitment; their first-class academy; their unparalleled ability to turn constant upheaval into consistent renewal; they had it all, and showed every side that relegation as far as League One need not be a disaster but a chance to take stock and start afresh.
With improved practices and methodology and the right people running the club, Southampton not only returned to the Premier League but made themselves firmly at home. It was only a few years ago, but all glory is fleeting, and now the Saints are in danger of marching out of the top flight and back into the murky depths of the Championship.
Southampton’s decline has come as a result of their inability to achieve the impossible and replace unpolished diamonds every single year. It’s impossible to exist forever primarily as a selling club — at some point you have to become a buying club in your own right, or else the constant ins and outs will burn everyone out and you’ll very quickly fall away. This is what has happened at St. Mary’s.
Somehow, the club that appointed Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman in their first jobs in English football, before Pochettino was even comfortable speaking the language, now employs Mark Hughes as manager. The club that gave Virgil Van Dijk, Sadio Mané, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and so many others their Premier League bows, finds themselves playing Wesley Hoedt, Mohamed Elyounoussi, Shane Long and Jannik Vestergaard every week.
One win from seven, against a Wilfried Zaha-less Crystal Palace, represents a very disappointing but unsurprising start to the season. They have lost to Everton, Leicester City and Wolves, sides against whom points will need to be taken if they are to avoid being sucked into another relegation battle. The St. Mary’s crowd hasn’t seen Southampton win yet, and that looks unlikely to change this weekend.
The Season Ahead
One wonders how long the Saints can go on without winning before Mark Hughes reaches crisis point. This writer has long been on record as a Hughes cynic, and it does seem like the most of the rest of the world realised over the last season or two at Stoke City that the Welshman is a dud. Watching his unbalanced, predictable and somewhat nineties 4-4-2 fail to get results this season has only served to reinforce the notion that Southampton have lost all sense of direction in appointing Hughes, and that nothing will improve until they go back to finding the next Pochettino.
This is not to say that Southampton’s players can’t do any better: Nathan Redmond, one of the division’s most exciting dribblers but one of its very worst finishers, simply has to learn how to score goals; Mohamed Elyounoussi has started five games this season and looks occasionally threatening but occasionally simply isn’t enough; Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, a supremely talented technician but absurdly meek midfielder, has to learn to assert himself more.
Above all else, the Saints have to create higher quality scoring opportunities and stop making sloppy errors at the back. These are supposedly the no-nonsense points that Mark Hughes excels at making - or at least once excelled at making - but Southampton have been drifting all season, and will surely continue without making any significant improvement, with Hughes furiously blaming everyone but himself until he is shown the door.
Southampton’s Pochettino-influenced 4-2-3-1 was their default setting for years and it feels weird to be describing a Saints side which doesn’t play this way anymore. Employing a flexible, modern system which made it easy to get good results while bedding in new signings on a routine basis made perfect sense for several seasons, but it stopped making sense when it became stale and predictable. Last season, rather than being an asset, their system became a problem.
That said, Hughes’ way of playing isn’t all that different. There’s less emphasis on pressing and keeping the opposition a long way from Southampton’s goal, and there are now only two central midfielders rather than three, but everything else is largely the same: the wingers push forward into central areas, the full-backs overlap and the number nine and the second striker take up positions from which they can at least get a shot away. Given the Saints’ goalscoring problems in recent seasons, this switch to a more direct, vertical system is perfectly reasonable.
It makes less sense when the opposition have the ball, when their two-man midfield can be overrun and their centre-backs’ inability to play one-on-one can be exposed. Strikers Danny Ings and Shane Long are renowned as hard-working, willing runners, but asking them both to act as poachers while also running back to pick up the opposition’s third midfielder is not sustainable in the long run.
While the Saints have had serious goalscoring issues in recent years, they have never struggled to create shooting opportunities, and the same is true again this season: only four Premier League sides have taken more shots and only six have created more chances from set pieces. Elyounoussi, Redmond and Ings are all creating more than a chance per game, while also producing healthy raw shooting figures.
Their defensive output is also fine: only six sides have made more tackles so far this season, while only five have made more interceptions and more fouls. While one can legitimately argue that Mark Hughes has the tactical acumen of a single-celled amoeba, it’s impossible to deny that he consistently manages to extract maximum physical effort from his sides. If they go down, it won’t be without a fight.
The manager is an idiot.
Southampton’s system, while not necessarily bad, does not achieve what should be the minimum goal of any set of tactics, which is to maximise attacking output or efficiency while simultaneously minimising defensive danger. One can imagine Mark Hughes going to a meeting with a club statistician who carefully tries to explain ‘Risk vs Reward’ to him, only for Hughes to storm out, shouting “F**king hell, you f**king boring nerd! How many international caps have you got?! Have you even kissed a woman?!” It is simply too easy to expose Southampton’s vulnerabilities and where there should be a thought process and a sense of accountability, there is bluster, rage and buck-passing.
Furthermore, while Southampton’s raw output is good, they’re not creating enough high-quality chances or finishing well enough. While only four teams have taken more shots on goal, eleven have had more on target and nine have higher Expected Goals figures. When you ignore their raw numbers and look more closely at their shooting map, it stops being surprising that only four Premier League teams have scored fewer goals this season.
Shane Long’s work-rate would be massively helpful to Southampton given that they’ll spend 70% of the match chasing the ball and needing to hurry Chelsea’s defenders and unsettle Jorginho, but fitness doubts mean the less mobile Charlie Austin may step in.
No surprises lie in wait for Maurizio Sarri’s men, though Mateo Kovačić has played a lot of football lately and may be rested.
Southampton 0-2 Chelsea.