The Season So Far
After many seasons of miraculous, jubilant overachievement, Southampton have completely lost their way, nuked their footballing model and may well be relegated as a consequence. The glory days of Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman are a distant memory and this current team has nothing like the quality, the personality or the unity of previous Saints sides. A fall into the Championship would be a harsh punishment but one that Southampton’s missteps logically end in.
Their problems on the pitch – principally converting their chances into goals – are long-standing and significant, but more damaging have been their bungled recruitment and especially their choices of manager. Claude Puel was far from a bad appointment but fell out with his players and never convinced the fans, while Mauricio Pellegrino was a disaster; completely out of his element, it was quickly evident that he is unable to lead a side at this level.
Returning to the recruitment theme, it’s obvious that mistakes have been made in the transfer market. The Saints’ list of successful sales is a mile long – players like Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama, Luke Shaw, Sadio Mané, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, Virgil Van Dijk, as well as managers Pochettino and Koeman – but the fact is it’s very, very difficult to infinitely unearth unpolished gems and turn them into £30m players. In that regard, the club has failed miserably to help the current squad be the best it can be.
The likes of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Oriol Romeu, Sofiane Boufal, Manolo Gabbiadini and Nathan Redmond, to name but a few, evidently have the potential to be consistent, top-half Premier League performers at the very least, but none has fulfilled their promise at St Mary’s and the holes in their games are still the same as when they were signed. All look like needing a move to pastures new to start over.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the Van Dijk/Liverpool transfer saga did massive damage to Southampton’s season. His refusal to do his best for the club, feeling that the club was refusing to do its best for him, led to a collapse in morale and, given the unpopularity of former manager Pellegrino, it’s easy to see why the players stopped displaying full commitment on the pitch and started to think that 70% was enough each week.
Mark Hughes is hardly the most inspiring hire of all time, and it’s such a patently un-Southampton hire that it beggars belief, but desperate times call for desperate measures and everyone at St Mary’s is more desperate than ever to avoid a relegation nightmare. At this moment, Hughes’ chances are probably closer to 50:50 than everyone else would like to admit.
The Season Ahead
The only aim for the rest of the season will be to pick up as many points as possible and avoid relegation. For a club that has prided itself on overachieving and being well-run, dropping into the Championship would be a hammer blow. Many of their talented players, supposedly capable of making the step up so many others have made in the past, surely wouldn’t stick around beyond May, and consequently Southampton’s entire model would collapse.
Additionally, there’s their managerial position to consider. Mark Hughes’ contract expires at the end of the season and, regardless of whether they retain Premier League status or not, the experienced Welshman is not a Head Coach of the kind Southampton have made a habit of appointing in recent years and keeping Hughes beyond this season would also mean some kind of restructuring.
One of the reasons Hughes may be welcome in the long-term is that he doesn’t play The Southampton Way. Counterintuitive as that seems, one of the reasons the Saints have slumped is that everyone now knows how they play and how they’ve played for a few years now, and how they were presumably going to 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 have been no surprises in store for anyone involved for too long.
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.
Hughes has experimented with other systems in his short time in charge, most recently with a back three away to Arsenal, but a lack of available defenders should see a return to their tried and trusted 4-2-3-1.
A high level of organisation and a massive work-rate have been clear strengths of Southampton’s for years and this season has been no different: only seven Premier League sides have made more tackles so far this season; only seven have made more interceptions; only two have blocked more passes; only four 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 threat on the overlap, 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. While they don’t score as much as they should, this is hardly an unthreatening team.
Their shooting has long been the elephant in the room: their conversion rate is absolutely woeful. They have taken a total of 388 shots so far this season, more than ten other Premier League sides, but they have only scored 31 goals, fewer than thirteen sides. Burnley, on the other hand, have 31 goals from 323 shots and Watford have scored 42 from 391. Only Crystal Palace’s epochally bad finishing has been significantly worse in terms of Expected Goals underperformance, with Newcastle and West Brom also underperforming slightly more.
Their problems are manifold. Not only does everyone know how they play now, but even when they open teams up they fluff it. They are both shooting from terrible positions and finishing easy chances badly, and this has been the case for a couple of seasons. Until they downed tools under Pellegrino, they largely did everything else right.
It’s also worth underscoring that they really did down tools under Pellegrino. Before he burned all of his bridges, the stats showed that the Saints were working harder, producing more at both ends and generally looking unlucky rather than incapable. In the post-Van Dijk period, however, they were absolutely rotten. It’s a miracle Pellegrino lasted as long as he did.
Also, Eden Hazard, Willian and Álvaro Morata vs. Maya Yoshida and Wesley Hoedt is not a fair fight in anyone’s book.
Once again, no surprises expected from either side.
Southampton need the points more than Chelsea and Antonio Conte’s men, while largely unlucky against West Ham, know they’re basically on the beach. Logic suggests a Chelsea win anyway, given the gulf in quality, but who can back Chelsea at the moment? 2-1 Southampton.