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 latest collapse away to Watford was yet another embarrassing episode and pressure on manager Mauricio Pellegrino is growing every week.
In December Pellegrino spoke of certain players in his squad being “not mentally 100% on the pitch”, and it was obvious that he referred to the likes of Virgil Van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand, long since linked with moves to bigger clubs and in Van Dijk’s case now granted his long-awaited transfer to Liverpool. Players like Bertrand must be 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 stops selling? And what happens when they start to buy badly?
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 and managers who want to follow in their footsteps and progress their careers. The youth team provides unpolished gems who make their way more slowly, keeping things stable and giving the club more of a long-term identity.
Thus it has been that talented players have 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. Returning to the Van Dijk episode and the collapse in morale at the club over the last year or so, it’s easy to see why players wouldn’t be 100% committed on the pitch when their dream transfer is on hold and their current team has reneged on a 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 and those who are simply not good enough. It’s obvious that they need to reinvigorate the squad and decide whether their selling club model is really worth pursuing.
Van Dijk is gone and Southampton have netted a colossal windfall, but players like 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 they may have to knuckle down and focus on doing their best for Southampton. Players like Shane Long, Maya Yoshida, and even Forster himself, are not good enough anymore and must be replaced. Talented but inconsistent performers like Manolo Gabbiadini and Sofiane Boufal have to be cajoled into producing the goods more often.
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. The Argentine 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 three Premier League sides have made more tackles so far this season; only two have made more interceptions; only one has blocked more passes; only five 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 is the elephant in the room: their conversion rate is absolutely woeful. They have taken a total of 280 shots so far this season, more than eleven other Premier League sides, but they have only scored 23 goals, fewer than all-but seven. Watford, on the other hand, have 33 goals from 264 shots and Burnley’s 19 from a mere 222. Only Crystal Palace’s finishing has been worse in terms of Expected Goals underperformance.
They are both shooting from terrible positions and 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. It’s no surprise he’s finally been dropped.
Their showing away to Watford last week was an improvement on previous showings and we should expect the same eleven to be challenged to go one step further and go 2-0 up without screwing everything up afterwards.
Spurs are getting back to their best and it would be a surprise, especially given Southampton’s current plight, if they didn’t win this.