The party’s over for Southampton FC. In their latest foray into the top flight, they’ve impressed with their resilience, strong management and youth development. They’ve employed rising young managers and twice grabbed themselves a spot in Europe. But now it looks as if they’re settling into Lewis Carroll’s Midtableland, frantically running just to stay in the same place.
Inevitable, of course. This is the Premier League, where big fish eat little fish, and the ones left over just swim in circles. Under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, the Saints have had a better run than most. But watching them this year under Mauricio Pellegrino, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, in this iteration at least, their best days are behind them.
And that’s what did for Claude Puel. Joining a club that had been surprisingly successful, his side played unenterprising football and got unenterprising results. It wasn’t a good year by any means, but for a mid-table club it wasn’t disastrous either: disappointment in the Europa League, but an epic cup run; only 46 points, but an eighth-place finish.
Moreover, Puel could point out that Southampton finished well up the table in chances created – the strikers just couldn’t finish. All the expected goals stats suggested they were significantly better than their results.
Tell it to the judge, as they say. Remembering consecutive seasons of 56, 60, and 63 points, the board understandably swung the axe, and no one mourned. But 11 games in, this year’s model looks almost identical to last year’s – for once, I won’t bore you with the stats – and there’s no change on the horizon.
In the list of Southampton’s shortcomings, the striker problem usually gets top billing. Manolo Gabbiadini started with a wonderful purple patch, but no longer has the knack. Charlie Austin might have the knack, but doesn’t have the legs, and Shane Long will always be the journeyman that manages an occasional good day.
But the striker failure is connected to an even bigger problem: a lack of pace. When Sadio Mané left for Merseyside, the attack not only lost its best player, but an entire way of playing. Nathan Redmond is fast enough, but he’s not direct: he’s a twister and passer, who’ll come inside instead of going to the line. That’s why he’s almost always played on the left, as an inside-out winger.
Without pace, there’s no counter-attack, which means you’re missing a crucial weapon, particularly against the better sides. This was most evident in a match late October last year at Manchester City. Southampton took the lead when Redmond pounced on a horrible backpass from John Stones. City were in poor form, and had attack after attack break down, but with the back wide open the Saints had no one who could take advantage. The hosts grabbed a draw off a set-piece. Southampton would score only six goals in 12 games against the big six; one was an own goal by the opposing keeper, and one a 94th minute throwaway in a lost game.
The board had a chance to address the problem in the summer. Virgil van Dijk could have been sold to Liverpool for several large trunkfuls of cash and both cathedrals thrown in, and been replaced by a decent centre-half plus an attacker with pace. It’s hard to fault management for holding the line against a rebellious player, but the net result was to leave the Saints as they were. The only significant addition was Mario Lemina, who looks like a quality defensive midfielder – but that isn’t their problem. Last season Southampton allowed only four more goals than Europa-bound Everton, and had a better defence than all the clubs below them in the table.
So, at least for the moment, it’s slowly, slowly. Saturday’s game against Burnley was pretty painful: 63% possession, lots of aimless crosses, 13 shots but only three on target, a couple of good saves by Nick Pope enough for a clean sheet. The late losing goal only reiterated what we’ve known for years: Maya Yoshida isn’t a very good defender.
Yet there were times in the match where another approach seemed possible. Twice Ryan Bertrand got to the byline, and Burnley were momentarily discomfited. Pace isn’t the answer to every question – the strikers still need to find space and finish – but you have to think the side will improve if they can vary their tactics.
There’s real attacking talent in midfield: any club outside the top six would be happy with Redmond, Sofiane Boufal, and Dusan Tadic. Bertrand and Cédric can be useful going forward as well, as long as they’re not reduced to random crossing, as they so often are.
So there’s plenty to start with, and the hope that a change in tactics and a little more speed can make a difference. But let’s be honest: even with faster players and a more dynamic system, it’ll take a special manager to get the club up the table and keep them there. Those managers don’t come along every day, and sometimes they leave for Spurs or Everton. (And sometimes fail there, too.)
The glass ceiling will remain. The best talent at clubs like Southampton will always be poached by the biggest clubs, and inevitably an up/down cycle will ensue. Expectations can be cruel: after Saturday’s loss, they were booed off the pitch at St. Mary’s.
At the moment it’s hard to be optimistic. Midtableland can be a dreary place. But there’s the January window, and at some point Van Dijk will be sold. Get some excitement into the side, and who knows? No, the sky may not be the limit – but this is football, and with the right approach, there’s still plenty of joy within reach.