A club that has lost just one of its last nine games in all competitions, and that against the third best team in the country. A club who will play a League One team for a place in the FA Cup semi-finals. A club that has the joint-tenth best defence in the league, and has conceded more than twice in a match only three times in all competitions in the last ten months. Seven different clubs have been in the Premier League’s bottom two this season, but not this one.
If that first paragraph says an awful lot about the selective use of statistics, it also epitomises Southampton’s season. Mauricio Pellegrino’s side have bobbed along, an exercise in under-the-radar under-performance. They have neither disgraced themselves nor delighted anyone. I don’t know the statistics, but I’d bet on Southampton being involved in the penultimate game on Match of the Day more than any other club.
Southampton’s problem last season was that they were boring. Or more, accurately, Claude Puel’s problem was that Southampton thought he had made them boring. Their league games in 2016/17 contained 2.34 goals on average, the third lowest in the division. Puel was sacked after Southampton had finished eighth and reached a domestic cup final.
This season, with Puel quickly taking over, succeeding and entertaining at Leicester City, Southampton’s problem is that they have been boring and unsuccessful. They were clearly persuaded by Pellegrino that he could be the expansive manager they craved, but neither his history nor his tenure at St Mary’s offers evidence. The goals per game average has increased to 2.50, but 13 teams have still managed higher.
In modern football parlance, the ‘boring’ criticism has become interchangeable with the word ‘defensive’. The unfair demands of entitled modern football fans for entertainment in addition to success has been generally overplayed, but English football and its clubs have fuelled this demand. You can’t wilfully gentrify the game with extortionate ticket prices and then moan when those attending the theatre want to be entertained.
Puel did not bring exciting football to St Mary’s, but he was at least effective. That’s despite losing Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama, Graziano Pelle and Jose Fonte and having to cope with the added burden of Europa League football. Puel’s organisation was superb, a defence usually containing Mayo Yoshida and Cedric Soares keeping 14 Premier League clean sheets. Only Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham managed more.
Pellegrino’s trick was to make Southampton slightly worse at everything other than the concession of goals, a measure by which they have declined sharply. Fourteen league clean sheets last season has become five so far this. The chances created per game have dropped from 10.4 to 9.4, and the number of shots faced per game risen from 11.5 to 13.3.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Southampton’s abysmal shooting. The creativity may have declined slightly, but they still rank seventh in the division for chances created, bettered only by the current top six. That they are 12th for goals scored reveals the issue, but there is worse to come. Southampton’s shot accuracy of 38.7% puts them 18th, while they only fare marginally better for shot conversion (8.5% – 16th).
Pellegrino’s masterplan – and indeed his lifeline – was the January signing of Guido Carrillo, a striker he knew from his days at Estudiantes. A fee of £19m already looked vastly inflated for Monaco’s fourth-choice (and largely non-scoring) striker, but Carrillo has proven to be almost entirely ineffective. A shot on target (and no goals) for every 100 minutes played is not quite what Pellegrino had in mind for Southampton’s low-key escapology act.
Now Pellegrino has been forced to talk up the usefulness of Manolo Gabbiadini, given two league starts since November 4. Carrillo signed a three-and-a-half year deal for a manager who might not last for more than another month.
If the headline is that Southampton are only slightly worse at everything than they were last season, they could not afford the slump. The eighth-placed finish under Puel gave a slightly false representation of the reality; Southampton did only finish six points above Watford in 17th.
Southampton’s other issue is that either the worst teams in the Premier League are getting better or the mid-table teams are getting worse, creating an unappealing mush below the top six. Last season, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull finished on 24, 28 and 34 points. Continue to take points at their current rate, and West Brom, Swansea and Stoke (the current bottom three) will finish on 27, 35 and 37. Southampton’s 1.21 points per game last season saw them finish 12 clear of the bottom three. The same points per game total this season has you seven clear.
There is a paradox at play here, evidenced by Crystal Palace and Swansea City, the two clubs on the same points as Southampton. Both have enjoyed a resurgence in form from a position of apparent disaster. Is it better to be plunged into crisis that forces you to make a change rather than gradual decline that generates further unmerited faith?
There’s certainly an argument for that among supporters at St Mary’s. Southampton are one of five clubs outside the top seven not to sack their manager since August. The other four (Newcastle, Huddersfield, Brighton and Bournemouth) could not hope to attract a better manager than the one they currently have. Southampton are the exception. Pellegrino stumbles on, flirting with the edge of the cliff without ever taking the step over the edge.
Southampton may be rewarded for their perseverance. They may be victorious in their must-win game over Stoke on Saturday. Pellegrino may survive, learn from this season and thrive in 2018/19. But Southampton have sacked managers for less emphatic underperformance. And we are talking in ifs and buts.
Just as likely is that Southampton are suffering death by a thousand draws, suffocated by the passivity of their manager. Their last six league games are against the teams currently in 1st, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 11th.
Only entering crisis when it’s too late to make a change sounds like a discarded Alanis Morissette lyric. It could be Southampton’s dirge.