BY ALEX STEWART
Southampton’s next two games, at home to first Watford and then West Bromwich Albion, have to be considered as that most reductive of clichés: “must-win”. After crashing out of the FA Cup at home to Crystal Palace, a match the bookies saw as an upset predicated on football betting pre-match odds, but which many knowledgeable Saints accounts on-line saw as a likely loss for the home team, Ronald Koeman’s side need a bounce to address their mid-winter blues.
Watford are a strong team, playing well, and are fresh from a 1-0 win over a tepid Newcastle team in the FA Cup; West Brom were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw against lowly Bristol City and have been similarly disappointing in the Premier League, though they, unlike the Saints, have won their last two matches.
Where has it all gone wrong for the team from the south coast? This time last year, despite a raft of departures from the club over the summer, Saints were still pushing for a Champions League spot and finished with a still unlikely place in the Europa League. In some ways, securing qualification for that competition was part of the problem from the outset. New signing Jordie Clasie, always a target for Koeman but crucial following the departure of Morgan Scheniderlin, was injured in a heavy pre-season that intermingled with the early qualifiers against Vitesse Arnhem for the Europa League’s next round. Early Premier League results, especially the 3-0 defeat against Everton at home, showed a team struggling to find its feet, accommodate some new signings, and deal with the fatigue of European travel. By the time Saints had been knocked out by FC Midtjylland, they had only secured two points from a possible nine and drawn against two teams, Newcastle and Watford, they would have expected to dispatch quite comfortably. The hangover of this early start shouldn’t be overestimated, but the slow return of Clasie has been a significant feature in a team that can sometimes look ponderous moving the ball in transition without the incision of his longer range of passing.
Many would point to the failings this season having their source in issues up front. Despite having 14.4 shots per game, the Saints are averaging only 1.3 goals per game in the Premier League. However, last season, when they finished seventh, they scored at a rate of just over 1.4 goals per game, not a significant increase on this season’s tally. The old issue about the over-use of the once again injured Graziano Pelle refuses to go away, and Juanmi is not a serious alternative as a lone striker. Shane Long is best when drifting in from wide or surging into the space created in front of a retreating back four, as his best performances last season demonstrated; he is willing and hard-working, but, as his finishing against Norwich showed, he is not a natural poacher of goals. Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic have not offered as much this season as they did last in terms of finding the net either.
Nonetheless, as last season’s final position in the table showed (and remember, that 1.4 was buoyed by the 8-0 win over Sunderland), scoring fewer goals matters less if you concede fewer than those around you. And here is where Southampton have come unstuck. The problems begin in midfield, where the loss of Schneiderlin has meant that the early pressing game, developed under Mauricio Pochettino and continued, while being slightly diminished in intensity, under his replacement, is less effective. Southampton’s defence was partly so good because it was under less pressure to start with. Victor Wanyama is capable but performs a more solid, less kinetic role in the press; Clasie is an interceptor of great quality but, again, doesn’t harry the opposition as Schneiderlin did.
The two greatest issues, though, are the loss of Nathaniel Clyne to Liverpool and Fraser Forster to injury. Clyne excelled last season, rightly earning regular England call-ups as the outstanding right-back in the Premier League. He could turn defence into attack with pace and a great crossing ability, but did not neglect his defensive duties either. Clyne’s replacements, Cedric Soares and Cuco Martina, are more attacking in their instincts. Indeed, Soares sometimes looks for all the world like a right winger asked to play further back. Neither is as solid, and this puts the centre backs and goalkeeper under pressure from crosses, a worry when facing sides like Watford with a big, strong striker like Troy Deeney. Maarten Stekelenberg’s recruitment, I assume based largely on availability, did nothing to calm the nerves either. While he has not been guilty of too many grievous errors, he is no Forster. The former Celtic man was a behemoth for Saints last season, commanding, strong yet agile, and dominated his box behind two superb centre backs (it’s worth noting that while Toby Alderweireld’s loss was a shame, Virgil van Dijk has shown himself to be an excellent replacement). The whole back four looks shakier as a result and the resulting concession of a greater number of goals than last season means that the low scoring rate becomes a problem.
Will Saints be relegated? The answer, surely, is no. Odds for their important upcoming match are available from Titanbet. Aston Villa and Sunderland look far worse sides, Swansea and Newcastle are deeply troubled for very different reasons, and Norwich and Bournemouth are exactly the sort of attractive, essentially decent sides that inevitably get dragged into the mire later on in the season. With, therefore, at least six teams quite likely to be in greater trouble than Southampton, relegation should not be an issue. What is an issue, though, is that the happy feel around St Mary’s has diminished greatly in recent weeks. Koeman has criticised his players and, more recently, the club’s well-regarded U-21 set-up. Mane and Wanyama are angling for moves. Southampton have spent several seasons labouring under the competing narratives of youth-driven over-achievement and sales-based impending doom, and have, as a club, managed to maintain a public-facing essential decency amid the turmoil and speculation. The trickling away of that, as the pressure mounts, is perhaps the most worrying thing for Saints fans. The club will be safe this season, but at what cost?