In modern football, a difficult situation is often called a crisis far too quickly. To call Southampton‘s current situation a crisis just four games into the new Premier League season would be jumping to conclusions; particularly compared to what other teams, like Crystal Palace, are going through.
The Saints’ start does not cause room to panic just yet but there is evidence to suggest that alarm bells will ring in the near future. Mauricio Pellegrino’s side have five points from four matches and lie 13th in the table; not a disastrous start but not an overwhelming one at the same time.
Their only win came at home to West Ham, thanks to a last minute penalty in a match where they let a two-goal lead slip. That was either side of two dull and uninspiring 0-0 draws against Huddersfield and Swansea respectively before a damaging 2-0 defeat at home to Watford on Saturday. And, besides the results themselves, the quality of opposition that the Saints have struggled against this season gives plenty of room for concern.
While, admittedly, Watford look to be building something very promising under new boss Marco Silva, Huddersfield are newly promoted, Swansea only narrowly avoided relegation last season and are expected to be fighting the same battle this campaign, and it has taken West Ham four games to register their first points of 2016/17. Whatever easy start the team were expected to have has turned out to be the opposite.
It shouldn’t be like this. Southampton have been performing above expectations since their return to the Premier League in 2012-13, developing a plethora of talent and exciting many in the process. This is a well-run club who have reached as high as sixth in the league, as well as a cup final in recent times, and have the potential to be fighting for even higher honours. The foundations are certainly there.
Yet it seems as though something isn’t right at St. Mary’s at the moment. The arrival of Pellegrino in place of Claude Puel was expected to bring with it attacking football and solve the club’s profligacy in front of goal, after the team scored just 41 times in the league last season. The improvement hasn’t happened so far and there has been little evidence to suggest it will be any different in the near future.
Southampton have struggled to break down dogged defences, particularly at home, and look too predictable going forward. In particular, their most talented attacking players have failed to inspire either. Nathan Redmond is inconsistent despite showing glimpses of his talent; Dusan Tadic also struggles with consistency and is wasteful in front of goal; Sofiane Boufal has failed to adapt to the Premier League since his £16 million move from Lille last year.
Consequently, Manolo Gabbiandini, who has shown his quality in front of goal, is not only feeding off scraps but also having to pick up the ball in much deeper positions than he should, due to the lack of creativity from his fellow attacking team-mates. And given the quality of his backup, Charlie Austin, it seems frustrating that not enough chances are being created for two perfectly capable strikers. As a result, Saints average just 2.8 shots on target this season, the fifth lowest in the league.
It is interesting and, at the same time, puzzling to look at the club’s transfer business this summer, with £37 million being spent on capturing midfielder Mario Lemina and defender Wesley Hoedt. Both were good signings, but the necessity of these additions has to come into question. Southampton conceded just 48 league goals last season, the lowest in the league outside the top seven, and looked well-organised at the back and in midfield. The other two arrivals included goalkeeper Jack Rose and Jan Bednarek, another defender.
No money was spent on improving the underperforming attack. And while Pellegrino has to be admired for having faith in the players already at St. Mary’s, as well as continuing the club’s tradition of developing its young academy players, one would be forgiven for wondering why he did not bolster his attacking options when he had the chance.
The reason for this could well have been due to the Virgil Van Dijk saga. While Saints placed such an enormous price tag on their star man’s head (£60 million) that it made the chances of his departure unlikely, the club never categorically denied that he would be leaving, resulting in continued speculation right until the window shut.
Perhaps the club were distracted by this, knowing that if they had sold Van Dijk for the figure they demanded, they would have had funds to indeed buy an established attacking player. And given that a replacement had already been brought in Hoedt, it would not have seemed such a bad option after all.
The move failed to materialise, and while Saints have kept a prize asset in Van Dijk, it has meant that they are now stuck with the limited attacking options at their disposal. That responsibility falls towards Pellegrino and now even further pressure will be placed upon him to turn his uninspiring forward line into one that can create more and score more. It looks a difficult task.
Crisis? No. Not yet, anyway. But Southampton’s struggles against supposedly weaker opposition already this season underlines not only how much they wasted a golden opportunity to improve in the summer, but also the challenge that awaits Pellegrino. And with tougher fixtures on the horizon, the issue could get worse before it gets better.
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