Southampton are in urgent need of a clear identity

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 19, 2018

At the end of Southampton’s draw with Brighton, as the media were filling in to the press-conference, two fans who had been enjoying corporate hospitality were searching for a way out of the ground. As they removed their lanyards and dumped them on a desk, a club employee reminded them that they wouldn’t be allowed back into the stadium without them.

“It’s fine, we’re f—— done with this place for the night.”

It was rude and unnecessary, the staff at St Mary’s are generally lovely, but it was typical – of the behaviour expected in hospitality quarters at football matches and the non-specific anger which Southampton are themselves inspiring.

Monday night was rubbish. Really, really bad. Post-game, Mark Hughes would declare himself pleased with the much of what he saw. He was happy with the intent and purpose, he said, claiming that had his players held their 2-0 lead for just a little longer, three points would have been theirs.

Maybe that’s a reasonable enough remark to make, but it’s probably not one the supporters were particularly enthusiastic about. The mood, presumably, called for an actual diagnosis. Hughes would later question Anthony Taylor’s decision to award Brighton that late penalty, claiming that Shane Duffy had thrown himself to the floor after feeling contact from James Ward-Prowse, and that too was rather typical of the siutation. Not just because Hughes always manages to find a third-party agent responsible for his defeats, but because it was the sort of hands-in-the-air bafflement which characterises this side’s current direction.

Southampton’s place in the game is explored in more detail here, but – for now – the irresistible conclusion is that this team needs to be detonated and rebuilt from the ground up.

Hughes is their third manager in three seasons and while that kind of turnover is hardly unusual, it’s created something particularly ugly in this instance. There are some good footballers in that dressing-room: Mario Lemina is capable, Oriel Romeu has rebuilt his career on the south-coast, and Cedric Soares and Ryan Betrand are one of the better full-back tandems. Unfortunately, their virtues only ever seem to appear in isolation though, and not as part of the side itself. Monday night presented a vivid example of just that: Pierre Hojbjerg’s long-range goal was as spectacular a moment as has been seen league-wide through the whole of the month, but Hojbjerg vanished from the game almost immediately after he finished celebrating.

The aim under Hughes appears to be just to get better. Not to become something, not to play in any particular way, but to simply score more goals than they concede. As ever with the teams he coaches, that improvement seems to be being sought through the virtues of new signings rather than the implementation of any new philosophy. It’s revealing, for instance, that the side still plays in much the same way as they did under Mauricio Pellegrino. The attacking phases are still overly-deliberate and, at times, maddeningly over-cautious, and the midfield remains a creative void with a third gear limit.

In time, some of those new arrivals will have an effect. Mohamed Elyounoussi will make a positive contribution over the course of the season and, although currently out of the first-team, Stuart Armstrong looks like a shrewd addition, but players cannot be used to cure ideological myopia. Really, that’s the wrong way round: the transfer-market should be used to develop strategy, not to create it in the first place.

Southampton have to settle on an identity. Are they a passing side, or do they just want credit for looking like one. Are they direct? Or is that just the approach they use when they run out of ideas. This new, long-term cycle of simply aiming to be “not as bad as last season” isn’t taking them towards anything good, let alone anywhere of any particular interest.

Mark Hughes Southampton
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