St Mary’s is typical of the new wave of stadiums which were built around the turn of the century. There are no architectural flourishes, neither, were it not for the colour of the seats and white stencilling, is it particularly unique. It’s an out-of-the-box ground with parts cast from a mold.
At the beginning of this season, a new perimeter was installed. What purpose lies behind it, who knows, but it’s red enough to be startling and it alters the framing of the pitch enough to make the whole ground look different.
The irony of that glaring alteration, though, is that it illustrates just how little everything else has changed. To come to St Mary’s, either now or at any other point over the last two seasons, is to see a team stuck in a low gear. It’s certainly true that a psychosis has set in and that Southampton’s players approach home fixtures with visible trepidation, but – more substantially – they also play in almost exactly the same way each time and compile a familiar set of mistakes.
Being a flawed team is hardly unique in the Premier League. What makes this case notable, is that this flawed team shows little sign of addressing their limitations. Passes which should go forward continue to go back, attacking phases always seem to develop at glacial speed and, if and when Southampton fall behind, the response is confined to a change of personnel rather than any altered strategy. All the same ailments, never any new cures.
It begs the question: where is this football club going? More precisely, where is this football club going under Mark Hughes and Les Reed?
On Sunday, Chelsea came to town and won 3-0. Maurizio Sarri has quickly built a credible title-contender and so, superficially and with Eden Hazard is such good form, there was no disgrace in that. But the manner of the defeat was troubling. Chelsea didn’t just win the game, they dominated it. They locked their hosts in their own half for long periods, played their passes into and around the penalty box, and made Southampton look helpless at times.
It wasn’t a game without its What Ifs – Danny Ings should certainly have converted a first-half chance and Kepa made two excellent saves late on – but the optics were so dispiriting. One team advanced, the other retreated to the ropes and hoped, when it inevitably came, that the knockout blow would be quick and painless.
To an extent, it was. Hazard’s goal came from a simple Ross Barkley through-ball, Barkley’s own goal arrived via a laughable attempt to cover Olivier Giroud at a set-piece and, when Alvaro Morata added a third in stoppage-time, it was only after he had surrendered an earlier, easier opportunity under even less pressure.
So three goals – three very preventable goals – but a whole lot of troubling sub-text in between. As the game wore on and Chelsea held their lead, the counter-attacking chances began to stack up. Four times before the final goal the visitors broke into four-on-four opportunities. On each occasion, Southampton’s trailing players offered little more than a tired jog in response.
It’s an easy criticism to make, even a cheap one perhaps, but it was impossible to ignore the aesthetic, or to resist the conclusion that these are players who don’t really believe in their own cause. Within the context of that game specifically that’s understandable, being two goals down to Chelsea is a lonely place, but – more broadly – it seemed to confirm a suspicion that many fans will already have.
So what is the objective here? Not every club can appoint a Sarri-style priest and give themselves over to fundamentalist teachings, but teams in good health generally have a plan of sorts. Often, that doesn’t extend beyond the nurturing of a particular way of playing or tactic, but such a meagre aim is usually sufficient. If supporters can smell a general philosophy, they’ll generally forgive all but the most clumsy attempts at pursuing it.
But at Southampton even that doesn’t exist. As a further antagonism, many of the core values have also been eroded: the recruiting standards have disintegrated and the academy pipeline has dried up. On the pitch, the first-team lurches from one unsatisfactory defeat to the next, never learning anything from the defeats and never trying anything which makes victory seem any more likely.
As fans, we’re told that we owe our teams unconditional loyalty, but there’s nothing within that contract about faith – and it’s just as well, because what would the basis for that be at St Mary’s? Where are the ideas, where is the plan? Where is the kind of bravery in approach which once made this club a neutral’s favourite and made them the antidote to the surrounding, ambitionless dirge?
Currently, they fail even the most basic criteria: which players are getting better or appreciating in value and, if a supporter had a spare £50 in his or her pocket, what justification would they have in buying a ticket for a performance which, most likely, they would have seen dozens of times before.
When the detail of Sunday’s game is forgotten and the only reminders appear in benign black and white print, there will be no suggestion of the issues it raised or the narrative it extended. After all, Chelsea, with all their advantages and superior players, absolutely should be walking this type of fixture. To be here was quite different, though. It was to wonder if Southampton are governed by any performance objectives at all and, if they are, to question how it is that they’re actually trying to meet them.
Chelsea won. Chelsea were really quite impressive. Southampton should take no solace in that at all though because, on this evidence and on the basis of their near-permanent inertia, they’re already far too quick to accept their place.