Southampton now know how long the way back really is

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 29, 2018
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After the spike of two wins from three, during which Ralph Hasenhuttl and Southampton appeared to grow towards each other, Thursday night delivered a slap of reality. West Ham may have only won 2-1 at St Mary’s, the hosts may even have briefly led, but it was a night which reminded everyone that the Austrian has undertaken a long-term restoration project on the south-coast and there will be no short-cut.

The game itself was decided upon fine margins, some of them blurred. Nathan Redmond’s opening goal should probably have been ruled out for handball, while the West Ham counter-attack which led to Felipe Anderson scoring his second should never have started; Declan Rice committed a clear foul in the penalty box which referee Craig Pawson somehow failed to spot.

That’s one reading: Southampton were unlucky and, on a different day, it was a game from which they might have taken something.

A harsher assessment would note the return of bad habits, though. While the hosts started with a flourish and began the game with as much intent as they’ve shown all season, that purpose quickly receded away. West Ham were superior for long-spells, probably for all but the very beginning of each half. When Southampton did fall behind, the craft in their game seemed to vanish into the night; an equaliser always looked unlikely once they’d fallen back into the comfort of their square passing/crossing routine. In response, the groans and moans began to tumble out of the stand and, had you closed your eyes and forgotten the events of the past month, everything was really just as Mark Hughes had left it.

But hold the outright despondency, because this was Christmas football and nothing is quite as it appears. The loss to West Ham was a poor result and a disappointing performance, but Hasenhuttl has taken charge at the point in the season when it is notoriously difficult to affect change. New instructions come with a learning curve, of course, but that’s especially true when each fixture is separated by hours rather than weeks. These players are trying to learn on the job and trying to do so whilst running on vapour.

So, this latest loss came be framed as a consequence of the fixture list. Tired bodies and tired minds are generally not conducive to progress.

But it would be disingenuous to pretend that that’s the only ailment. Over what remains of the season, Hasenhuttl will condition his new players to play in the way that he wants, but it’s reasonable to assume that some of them to be incapable of making that transition. The requirement is for dynamic, direct forwards at the top of the formation, ambitious, decisive, and technical midfielders at its core, and defenders who are comfortable bringing the ball forward at its base.

If there was just one conclusion to draw from the West Ham defeat, then it was that Southampton are a long way from having that kind of cast.

The asterisk is that Hasenhuttl is currently without both of his first-choice full-backs. In a system within which most of the width must come from deep, the injuries to Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares are of great significance. While their replacements haven’t exactly under-performed, they are still inferior on both sides of the ball. Yan Valery (who may eventually become a centre-half) and Matt Targett have had good moments in this latest run, both are talented, but they’re still naive in a way which stymies the overall function of the side. It has an underlying vulnerability in defence and, worse, an underpowered attack which lacks the thrust and quality of delivery that Soares and Betrand are each capable of providing.

That’s a temporary problem and one which, hopefully, will be solved in time. More permanent, however, are the issues lurking inside those full-back channels. Over the years, Southampton’s great weakness, certainly the one which has attracted most attention, has been their attacking recruitment. It’s something for which the club deserve criticism, but the focus has masked an equally mixed record with defensive signings and, realistically, all of the centre-halves who started against West Ham have a question mark against their name.

That isn’t to say that they’re without merit, more that they lack specific abilities. Maya Yoshida, Jan Bednarek and Jannik Vestergaard are all capable centre-halves, but none of them look truly composed with the ball at their feet. That’s possibly harsh on Yoshida, who is actually a cultured footballer, but Vestergaard in particular looks uncomfortable in what he’s being asked to do. Built like a Trojan war hero though he may be, the sight of him trying to drop long passes into small pockets of space makes akward viewing; Toby Alderweireld he is not.

Part of that might be due to low confidence, the memory of that terrible mistake at Cardiff will still be fresh, but his passing still lacks the required finesse. These centre-halves aren’t just employed to shunt the ball out to the touchline or play simple, unobstructed balls towards unmarked midfielders. Instead, they’re auxiliary playmakers, tasked with making proper incisions and actually beginning moves. If anything, Vestergaard’s body shape and skill-set make him best suited to playing in the centre of a back-three, in the more static and simple role, and yet he’s operating on the left of the trio and being urged to be expressive. It looks odd and feel wrong. It’s also indicative of the limitations which blight the department.

Clearly, it’s an area requiring major investment. The club may baulk at that given how regularly they’ve tried to address the issue in the past (Wesley Hoedt, Florin Gardos, Jan Bednarek), but many of the fundamentals which dogged the Puel, Pellegrino and Hughes eras remain. Unfortunately, those issues have now also been multiplied by the arrival of a head-coach who requires a more advanced (and different) sort of defender. There’s no avoiding this problem: the foundation of the team is not fit for its new purpose.

Thankfully, the midfield is more pliable. Long term, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Mario Lemina will likely play as the deeper pair. While they lack the defensive obstinance of Oriol Romeu, the priority must be to field players capable of receiving possession from the centre-halves. The ball must also, when possible, move quickly and vertically, meaning that Romeu’s laborious turns and hesitancy will have to be sacrificed for more technical and slicker alternatives. That’s a harsh judgement, particularly as Romeu was one of the club’s Players Of The Season as recently as three years ago, but committing to a different direction involves those kind of decisions. The Spaniard is a restricting player, on the field to subdue rather than to create, making him anathema to the kind of football the club are now trying to play.

Lemina and Hojbjerg are assets though. Neither is quite what they were expected to be earlier in their career – Hojbjerg was once the apple of Pep Guardiola’s eye and has fallen a long way short – but their profiles are correct. Stuart Armstrong should also prosper. In a better performing team, he might – given his small fee – be considered one of the better signings of the season. His tendency to break forward, his willingness to shoot and the quality of his finishing have made him a welcome addition and, if the team doesn’t start to play in a higher attacking gear, he should be both an influence and a beneficiary.

Alongside Armstrong, Nathan Redmond’s form over the past four games has been excellent. He may have wilted towards the end of the West Ham game, becoming haphazard in his positioning and less effective with the ball, but the hesitancy in his game seems to have been cured. He looks energised and enthusiastic, he has evidently bought in to Hasenhuttl’s ideas, and for now, with speed and skill at such a premium, he’s arguably the most important player.

The forward line is harder to judge. Manolo Gabbiadini’s time at the club is clearly drawing to a close, so he’s a non-factor, but neither Charlie Austin nor Danny Ings – who continue to rotate in and out of the centre-forward role – are quite rounded enough to be convincing. Austin, because he doesn’t do enough outside the penalty-box and lacks the natural fitness to be relied on. Ings, because no matter how many goals he scores and good ‘moments’ he has, he never quite does enough to be a convincing starter for any side aiming towards the top-half. They’re place-holders. Good enough for now, not causing enough of a problem to demand immediate action, but also not likely to be featuring regularly in eighteen months time.

Interestingly – even though it’s ludicrously early in his career to be making a proper prediction – the speed and movement offered by Michael Obafemi might make him the finest long term option. He’s raw and still powered by too much adrenaline (understandably so, given how new he is to the league), but he links well with supporting players and has a habit of taking up intelligent positions in the box, even if he doesn’t yet convert them regularly enough. He does have a senior goal to his name now, with that clinching effort and Huddersfield, and his set-up for Armstrong’s goal against Manchester United showed excellent awareness. Admittedly, the sample isn’t big enough to be confident in his ability to have a sustained effect, but Hasenhuttl should have seen at least something to pique his interest.

For now and more broadly, though, the great problem is wastage. It’s the inevitable consequence of changing managers mid-season and particularly so when that involves a shift in philosophy. Players who were bought to fill a purpose have quickly become obsolete. Over the summer, Southampton committed nearly £60m to incoming transfers and that has presumably accounted for almost all of their season’s budget. Already, it seems that Mohamed Elyounoussi has been shunted to the squad’s periphery and, in time, a couple of others might follow him there. For this to work, though, those are the kind of U-turns which the club has to have the conviction to make. Mark Hughes and Les Reed are gone, meaning that the native culture has changed and the manager it was built around has also departed; the value in remaining loyal to decisions made during that period is illusory.

In that context, maybe the West Ham defeat was a helpful loss. Winning had its obvious advantages, but the limitations it showed in Southampton served to emphasise that the corner is yet to be turned and, most likely, won’t be arrived at via coaching alone. Hasenhuttl will probably improve many players, he may even transform the style and habits of some, but there is only so much he can do with what he’s inherited. The club have reached this point after years of dysfunction and such a malaise can never be cured by a single, albeit smart appointment.

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