For fifty-one minutes at St Mary’s on Sunday, everything was just as it had been in May. Mark Hughes and Les Reed have been fairly active over the summer. Five players arrived and a range of problem areas have been addressed, but the effect certainly wasn’t immediate. Hughes shifted Nathan Redmond into a more central area, deploying him in front of a three-man midfield and behind Charlie Austin, but the attacking play was just as ponderous as ever.
As for the Redmond experiment itself, don’t expect to see that again any time soon. He’s a dynamic player, capable of beating isolated defenders and altering the rhythm of a game, but he has almost no feel for life away from the wing. As a result, Austin spent most of the first-half lumbering in isolation and Southampton, when they did have possession, moved up the field slowly and with little hope of disrupting Burnley’s strict shape.
Post-match, Hughes would ascribe some of that to first night nerves and also suggested that last season’s relegation fight has bred some lingering reticence. That’s certainly possible and, yes, there was plenty of inhibition apparent, but the majority of the issues were plainly structural.
The good news, though, is that Hughes now has the ability to solve them. Danny Ings’ arrival (initially on-loan, with the provision for a permanent deal) has provided the most obvious solution and, when he was introduced to play alongside Austin in the second-half, the difference was startling. He’s an aggressive forward, presumably a real nuisance to play against, and that buzzing threat caused far more issues for James Tarkowski and Ben Mee. Previously Southampton have had Manolo Gabbiadini to call from the bench but, good finisher though he is, he’s a slightly more passive forward and far less likely to run beyond those kinds of defenders. By contrast, Ings was highly disruptive.
There’s encouragement in deeper areas, too. Mohamed Elyounoussi’s cameo was brief but intriguing, and his technique and vision should go some way to replacing the attributes lost with Dusan Tadic’s departure. He’s a stylish footballer, quite Erik Lamela-ish in a way, and he has the physique for the Premier League. Elsewhere, Stuart Armstrong gave a strong contribution before limping off. Hughes confirmed that his injury wasn’t serious, that he was walking unaided in the dressing-room afterwards, and that he’d been pleased with Armstrong’s willingness to break forward from midfield and support the attacking players. That’s a key point, too. In the absence of a true No.10, Southampton need that assistance from deep and the early suggestions are that, rather like a young Steven Davis, Armstrong can provide it. He wasn’t a marquee signing, very few English supporters will likely have seen him play, but he looks a smart addition all the same.
Ultimately, it wasn’t an opening game which built much momentum. It could also have been one which ended in defeat. At the least though, the supporters will have left St Mary’s knowing that their team will have more just one approach to playing at home this season.