The international break couldn’t have come at a better time for new Southampton boss Mark Hughes.
The Welshman, who was appointed on March 14 to succeed Mauricio Pellegrino, has had two weeks to take stock of the players at his disposal, analyse his squad’s strengths and weaknesses and ensure he is fully up to speed ahead of the trip to fellow Premier League strugglers West Ham United this weekend.
Hughes’ first game in charge, a 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic that booked the Saints an FA Cup semi-final spot, was ideal and lifted some of the gloom that had shrouded St Mary’s.
But the new manager and the club’s main priority is ensuring the team move out of the bottom three and secure their top flight status. However, given Southampton have finished in the top eight in each of the past four seasons and have signed high-level talent in recent seasons, few of the current squad have been involved in such a desperate relegation battle.
Yet Mario Lemina is one man who is built for the fight. Stints with Marseille and Juventus are hardly the ideal preparation for avoiding the drop, but the combative midfielder is one of a small group of Southampton players who have delivered consistently this term.
Unsurprisingly his ability – like that of so many other Saints stars in recent years – has reportedly attracted the interest of Liverpool, French newspaper L’Equipe claim he is already a summer target forJurgen Klopp’s’s men.
With Emre Can set to walk away on a free transfer, the Anfield giants will almost certainly be looking to add depth in midfield but, before contemplating being the latest in a long line of players to make that move to Anfield, Lemina must first join Hughes in saving the Saints.
In his first game in charge against Wigan, the new Saints boss opted to use the 4-4-2 formation he has always favoured, but despite dispensing with predecessor Mauricio Pellegrino’s 4-2-3-1 framework, Lemina’s task in a two-man central midfield remained largely the same.
He has done his best to protect the defence behind him all season, averaging 2.88 tackles and 1.98 interceptions per 90.
Strong and physical, he has done well in the air, winning 1.38 aerial duels per game while also disrupting the opposition’s attacks by committing smart tactical fouls, which is why he’s been booked just once this term.
Yet the 24-year-old has always been much more than a defensive shield, which is an attribute that makes him an ideal player for Hughes’ approach.
Simon Davies scored a memorable winning goal against Italy in 2002 to begin that trend, while there were reliable displays from the likes of Steven N’Zonzi, Glenn Whelan and Charlie Adam for the Potters.
Lemina is ideally placed to maintain that pattern. While clearly relishing the challenge of winning back the ball, he can also shine in possession and is able to pass it cleanly or drive forward into opposition territory.
Of his team-mates at Southampton only Sofiane Boufal (4.48) has managed more successful take-ons than his current mark of 2.94 per 90 minutes. His distribution has been crisp and precise, making 52.39 passes per 90 minutes and connecting with 88.5% of them.
The Gabon international has rarely got far enough forward to make an assist but is one of few Southampton players who has not looked rush in possession this term.
It will take time for Lemina to fully adapt to the new manager’s demands, but the Wigan performance got their relationship off to a bright start. What will help is the midfielder knows Hughes tried to sign him for Stoke in both the summer of 2016 – when his bid was rejected by Juventus – and again last year when the player opted to join Southampton instead
They share a common approach, with the boss insisting in a recent interview he will not be afraid to ruffle a few feathers in order to push the Saints out of the bottom three.
“I work in a certain way and with certain levels of training intensity,” Hughes told reporters last week. “It’s fair to say the feedback from people in and around the club is that maybe that intensity hasn’t been there.
“We haven’t got the time to go around the edges and pussyfoot around. We had a meeting as an introduction to give them an insight of what I expected. Sometimes you have to step on people’s toes and we are probably in that situation.
“We have eight weeks. If we upset people along the way they will have to accept it.”
That will be music to Lemina’s midfielder’s ears. Often blunt in his choice of words, he told Footmercato he left Juventus “because I wanted to play more”. However, while abrupt in interviews, he has always had the faith of his managers.
Juve boss Max Allegri fielded him in several high profile games for the Bianconeri, while former Marseille boss Marcelo Bielsa said: “ He is a different type of player to the majority of footballers. He knows how to attack and how to defend. He offers a lot of solutions to the coach and to his team.”
Now Hughes has the opportunity to discover that for himself, and he will likely find out that he and Lemina are a perfect match, one which could save Southampton’s season.