The club had a number of issues, and without boiling it down to something as simple as ‘they weren’t scoring enough and were conceding too many,’ it wasn’t far from that.
The Saints had suffered for much of the season when it came to converting the chances they created, and though they were conceding fewer goals than the likes of Everton, Leicester, and Watford at the halfway point in the campaign, they weren’t making things count in attack.
In terms of creating opportunities they often played like a top half side, but when it came to finishing them they were relegation zone.
A 3-0 defeat against Newcastle saw the end of Mauricio Pellegrino’s troubled time at the club, and the beginning of Hughes’ tenure. So far it has been no better for the Welshman than it was for the man he replaced, but there were signs of life against Arsenal.
The back three/five system Hughes used at the Emirates appeared to provide a solution to certain problems, and saw his side take the lead against an Arsenal team which has its own problems, but is still one full of quality players.
Right wing-back Cedric was afforded more freedom in this system than he would be if operating in a back four, and it was his attacking position, and calmness around the opposition box, which produced the first goal. For Shane Long.
That’s right. The Irish striker was able to get just his second goal of the season in this formation which suited his ability to cover ground across the front line, supported by the pace and trickery of Dusan Tadic and the creativity and passing of James Ward-Prowse.
Against other teams it may work, but it just so happened that on this occasion Danny Welbeck and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang were firing on all cylinders.
Welbeck’s winner, however, came when the visitors had switched to a back four after Charlie Austin had entered the fray to score the equaliser. Was this late change partly to blame?
Southampton’s run-in is tricky. They face Chelsea next in the league before meeting the West Londoners again in the FA Cup semi-final, and their last game of the season is against Manchester City.
Hughes will be tempted to switch things up again, especially as one of his centre backs — Jack Stephens — is suspended for three games following his altercation with Jack Wilshere at the Emirates.
This means the manager will either have to revert to a back four, ignoring the promising signs his three man defence showed, or give a first Premier League start to summer signing Jan Bednarek.
The 21-year-old has made two first team appearances so far this season. One in the League Cup defeat to Wolves, and another at right back in the FA Cup win against Fulham.
His performances were met with mixed reactions, but he showed some promise, if not attacking verve, in his display out of position at right back, and this suggests he could slot in on the right side of a back three.
It would be seen as a risk for Hughes to throw the Pole in at this stage of the season with Premier League survival on the line, but if he can slot in to maintain a shape which could be successful in the games against Leicester, Bournemouth, Everton, and Swansea, then it would be worth the odd nervy moment as he settles in.
Back threes can provide insurance when one player is struggling, but the club’s recruitment team must believe Bednarek has the mentality to play in the Premier League, so there should be nothing to suggest the team will be carrying him should he get a chance.
That’s when the back three becomes an attacking weapon as well as a safer defensive unit, and it could even allow the use of two strikers against the sides they should be beating if they set up in a 3-5-2.
There are options for Hughes, almost too many, but he shouldn’t so readily abandon one which solved some problems against Arsenal, and could solve even more going forward.
If it means he has to throw Bednarek in, so be it. Why would a club sign a player for the first team squad, especially knowing that they would lose Virgil van Dijk at some point, and not use him? Now’s the chance to.