The footballing gods are certainly not smiling on the Saints. Southampton are in trouble – 16th in the league, just a point above the drop zone – and are reportedly already eyeing up a replacement for Mark Hughes.
It would be hard to blame them for doing so.
There were seven teams with a worse expected goals difference than the south coast club when Mauricio Pellegrino was replaced by the Welshman last season. The Argentine didn’t have safety secured but – the numbers suggested at least – he wasn’t at the helm of a truly awful side.
When Hughes came in he tightened up the defence a little. However, things stayed largely the same. Southampton were still drab and uninspiring.
But importantly his eight-game stretch at the back end of the season resulted in eight points being claimed. That was ultimately enough to keep the Saints in the Premier League, something which they admittedly didn’t look like doing under Pellegrino.
4-4-2 is the new black
With the new season came a new start and, after the opening game against Burnley, Hughes has regularly used a 4-4-2 system. The Saints boss explained that tactical switch was made in order to give his side more presence in attack.
“It (4-4-2) gives you a focal point of two strikers,” he said in September. “You can let one come short and hit balls into space to turn people around.
“A lot of teams now want to press you from the front and you can take the press out just by clipping balls in behind, so there are a lot of elements that help you.”
It’s partially worked. Southampton’s expected goals average per match rose from 1.11 under Pellegrino to 1.13 in Hughes’ 2017/18 stint. It stands at 1.31 for the current campaign.
So far, so… ok.
Crucially for the Saints’ survival last season was how many of these expected goals actually turned into real ones.
They noticeably underperformed under Pellegrino, were about level following Hughes’ arrival, but are now suffering from a severe cold streak in front of goal.
Southampton's stagefright in front of goal
|Stats (per game, open-play)||Pellegrino||Hughes 2017/18||Hughes 2018/19|
The Saints’ holey defence
However, the increase in expected goals on the attacking side has been outstripped by an increase in expected goals that is being conceded.
According to Football Whispers’ model, Hughes slightly tightened up the ship last season. The Saints went from conceding chances worth 1.38 expected goals per game to chances worth 1.14 xG per game.
This term, this figure has shot up. They now have the third-worst defence in the league, conceding 1.77 expected goals per game.
Hughes’ reasons for the new system may have been understandable but they don’t seem to have given the team enough to cover for the increased vulnerabilities it’s given them.
A stark way of seeing this is in the number of chances that have more than a one-in-three chance of going in (worth 0.33 expected goals or more).
Pellegrino’s side hadn’t exactly been leaking them, but they were regularly picking up one or two here and there.
But after a fairly tight start to 2018/19, where they didn’t concede a single one-in-three (or better) chance, Southampton have been leaking them. In their last six games, their opponents have averaged 2.5 per game.
The extent of this defensive vulnerability may not have come home because Southampton’s opponents have only scored 12 from open-play, versus the 15.92 expected goals value of the chances that the Saints have conceded so far.
Right diagnosis, wrong medicine?
In a way, Hughes was right. Southampton’s failure to score goals was the main problem last year and has been a problem in years gone by too. In 2016/17 they underperformed their expected goals by nearly 25 per cent.
This long-term underperformance of xG means that there could be something about Southampton that the particular stat isn’t quite capturing. What? We don’t know, but if the Saints had just scored goals at a rate the stats suggest they should have done, they probably wouldn’t have needed to sack Pellegrino.
Hell, if they’d been scoring in line with their expected goals then they wouldn’t have had to hire him in the first place either, as Claude Puel’s contract probably wouldn’t have been terminated.
Something needs to change for Southampton at the moment, though. If Hughes doesn’t get it right with a second roll of the dice soon, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him being the change that’s made.