It wasn’t so long ago that Southampton were the Premier League club many aspired to be. They were smart in the transfer market, promoted youngsters from their academy, and played entertaining football,
But then things started to go wrong, largely after Ronald Koeman left for Everton in the summer of 2016. Players were sold and their replacements were downgrades. Managers came in that didn’t fit with the club’s ideals. Dull football saw the fans lose interest.
For many that would be the perfect storm which led to relegation. And last season the club were in big trouble under Mauricio Pellegrino.
Southampton didn’t so much flirt with the drop last term than end up back at its place with a glass of wine and smooth jazz being played on the stereo. Fortunately, the Saints acted swiftly at that point, making their excuses and escaping into the warm embrace of safety under Mark Hughes.
Yet seven games into the 2018/19 season and Southampton are beginning to look once again like a side who will spend the campaign battling to survive. They’ve tasted victory just once and that came away from St Mary’s.
Of more concern will be the Saints underlying stats during the opening weeks of the campaign.
Much like during the 2017/18 campaign they are not struggling to create chances, despite the narrative around Hughes being his Southampton side plays dull, defensive football.
Their xG (expected goals) is at a healthy 11.68, the sixth highest total in the Premier League, and their total scoring attempts of 14.57 is only bettered by four top-flight sides.
And yet they’ve only netted on six occasions. So what’s is going wrong?
Worryingly the Saints’ Post-Shot xG, which measures shot quality in addition to the quality of the chance, is down at 7.24, only the 13th highest in the Premier League.
So once again, as has become depressingly familiar, the strikers on the south coast, barring the impressive Danny Ings, are simply not doing enough to take the opportunities created. In fact, their finishing is actually devaluing the chances fashioned by the side.
Hughes is well aware of the problem. “Clearly we want all our strikers when called upon to be a goal threat for us,” he said before Southampton’s defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend.
“But we need to be a threat in wider areas, to keep creating chances. When we do we need to up our conversation rate.”
Hughes has opted for a more direct style than that of his predecessor and Southampton are getting the ball forward and into more threatening areas, usually out wide, under the Welshman.
But in doing so it is leaving their defence more exposed. Southampton’s xG conceded is 12.32, marginally worse than their actual goals conceded of 11. And they’ve conceded 13 big chances in the Premier League, the fifth-highest total.
At the same period last season under Pellegrino, the Saints xG conceded was a stingier 10.67. But that was, in part, due to the sterile possession-based football the Argentine implement; the opposition couldn’t score if they didn’t have the ball but, evidently, neither could the Saints.
For Hughes it’s more simple; risk versus reward. And unless his players suddenly become far more clinical in front of goal, which the last year suggests is unlikely, then a new game plan should be put in place.
The Saints boss needs to think smart, which is exactly what the club used to do so well.