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What Mark Hughes Must Do To Wake ‘Dormant’ Southampton

 • by James Nalton
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Having looked like they would refuse to blink, Southampton finally sacked manager Mauricio Pellegrino after winning one of their last 17 Premier League matches, replacing him with ex-Stoke City boss Mark Hughes late on Wednesday evening.

The Saints may regret the dismissal of Claude Puel at the end of the last season after the Frenchman guided them to a League Cup final and an eighth-place finish in the league.

With eight games to go the equation for Hughes is simple: avoid being in the bottom three at all costs. After that the former Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers manager will get the chance to re-build the squad in his own image.

There will be money in the bank to do so following the January sale of Virgil van Dijk, which in hindsight may also have been a deal which should have been done last summer.

Young Polish defender Jan Bednarek came in at the start of the season but is yet to make his debut, while the form of Wesley Hoedt, Maya Yoshida, and Jack Stephens may have been affected by van Dijk’s lingering, uncertain presence.

The Saints are the only team outside of the top six to average more than 50 per cent possession in their games this season, and they are almost level with Manchester United in this regard.

Southampton’s shortcomings

They are eighth in the league in terms of shots per game (12.1) as well as total shots (364), and at one point last year were the highest performing team outside the top six in terms of xG (expected goals).

Despite this they have been unable to capitalise on their statistical control of games, and now hover just above the relegation zone.

Defensively they have only conceded three more goals than sixth place Arsenal, 44 in total, but in attack they have scored just 29. Their xG score is 32.97, meaning they’ve underperformed by almost four goals over the course of the season.

It has been an ongoing problem for the South Coast club, and this lack of a clinical edge in attack is what has seen them slip down the table towards the relegation zone.

Under the management of Pellegrino, Southampton had only managed to score more than one goal in five of their 30 games this season, and have failed to score at all on nine occasions.

Their top goalscorer, Charlie Austin, has six goals but has only managed five starts and 599 minutes of football. But he is currently sidelined again with a hamstring injury. The Englishman averages 0.9 goals per 90, which is a good return, but he hasn’t been reliable enough in terms of fitness and availability.

Behind him Manolo Gabbiadini only has four goals in 25 appearances which, for context, does include 15 from the bench. But, either way, his record of 0.35 goals per 90 isn’t the best. Meanwhile, Shane Long has an even worse record than the Italian, having only netted once in 1,195 minutes.

What can Mark Hughes do?

It will be difficult for the Welsh boss to address this issue as the most obvious solution would be to bring in another striker who can match Austin’s strike-rate while being more reliable and durable.

The current situation may call for a change in style, but that would also be difficult to implement given the club’s precarious league position.

However, a slightly more direct approach which retains the possession play of the current side, but also looks to try a few more ambitious balls into dangerous areas, could be the way forward literally and metaphorically.

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In Dušan Tadić, Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse, and Sofiane Boufal the Saints have a group of players who are able to create chances either through speed and dribbling, or via their final delivery.

As they currently appear to lack a player to get on the end of these opportunities, a slight change in style which makes the most of Ward-Prowse’s delivery, and the flair of Tadić, Redmond and Boudal, could be good for one of Gabbiadini or January signing Guido Carrillo.

It’s become cliché to say that when a player returns from a long injury lay off they are ‘like a new signing’, but when Austin is back to fitness in April he will be the closest thing Hughes will get to bringing in a new player this season.

The stats show Southampton don’t need an overhaul, but they do need to make a few tweaks with regards to their approach.

The post-Puel period has without doubt been the club’s worst in the Premier League since they won promotion from the Championship in 2012.

But for the rest of the season it is their current crop of players who will have to step up and provide the answers, and Hughes will have to work with what he has and be able to get the best from this dormant Premier League side.

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