Last year was a painful one for Southampton fans. They watched their side reach the League Cup final, only to be edged 3-2 by Manchester United at Wembley and, while an 8th-place finish in the Premier League table would suggest an encouraging debut campaign for manager Claude Puel, his deathly dull brand of football was a major factor in his dismissal in May.
Then came Mauricio Pellegrino. The Argentine brought fresh ideas and vision to the club, with the hope that he could oversee an improvement in the side’s fortunes in front of goal. Under Puel, the Saints managed just 41 goals in the league last season. Of the teams that survived, only Watford and Burnley managed less.
The promise of Pellegrino has quickly fizzled out. With just five goals in seven games, there has been little to support the idea of a radical departure from boredom and, while it still may be early days, the pressure is building for Pellegrino to produce better results or face the same fate as his predecessor.
The biggest takeaway from the summer was that they managed to keep hold of Liverpool target Virgil van Dijk, but the solidity he offers at the back has to be complimented with a cutting edge going forward.
Scoring From Open Play Still An Issue
Five goals from seven games is a meagre return, but the fact that only two of those have come from open play is the real cause for concern. It’s a problem that obviously predates Pellegrino. Southampton finished last season with a real whimper – five blanks in a row and Puel was gone. Add in this term’s woes and Southampton have scored two goals from open play in 12 games. They’re not Crystal Palace, but they’re not much better.
The problem is that Pellegrino has failed to remedy the situation. In the 2-1 defeat at Stoke City on Saturday, the former Deportivo Alavés boss once again opted for his favoured 4-2-3-1, with Oriol Romeu and Mario Lemina as a deep-lying holding duo behind Steven Davis, Dušan Tadić and Nathan Redmond, and Shane Long operating as a lone striker.
However, for all of Long’s selfless running of the channels and spirited endeavour, there was a serious lack of cutting edge to his play in the final third. As a striker, that’s what you’re assessed on, and the fact that Long has only scored five goals in 48 appearances since the start of last season does not offer the most flattering reflection of his abilities as a clinical finisher, as seen in the below screenshot of his tribulations at the bet365 Stadium.
On the basis of Long’s performance against Stoke, he should fear being dropped. In the 54th minute, he missed a gilt-edged chance when he headed over from six yards under no pressure, before failing to trouble Jack Butland with another header three minutes later. Long also missed a great chance in the first-half from six yards, but that one was down to fantastic reflexes from Butland.
Even still, Long’s inability to find the net with any of those three chances portrays his lack of killer instinct.
Time to Tinker
With two weeks to their next match – at home to Newcastle United – Pellegrino has admitted that he will dedicate much of his time during the international break to figuring out the best formation for this Saints side.
While a change of formation may be required – a lot of fans called for Pellegrino to go with two up front for the next game on social media – the personnel will almost certainly be different for the visit of Newcastle.
The ineffective duo of Redmond and Tadić were frustrating and, while Redmond has had more dribbles per game and key passes this season, he is yet to score and has only one assist to show for it. Tadic, meanwhile, flattered to deceive. The Serbian playmaker completed all seven of his dribbles and created two chances, but also failed with five of his six crosses.
After replacing Davis in the 61st minute against Stoke, enigmatic winger Sofiane Boufal looked bright and full of direct running. Indeed, it was work down the left side that created the chance for Maya Yoshida to score the equaliser.
The mercurial Moroccan, signed for £16million last summer, is desperately short of confidence but, with a run of games, he has the ability to inject some life into Southampton’s listless attack.
Reinstate Gabbiadini or Austin
When Gabbiadini was signed from Napoli and scored six goals in his first four games for the Saints, it looked as though the club had snapped up a potential cult hero. However, an injury followed by a barren spell has knocked his confidence, too, but Pellegrino’s decisions to keep the Italian on the bench for three games running is baffling when setting against the wastefulness of Long.
There was certainly a case for Gabbiadini to be dropped. The Italian only managed one shot on target in two games against Huddersfield Town and Watford, so it’s easy to see why Pellegrino felt a spell out of the starting line-up may be the best option.
Now that Gabbiadini has lost his place, though, he should be fighting to get back in his manager’s good books.
Alternatively, perhaps it’s time to give Charlie Austin a run in the team. The former Queens Park Rangers striker has been restricted to a bit-part supporting role so far this season but scored nine goals in 21 appearances last year. As one of the most reliable sources of goals in the squad, how long can Pellegrino justify keeping him on the bench until the 70th minute?
The key for Pellegrino is figuring out how he can turn Southampton’s ability to retain possession (they have an average of 57 per cent) into quicker chances. Too much of the Saints’ play is in front of the opposition but perhaps two strikers instead of one would offer more runners off the ball and better options for the likes of Tadić, who will look for a penetrating pass in behind the defence when there are runners.
After the international break, Southampton have two home games, against Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion. Not only will the supporters be expecting maximum points from those two clashes, they will demand a faster, more purposeful look to the Saints attack. It’s been a long time since pulses have raced on at the South coast club, but it’s ultimately down to the manager to fix that.