At this stage three seasons ago Southampton were seventh in the Premier League. They were there again in 2015/16 and tenth last term. But with 11 games to go this time around, Mauricio Pellegrino‘s men find themselves 18th and in a relegation battle.
Much has been made of Southampton’s plight. From envy of the Premier League theirs is a cautionary tale of how quickly things can go south with bad management and decision-making.
Those days are long gone. Last season’s eighth-place finish and League Cup final appearance – which, at the time, cost Claude Puel his job – does not seem so bad now; the subsequent appointment of Pellegrino has proven the grass is not always greener.
The former Liverpool defender was in a defensive mood on Sunday after witnessing his side’s 2-0 defeat at home to his old club, questioning the desire and fight of his players in the post-match television interviews.
Yet there are crumbs of comfort for the Argentine. Chiefly, the fact his side average the eighth-most shots per game in the Premier League with 12.1. Outside of the top six, only Crystal Palace (13.1) attempt more efforts on goal per game.
However, that does not translate to goals. Of those 12.1 strikes per game, the Saints are only hitting the target with 3.4, 28 per cent. That makes them the third-least accurate side in the Premier League behind Swansea City (27.3 per cent) and Watford (27.1 per cent).
For context it is champions-elect Manchester City who lead the way, hitting the target with 42.2 per cent of the 18 shots they average each game. Chelsea (38 per cent), Arsenal (37.4), Liverpool (36.2) and Manchester United (34.7) trail in their wake in every sense.
So why are Southampton so blunt?
If they weren’t creating chances or taking shots this investigation would go no further. But they are doing two thirds of the job. The answer lies in the quality of their chances.
Southampton’s xG, per Understat, is 30.83. That means with 28 goals scored in 27 games they have underachieved by 2.83 – by no means the most drastic drop-off. Palace, for example, have scored 14.73 goals fewer than their xG indicates they should have this season.
Take Sunday’s defeat against Liverpool. The Saints had six attempts on goal, four of which were on target.
However, three were headed efforts from crosses into the box – attempts which have a low likelihood of going in – another was a cross from a wide free-kick and the other was a hopeful ball lofted into the box which Pierre-Emile Højbjerg took down and lashed straight at the onrushing Loris Karius.
What did they have in common? All low-quality chances which were reflected in Southampton’s match xG of just 0.85.
Southampton have rarely over-performed against their match xG this season but one occasion was the 3-2 win at relegation rivals West Bromwich Albion the weekend before. Despite rattling in three goals, the visitors’ xG was just 1 – marginally better than the Baggies’ 0.88.
However, the goals all had an element of fortune about them. Mario Lemina‘s equaliser, lashed home from 25 yards, was as impressive as it was improbable. Shots from that range do not go in often, after all.
Stephen’s strike against the Seagulls came from a low Ward-Prowse free-kick which he turned in completely by chance. Ten days earlier against Spurs, Davinson Sánchez took matters into his own hands, turning a low Ryan Bertrand cross past his own goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, at the near post.
That goal owed much to the lung-busting run from skipper Bertrand. The former Manchester City transfer target has been an important outlet for Southampton this season and that is reflected in the fact 40 per cent of the Saints’ attacks have come down the left flank. Only Leicester City and Brighton direct more of their advances down the same side while no other area of the pitch receives such emphasis from Southampton.
Furthermore, the Saints average 22 crosses per game, level with Spurs. No Premier League team puts more crosses into the box on average, yet only 4.4 of those crosses are actually on target.
Only Ward-Prowse (2) and Matt Target (1.6), who is now on loan at Fulham) average more than one accurate cross per 90. Therefore, there is an over-reliance on slinging balls into the box with little justification for that tactic in terms of goals.
Albert Einstein is widely credited with defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Who are Southampton to argue?