It was another sinking afternoon for Southampton on Saturday. This time, disgruntled Saints supporters sulked their way out of St Mary’s after watching their side being on the receiving end of a textbook Sean Dyche performance.
Burnley edged a contest light on quality thanks to a late Sam Vokes header, a performance and result which dredged up familiar questions about this current Southampton crop: why do they find it so difficult finding the back of the net?
This was the sixth time Southampton have failed to score in a game in all competitions this season. After the perceptibly negative football suffered under Claude Puel last season, the pressure builds on Mauricio Pellegrino after his players were booed off against the Clarets.
Pointing the finger at the struggling strikers is an easy thing to do when it comes to Saints, but are the likes of Manolo Gabbiadini, Shane Long and Charlie Austin getting the kind of quality service they need? Are the midfielders behind them creating enough and chipping in with goals to share the responsibility of finding the back of the net?
Here, we look at what Southampton’s best midfield combo and analyse whether they have been performing sufficiently under Pellegrino.
The Strongest Saints Midfield
In the Burnley game, Pellegrino went with Steven Davis and Oriol Romeu as a double-pivot in midfield as part of his preferred 4-2-3-1 system. Ahead of them were Sofiane Boufal, Dušan Tadić and Nathan Redmond with Gabbiadini as the lone striker up front.
That left James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg on the bench, with the former coming on as a 90th-minute replacement for Boufal. It was a slight change from the draw at Brighton & Hove Albion when the Spaniard dropped Redmond to the bench and started Ward-Prowse. The 23-year-old played a big part in the Saints’ goal at the Amex Stadium, his wonderfully-struck free-kick coming back off the post for Davis to head in on the rebound.
Tadić didn’t enjoy his best game against Brighton, completing only 69 per cent of his passes and failing to make a single key pass. His only attempted shot was blocked and he lost seven of his nine duels. Boufal fared slightly better, but also failed to make a considerable impact, completing 67 per cent of his passes and succeeding in two out of his five attempted dribbles. His only shot was off target but he did make one key pass.
Ward-Prowse completed 86 per cent of his passes but, apart from his free-kick made very little impact in the final third. As a result of the trio’s lack of creativity, it left Gabbiadini isolated and feeding on scraps up front, managing only one shot in the game.
Redmond and Ward-Prowse have both failed to score this season, but the former has managed two assists, making him the Saints’ most creative player. Statistically speaking, Ward-Prowse has not enjoyed a strong start to the season as only Austin and Sam McQueen have lower WhoScored ratings than his average of 6.22.
Boufal and Tadić have managed one goal apiece. The Serbian playmaker can blow hot and cold at times but he has made 19 key passes this season and completed 83 per cent of his dribbles. However, his only goal came from the penalty spot, which is perhaps disappointing considering he scored eight times in the 2015/16 season.
The Morocco international has struggled to nail down a regular starting place since joining from Lille in the summer of 2016 but his wonder goal against West Bromwich Albion, a brilliant individual effort to seal all three points, has opened the door recently, starting both games since.
With Ward-Prowse not at his best, it looks as though a Redmond-Tadić-Boufal trio behind the striker is Pellegrino’s best bet. With Redmond’s pace, Tadić’s eye for a pass and Boufal’s mercurial talents, it’s a fairly strong trio on paper but, of course, Southampton’s woes in creating and scoring freely from open play has continued under Puel has continued in the Pellegrino era.
Lemina And Romeu A Formidable Pairing
Further back, Romeu has cemented his place as the club’s first-choice defensive midfielder. The former Chelsea and Barcelona enforcer is an aggressive, combative presence in the middle, winning 88 per cent of his 33 tackles, while also making 19 interceptions, 91 recoveries and coming out on top in 34 of his aerial battles.
After an outstanding campaign under Puel, the 26-year-old has retained his place and his positional awareness, discipline and tenacity make him one of the first names on the teamsheet.
In the last couple of games, Davis has partnered the Spaniard in that holding role, but Southampton’s best option has been the impressive Mario Lemina. The Italian, signed from Juventus in a record £18million deal in the summer, has taken little time settling in at the South Coast club but is currently recovering from an ankle injury sustained before the Brighton game.
When he is fit, though, he is a certain starter alongside Romeu – and his stats back that up. The 24-year-old Italy international has a 71 per cent tackle success rate, while he has made 59 recoveries and won 18 50-50s, offering Southampton that added assertive presence in the middle alongside Romeu, with Pellegrino highlighting Lemina’s tactical qualities.
“When we lose the ball attacking in the final third, we improve a lot in the transition with Mario on the pitch,” the coach said. Indeed, Lemina’s WhoScored rating of 7.33 is higher than any of his teammates, underlining the consistency he has immediately captured since arriving in the summer.
With Lemina and Romeu as the holding duo and Redmond and Tadić further up, it means it’s a toss-up between Boufal and Davis. The veteran Northern Irishman has scored twice this season and is effective in a more advanced role. Boufal can be exciting and produce wonderful moments, but for consistency, know-how and efficiency on the ball, Davis gets the nod.
However, there is no denying that Southampton require reinforcements in the January transfer window. Pellegrino is likely to target one or two attacking midfielders with pace and creativity to reinvigorate the Saints’ front-line, having scored only nine goals in 11 games.