Dušan Tadić breathed life into Southampton’s survival bid with a match-winning brace against Bournemouth on Saturday which earned Saints their first home victory since November 26 and moves them to within a point of 17th-placed Swansea City.
After a succession of matches under Mark Hughes in which the Saints had taken the lead only to surrender the points, it makes for a significant turn of events. However, time is rapidly running out and the south coast club need at least one more victory, probably more, to ensure their top-flight status.
The south coast side are capable of staying up, as a cursory glance at their starting XI each week reveals a team far too talented to be dwelling in the nether regions of the Premier League. But 2017/18 has been a season of chronic under-performance and inconsistency from key individuals.
Tadić could prove their hero in the run-in as the Serbian winger remains one of their most potent attacking weapons, both in a goalscoring and creativity sense, but there are also a number of other individuals who have the ability to write themselves into club folklore.
The consensus selection as Southampton’s most reliable striker, Austin is the club’s top scorer with seven league goals and one every 114 minutes or per 5.14 shots.
Those numbers should be elevating him right up the goalscoring charts but the 28-year-old has found games hard to come by this season – just seven starts in 21 appearances – due to a hamstring injury around the turn of the year.
His 72 minutes against Bournemouth came in only his second start in the league under Hughes but he was busy and vibrant enough to at least guarantee he’ll retain his place for the weekend trip to Everton.
Austin is a hard-working penalty-box player whose contribution with the ball may be minimal – 22.1 passes per 90 minutes at a reasonable 71.4 per cent accuracy – but Saints are a more dangerous side with him in the team as he possesses by far their highest xG per 90 (0.78) with midfielder Josh Sims their next highest at 0.32.
His busyness and work ethic always endears him to fans, if he can claim a couple more goals – and he scored twice against Everton earlier in the season – that affection will turn to unadulterated love.
It’s been a long and tough old season for the Republic of Ireland international whose honesty and diligence guarantee him games under managers. But his lack of quality has been alarming in recent weeks.
Just two goals all season, his performance in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea was a tough watch as chances were missed and any semblance of a first touch disappeared under the Wembley arch.
That performance alone may have cost him a starting place between now and May 13, but Long is beloved by bosses and will be involved at some stage – although he’s only made 15 starts he’s played in 27 of Southampton’s 35 Premier League games.
With games stretched and Long likely to be involved in the last 10-15 minutes, as haphazard as it sounds, the 31-year-old will get at least one big chance in a crucial match to silence the social media meme-makers.
The question whether or not he can take it, however, is a different matter altogether.
At times a world beater, too often the Gabonese midfielder has frustrated this season with his laissez faire attitude when losing possession – not a good look for a defensive midfielder.
But Saturday’s performance against Bournemouth was one of his best in a Saints shirt and while Tadić’s goals understandably claimed the headlines, it was Lemina’s craft that helped open the Cherries up.
His appreciation of space and ability to switch the play gives Hughes’ side a freshness in possession which helps open up the play for his team-mates and allow willing runners like Tadić and Austin to stretch defences.
He’s second to Sofiane Boufal in terms of successful dribbles per 90 (2.8) but unlike his often wasteful team-mate is considerably more efficient when running at defenders as his success rate is 87.5 per cent compared to the Moroccan’s 63.3 per cent.
Lemina is one of several unique talents within the Saints’ midfield who has under-performed after a bright start but appears to be coming to the boil at the right time.
Given one of his 1.2 shots per 90 come from outside the penalty area, the stage may be set for a scorcher between now at the end of the season.
The Moroccan has the capability to pull out Tadic-like performances and will still win Southampton’s Goal of the Season award for his solo strike against West Brom on October 21.
But Boufal’s talent continues to be off-set by his temperament and right now it’s difficult to know exactly when he’ll be wearing red, white and black again after a falling out with Hughes.
The Saints manager has revealed Boufal is training with the Under-23s having been stood down from first-team activities following a bust-up between the two in the wake of their 3-2 defeat to Chelsea.
Boufal is exactly the sort of mercurial, inconsistent spark of magic who can produce something special, especially in a game where their functional attack meets an organised defence. But will Hughes give him the chance?
Tadić’s heroics last Saturday certainly don’t help as the pair have similar skillsets. But situations change quickly and the wrong result at Everton could see Boufal right back in contention come the trip to the Liberty Stadium next Tuesday.
Just over a year ago, Redmond’s upwards-trending career curve was reaching its peak as the forward made his England debut in a friendly against Germany.
This season was, therefore, considered one where he would make the leap from promising talent to proven Premier League performer. Except it’s been anything but and should the Saints drop into the Championship the probably wouldn’t even be considered one of their prized assets.
Redmond has three assists but is still searching for his first goal of the season after 39 shots, 22 of which have been attempted from outside the penalty area.
He has been one of Saints’ best creative outlets with two key passes per 90, club leader alongside Tadić, but Hughes has shown little faith in him with just 128 Premier League minutes since the Welshman took over on March 14.
Hughes restored him to his favoured attacking left-hand-side role against Bournemouth but it was a largely indistinct display, losing possession three times with seven of his 19 passes going astray before he made way for Long on 59 minutes.
Like so many of this Saints’ squad he looks devoid of confidence but clearly there is a very fine player in there and Saturday’s victory could have a collateral effect in raising the spirits of those struggling.
Well, £19.3million has to get you something, doesn’t it?
The Argentine has found the transition from French to English football challenging, although placing your faith in a largely unproven and raw striker who doesn’t possess an overwhelming body of work to suggest he’s going to score a barrowload of goals does raise questions about the Saints’ scouting.
In his seven appearances he’s averaging a solid 2.19 shots per 90. Only Sims, Boufal and Austin average more among regular starters, but Carrillo is yet to find the target. His 0.9 key passes per 90 also shows a semblance of impact given it’s as high as Saints’ highest-ranked striker in Long.
Before Hughes took over there were some flickers of encouragement with his rangy physique allowing him to win 6.4 aerial duels per 90 minutes, albeit with 11.9 lost.
Now the eternal issue with tall frontmen looks to have befallen Carrillo. That is, a compulsion to always go long and look for the aerial ball due to their height. It’s benefitted and plagued many before him.
Given Hughes omitted him from his matchday 18 against Bournemouth, there is plenty to suggest we may never see Carrillo in a Southampton shirt again.
However, given his height and if all else is lost against Manchester City on May 13, who’s to say one hopeful ball in the 90th minute won’t see some magic happen? Then again…