After booking a place in the semi-finals of the FA Cup in Mark Hughes first outing, optimism amongst the Southampton fan base began to grow, under the assumption that we’d turned a corner.
Saints looked to be in a good position to pull away from the relegation zone; we’d just beaten a Wigan Athletic side that knocked out Manchester City 2-0, and had the advantage of a two-week break until our next fixture. Hughes had two weeks to communicate his ideas, learn about his squad and give them the morale boost they so desperately needed.
Going into the match at the London Stadium, both teams entered from contrasting positions. The toxic atmosphere during West Ham’s defeat to Burnley meant the Hammers were looking to appease angry and frustrated fans. While the Saints players were looking to maintain the positivity and build some momentum after securing a trip to Wembley.
However, at full time the roles were reversed as the West Ham players showed fight and determination, while the visitors succumbed to a 3-0 loss without even a whimper.
Following such a result, you can excuse any Southampton fan for fearing the worst ahead of their trip to Emirates Stadium. The Gunners went into the game full of confidence following a 4-1 thrashing of CSKA Moscow in the Europa League, and two consecutive 3-0 wins in the Premier League.
Saints pushed Arsenal all the way though and despite leading through Shane Long, the hosts went into the break leading 2-1. Saints battled back as Charlie Austin equalised, but we couldn’t hold on as Danny Welbeck grabbed his second of the match and Arsenal’s third. It was an encouraging performance in a number of aspects, but the reality is that we’d once again failed to pick up points. So what did we learn? And where do we go from here?
After three games and under a month in the job, Mark Hughes may have found the formula to approach the last six league games. Hughes opted to play a 3-4-3 or 5-4-1 against Arsenal and it allowed Saints to stay in the game and soak up the pressure of better opposition.
Playing three central defenders with Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand acting as wing-backs provided Saints with width and cover at the back. The balance of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oriol Romeu in midfield allowed us to retrieve the ball and turn defence into attack quickly and effectively – something which has arguably been our biggest issue over the past 12 months.
James Ward-Prowse and Dusan Tadic gave us a creative spark with balls in behind the oppositions defensive line to the pace that Shane Long provides. The introduction of Charlie Austin gives us more fire-power upfront and with Prowse’s delivery into the box, we have more than one way to hurt teams.
Yesterday, however, was the perfect example that the constant asset stripping and poor replacements have firmly caught up with us. Selling Jose Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk (both captains at the club) alongside not convincing Toby Alderweireld to sign a permanent deal at St Mary’s has left us lacking leadership and quality at the back.
If Wesley Hoedt had joined us two years earlier when there were defensive leaders who could hold his hand, show him the ropes and allow for a transition period, Im sure he’d be able to consistently produce the flashes of quality that we’ve seen so far. But instead we’ve thrown him in at the deep end next to a talented, but ultimately inexperienced defender in Jack Stephens. There’s no longer a clear leader at the back who sets the standards for what’s acceptable based upon years of proven quality.
All three of Arsenal’s goals on Sunday were avoidable, especially the third. Cedric and Jack Stephens were caught ball watching as Welbeck gained space at the back post to run and head home the winner. I’ve got no doubt in my mind when I say that the defence has well and truly let us down this season – both individually and as a collective unit.
We’ve only kept two clean sheets in our last 23 outings, and on the race occasion that we do actually take the lead, It’s not long before that advantage is soon thrown away.
Six league games left. Three points adrift. One game in hand. Thats the reality of our position after only one win in 19 games. If the lads go into our remaining games with same attitude and passion as they did at the Emirates then we give ourselves a glimmer of hope. If they go into every game in the fashion that they did against West Ham, we’ll be down before our final game of the season.