Author Archives: Sam Cox

Podcast: Talking Saints, Hughes and Hasenhuttl

With Southampton sitting 18th in the Premier League after only one win this season, Mark Hughes was relieved of managerial duties. 

Embed from Getty Images

Defeat in a crucial match against Fulham was followed by Hughes’s side surrendering a 2-0 lead against Manchester United as time ran out for ‘Sparky’.

Former RB Leipzig manager Ralph Hasenhuttle is set to replace the Welshman at St Mary’s as Southampton look to pull away from the relegation zone.

Join us on the EPL Round Table where we discuss…

  • Mark Hughes’s appointment
  • The summer transfer window
  • Hughes’s shortcomings
  • And Hasenhuttl’s imminent appointment

Fulham: Hero and Villain

Just as you thought Southampton’s season couldn’t get any worse, Mark Hughes’ team surrendered three points to Fulham in a match we couldn’t afford to lose.

Embed from Getty Images

The Welshman’s future at the club is now in serious jeopardy as Saints look like a relegation waiting to happen. Last season, we slept walked into a relegation scrap, but this year we’re hurtling towards the drop zone with an inability to turn our season around.

Hero

The only true positive to take from yesterday’s defeat was the performance by Stuart Armstrong. The Scotland international was at the heart of all that was good from Saints and he took both of his goals expertly.

His first opened the scoring as he calmly chested down an attempted clearance to slot past Sergio Rico; and his second was arguably the pick of the bunch. He latched onto a Cedric back heel to slam the ball into the top corner.

Embed from Getty Images

Saints have been crying out for goals from midfield for the past two seasons and after an injury hit start to life at St Mary’s, bagging a brace at Craven Cottage will bring back some much needed confidence as Armstrong tries to cement his name on the team sheet.

Armstrong’s performance yesterday was the only positive to take from our defeat as Saints failed to maintain a lead and adapt to shifts in momentum.

Villain

Wesley Hoedt. The Dutchman, once again, proved more of a hinderance than help as his inability to deal with the pace and power of Premier League attackers was there for all to see.

Embed from Getty Images

He was caught ball watching for Aleksandar Mitrovic’s first as the Serbia international was unchallenged to head past Alex McCarthy.

Mitrovic’s second and Fulham’s third was inexcusable from Hoedt’s point of view as he gifted possession away on the touchline. As a result, he found himself out of position as Mitrovic volleyed home the winner.

During his Southampton career, he hasn’t shown any signs of leadership and it’s still a mystery how he maintains his place in the side after consistent poor performances.

Embed from Getty Images

Following Huddersfield’s 2-0 win away to Wolves, Southampton have slipped into the relegation zone whilst having the least amount of wins to our name.

The defeat yesterday has left us with more questions than answers and with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur up next, our winless run looks set to continue.

Is sacking Hughes the answer?

Southampton’s disappointing start to the season continued following the draw at home with Watford as the Saints failed to maintain a lead once again, but if our poor run continues away to Fulham, would sacking Mark Hughes be the answer?

Embed from Getty Images

The Welshman took the reigns at St Mary’s with the club battling against relegation at the back end of last season. Hughes had only eight games to save the Saints and after a 1-0 win away to Swansea in a relegation shootout; he did.

His initial contract was only until the end of the 2017/18 season and after Southampton maintained their Premier League status, Hughes was the obvious choice to guide Saints into the 2018/19 season.

Much like last season, Saints’ opening fixtures to this campaign looked favourable on paper.

But as the Premier League season kicked off, the same problems that saw Saints sleepwalk into a relegation battle last campaign were apparent to see.

Saints have had an inability to put the ball in the back of the net whilst keeping it out of their own for the past three seasons. During Hughes’ 20 league games in charge, Southampton have scored 16 goals whilst conceding 33.

Embed from Getty Images

A lack of confidence, especially when taking the lead in games, has cost Saints immensely. Against Leicester City, the second home match of the season, Saints were arguably the better side up until Ryan Bertrand gave Saints the lead.

However, it took the Foxes only four minutes after conceding to equalise as Demarai Gray slotted past Alex McCarthy.

Leicester had their tails up and were in the ascendency as Saints couldn’t handle the shift in momentum.

The defence held strong up until the second minute of injury time when Harry Maguire’s tame effort found its way into the back of the net.

Embed from Getty Images

Since the Welshman has been at the helm, his side have dropped 18 points from winning positions from the end of last season and the beginning of this current campaign.

Neither Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino or Hughes could prevent a gradual slide down the table and fans began to direct their frustration to the hierarchy of the club.

After poor transfer dealings alongside uninspiring managerial appointments post Ronald Koeman, Vice-Chairman Les Reed and Technical Director Martin Hunter left the club by mutual consent.

Reed undoubtedly played a big part in the club’s rise to European football but he was ultimately responsible for the recent failings at the club.

Since Reed and Hunter’s departure Saints have been linked with Norwich City’s technical director Stuart Webber, Leicester’s head of recruitment Eduardo Macia and former Southampton head of recruitment and current RB Leipzig sporting director Paul Mitchell.

It’s unclear at the moment what affect this will have on the pitch, but it’s a change that was long overdue.

Saturday’s fixture against Fulham is a relegation six-pointer; there’s no two ways about it.

Embed from Getty Images

Fulham currently sit bottom of the Premier League and on the back of six consecutive defeats, Slavisa Jokanovic was replaced by Claudio Ranieri at Craven Cottage.

The Italian returns to the Premier League after spells with Chelsea and most recently Leicester; where he masterminded arguably the greatest feat in English football history.

Ranieri lit up the Premier League whilst in charge of the Foxes due to his heart-warming, entertaining and honest press conferences and these factors reflect from his teams on the pitch.

Southampton have reached the stage in the season where they’ll take three points any way they’ll come. Ideally, the players will show they have the qualities to start climbing the table, but after the poor start to the season it’s about getting points on the board instead of glittering performances.

If Hughes is to keep his job, his team need to leave West London with three points; anything other than that could potentially see the fans lose patience with the Welshman entirely.

After working and implementing the 5-3-2 formation that kept Saints in the Premier League throughout pre-season, Hughes brought the players back to square one only 45 minutes into the new season.

During the first half of the campaign opener against Burnley the formation proved to be ineffective and, rightly, Hughes switched to a 4-4-2 which saw an improved second half performance.

Embed from Getty Images

Despite matches against Liverpool and Chelsea, Saints have lined up in the 4-4-2 or most recently in a 4-3-3. This suggests that Hughes himself doesn’t know his best team or formation which potentially causes confusion amongst the players.

The dilemma Southampton face is that they run the risk of following clubs such as Aston Villa and Sunderland if they decide to change managers.

Looking at those available, Saints will only appoint another like for like manager as the club are reluctant to look at those already in jobs.

Going down the route of firing and hiring for short term success isn’t a sustainable model, but after the appointments of Puel and Pellegrino proved unsuccessful, the club may shy away from a ‘left-field’ appointment.

Results are everything in football and ultimately if Southampton don’t turn their season around the club will be left with no choice but to sack Hughes.

Hughes has arguably taken over the club in it’s weakest position since promotion to the Premier League and the current squad lacks the quality we had under Koeman and the momentum it had under Nigel Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino.

Embed from Getty Images

At the moment it appears the dressing room is still behind the manager as a number of players have publicly backed him in interviews.

Last season the club showed that they will give the manager time to turn the situation around as Pellegrino maintained his job far longer than anyone expected he would.

With Hughes in charge, the club has someone with a vast amount of Premier League experience and appointing someone on the basis of bringing in top flight experience wouldn’t make sense.

The results against Fulham and Cardiff will ultimately decide Hughes fate as the club will reportedly review the managerial situation after Saturday’s match.

The season so far…

Seven games into the 2018/19 Premier League season, and the cracks from last season are already reappearing at Southampton.

Embed from Getty Images

Apart from a trip to Anfield, many would argue that, on paper, Southampton’s opening games were favourable. But after picking up just five points in seven games, it’s looking to be another long season for Saints’ supporters.

In home matches against Burnley, Leicester City and Brighton and Hove Albion, the Saints picked up an underwhelming two points following draws against the Clarets and the Seagulls whilst surrendering a second-half lead against the Foxes in a 2-1 defeat.

Things haven’t been much better on the road, either. Our only win of the season came at Crystal Palace thanks to goals from Danny Ings and Pierre Emile Hojbjerg.

Other than the victory at Selhurst Park, Southampton have failed to gain any points in away fixtures against Everton, Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers – and despite two victories in the Carabao Cup, it’s the same issues that are costing Saints points in the league.

Embed from Getty Images

Southampton’s Achilles heel last season was their inability to hold onto a lead, and this is haunting them yet again this season. 21 points were dropped from winning positions last campaign, and this season Saints have already dropped five points in games in which they’ve taken the lead.

Fingers will start to be pointed at Mark Hughes, but this has been an issue ever since Ronald Koeman left the club. Since then, Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino, and Hughes have all struggled to adapt their squads to shifts in momentum during games.

At home to Leicester, Southampton were rewarded for their control of the game as Ryan Bertrand fired in the opening goal on 52 minutes. However, as the Foxes turned their focus into getting back into the game, Saints looked like a different side and capitulated. Demarai Gray equalised four minutes later before Harry Maguire snatched all three points in injury time, leaving fans bewildered as to how the team threw the points away.

Embed from Getty Images

Although the same issues have been holding Saints back across the past three seasons, Hughes isn’t entirely blameless for this season’s failings.

Throughout pre-season, the Welshman implemented and worked on the 5-3-2 formation that kept Saints in the Premier League last season. However, during the opening day fixture against Burnley the system failed to have its desired effect and Hughes adapted to a 4-4-2 which saw Saints improve in the second half.

Apart from the trip to Anfield, Hughes has opted to use the 4-4-2 since the draw against Burnley; scrapping the system worked on during pre-season. As a result, the players and management have had to go back to square one in terms of transferring the ideas from training ground into matches.

Hughes’ substitutions have also been questionable this season; in particular in the match against Brighton at home. With Southampton trying to maintain their lead after Shane Duffy pulled a goal back for the visitors, James Ward-Prowse and Manolo Gabbiadini were introduced for Mohammed Elyounoussi and Shane Long.

With six minutes remaining, Steven Davis replaced Danny Ings to try and add more defensive stability to the side. Not only did we have a similar player in Ward-Prowse on the pitch, it also prevented us trying to kill the game off. Brighton predictably claimed a late point, when Glenn Murray netted a 90th minute penalty and Saints once again let a lead slip.

Embed from Getty Images

Although Southampton have continually struggled to score goals, our defence this season has been our weakest department. The centre back partnership of Wesley Hoedt and Jannick Vestergaard has given Southampton a fragile spine in defence.

Neither defenders have seemingly taken control of a backline lacking a commanding leader leaving Southampton vulnerable from set pieces and quality attacks. 13 Premier League goals have been conceded so far this season and it may be time for Hughes to experiment with the other defenders in his squad.

Individual errors alongside our inability to prevent soft goals have ultimately cost us so far this season. Hughes needs to stick to his guns, and create the identity he originally wanted to see from his team in order to keep his job.

There is potential in this squad, but if players and management continue to make the same mistakes, then we won’t be able to progress.

The early promise shown by Danny Ings

We may only be four games into the 2018/19 Premier League season, but the early signs suggest that Southampton Football Club and Danny Ings are meant to be.

Embed from Getty Images

Cast your mind back to the summer transfer window. After the acquisition of Stuart Armstrong, Angus Gunn, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Jannick Vestergaard, Southampton had shown that they were willing to spend, and at least improve the squad that so nearly slipped down to the Championship last season. But while these signings provided depth and hope for the future, there was still one area on the pitch that desperately needed addressing.

Under Ronald Koeman, Southampton scored 120 Premier League goals across the two seasons that the Dutchman was in charge. And in the two seasons following his departure to Everton, Southampton have registered a measly 79 Premier League goals.

The departures of Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle’ left Saints lacking firepower upfront, and ever since, the club have failed to re-discover the goalscoring touch that they once had. Injuries to Jay Rodriguez and Charlie Austin denied each striker a chance to build any goalscoring momentum, while our big money signings Guido Carillo and Sofiane Boufal failed to adapt to life in the Premier League.

So after an impressive start to his career on the south coast, Danny Ings has the Southampton fanbase questioning whether we’ve finally found our starting striker…

Embed from Getty Images

During Saints’ opening match of the season against Burnley, the Clarets were unfortunate not to be leading at the break, with Mark Hughes’ 5-2-2-1 formation proving ineffective.

As a result the Welshman called for changes in the 56th minute, and handed both Elyounoussi and Ings their debuts, in addition to switching to a 4-4-2 formation.

The introduction of Ings instantly gave our frontline a new look, as well as raising the intensity of others around him. There was no denying it, Hughes’ men looked dangerous in the second 45.

Both of the goals that he’s scored this season have been typical of his former Burnley self, and it’s somewhat reminded the fans what we’ve so desperately been missing over the past two seasons.

His first came at Goodison Park, where he displayed intelligent positioning to find space inside a crowded penalty area to tap home Mario Lemina’s flick-on at the near post. And his second came at Selhurst Park, where his quick reactions, pace and mobility allowed him to latch onto a through ball by Cedric Soares, and slot calmly below Wayne Hennessy.

Embed from Getty Images

Following an injury hit career at Liverpool, many believed that Ings was a busted flush as he failed to make his mark for the Reds. However, when you take a look at the statistics from his first four games for the Saints, they suggest that he’s still an incredibly dangerous attacking outlet.

Ings isn’t afraid to let fly when he gets sight of goal, having registered 3.5 shots per game. In comparison to Southampton’s other attacking outlets this is the highest out of the squad. Austin has registered 1.8, Long has registered 1.0, and Nathan Redmond has registered 2.3.

In comparison to the rest of the league, Ings also ranks fourth in xG (expected goals), with a figure of 0.74 per game.

During his first four appearances, Ings has even regained possession of the ball 2.16 times per game, showing that he’s not only effective on the ball, but off it too. This is no doubt some of Jurgen Klopp’s influence shining through – and this proactive mentality can only be positive for our squad.

What was particularly pleasing against Crystal Palace, however, was the way in which Ings combined with Long upfront. In truth, many believed Long’s days were numbered at Saints following the arrival of Ings, but if they continue to work in the same fashion that they did at Selhurst Park, Long may prove to be a useful asset once again.

He’s no goalscorer, granted, but if Ings, Redmond and Elyounoussi can deliver, then he’s got a number of particularly useful assets that he can offer to the side.

What worked so well against Crystal Palace was that Long provided effective hold up play, which in turn allowed Ings to make ground behind the defensive line. They also complimented each others strengths and weaknesses. Long’s capable of playing the more physical game and peeling off out wide, while Ings is the more technical player and the better finisher.

Embed from Getty Images

The only question mark that looms over the Englishman now is his injury record. At Liverpool, two long-term injuries saw him on the treatment table for a combined 498 days, making him unavailable for selection in 85 fixtures. During the 2015/16 season, Ings ruptured his cruciate ligament – and only five months after returning to full fitness, he had an operation on his knee which saw him miss the entirety of 2016/17 season.

But above all else, at a time when football fans feel more distant from the players and club than ever before, it’s nice to see a player on the pitch that seemingly cares for the club as much as those in the stands.

I’ve got a funny feeling that Ings could prove to be a real fan favourite.

Season Preview: Southampton FC

Southampton are marching into their seventh consecutive Premier League season this afternoon, after narrowly avoiding the drop in the penultimate game of the 2017-18 season.

Embed from Getty Images

Such a campaign came as a shock for all Saints fans who, prior to last season, had seen their team finish in the top eight for four successive seasons since their return to the big time in 2012.

In a largely dismal campaign for everyone involved at the club, there was no single issue that could front the blame for our poor season, with our squad falling short at both ends of the pitch.

Of our 450 shots across the season, just 37 found the net. This gives a conversion rate of 8.2%; level with West Brom and above only Huddersfield on 7.7%. This resulted in a mere seven league wins from a possible 38, which was the team’s lowest total since the 2004/05 season; notably when the Saints were last relegated from England’s top division.

SUMMER BUSINESS

Southampton spent a grand total of £54.5M over this summer’s transfer window – the most they’ve ever spent as they attempt to steer clear of the relegation zone ahead of the forthcoming campaign.

Southampton secured the services of Celtic’s Stuart Armstrong, Basel winger Mohammed Elyounoussi, Borussia Monchengladbach centre-back Jannik Vestergaard, Liverpool forward Danny Ings, and goalkeeper Angus Gunn from fellow Premier League outfit, Manchester City.

Meanwhile, the most notable departure is that of Dusan Tadic, who’s returned to the Eredivisie to join Ajax, after the creative midfielder’s late surge in form guided us away from the relegation zone.

Embed from Getty Images

So all in all, things could have gone far, far worse. We’ve restored some physicality back into the heart of our defence in Vestergaard, added some legs and class into our midfield through Armstrong, and attempted to directly replace Tadic’s creativity and output through Elyounoussi.

Gunn’s been drafted in to provide some much-needed competition for Alex McCarthy, and while fans are still concerned that our frontline will once again fall short, the deadline day signing of Ings has helped to recover some lost confidence. Liverpool boss, Jurgen Klopp believes that the former Burnley forward has never been in greater physical shape, so if he can find his role in the side early on and hit the ground running, we’re surely guaranteed 10+ goals over the course of a full Premier League season.

Elsewhere, club record signing Guido Carrillo has re-joined former Saints boss Mauricio Pellegrino at Leganes on a season-long loan, while Sofiane Boufal’s lacklustre relationship with current boss Mark Hughes has seen him shipped out to Celta Vigo on loan. First-team outcasts Jordy Clasie, Stuart Taylor and Florin Gardos have all moved on from St Mary’s too. Clasie has re-joined Feyenoord on loan, whilst Taylor and Gardos were released by the club early in the window.

KEY PLAYER – STUART ARMSTRONG

Based off initial pre-season performances, Stuart Armstrong already looks to be a valuable member of our squad.

Embed from Getty Images

Arriving from Scottish giants Celtic for a respectable £7M, Armstrong was often at the forefront of Celtic’s success under Brendan Rodgers. During his three-year stint at Celtic Park, Armstrong scored 28 goals, recorded 21 assists and has won four Scottish Premiership titles, two Scottish Cups and two Scottish League Cups, earning six caps for Scotland in the process.

Armstrong is currently in and around his prime years as a footballer and the Premier League could prove the perfect next step for him in his career. Not only does he hold the ability to create the link between midfield and attack, he’s also capable of providing goals from the middle of the park – something Southampton lacked throughout the entirety of last season.

This one could prove to be an absolute bargain.

MANAGER – MARK HUGHES

Mark Hughes replaced Pellegrino in March 2018 on an initial deal until the end of the season, with his future being based on whether he could keep his new side in the Premier League or not. And after achieving this goal and guiding the Saints to their second trip to Wembley in successive seasons, the board decided to back Hughes; rewarding him with a three-year contract for his efforts.

But this year is different. This time round he’s had a full pre-season with his squad, financial backing from the board and he now has the opportunity to carry out his vision over three seasons. Premier League safety alone won’t be enough if want to consider this season a success.

Embed from Getty Images

Hughes’ objectives over the forthcoming campaign won’t just be to steer us clear of relegation – it will also be about reinstalling confidence into our players, and encouraging a free-flowing attacking brand of football.

Our club has clearly neglected the values that they’ve publically prided themselves on in the past, so if Hughes is capable of turning a great deal of this fiction into fact, we’ll have made a promising start to life under the Welshman.

PREDICTION – 12TH

Southampton have made some impressive signings, but I feel as if they’re enduring too much of a transition period to currently consider challenging Leicester and Everton for a Europa League spot.

I strongly believe, however, that Mark Hughes has steadied and saved a sinking ship, and as a result, we must now focus on walking before trying to run.

Their dealings have been reassuring both on and off the pitch, and I feel that so long as Hughes has helped the squad to rediscover their confidence – and gained their trust in the process – there’s no threat of relegation.

We’ve got plenty enough quality to beat the drop, but as fans we need to be shown more over the course of this season before we can once again dream of European nights. Mid-table mediocrity would suit me just fine.

Relegation or not – Mark Hughes in

Regardless of our fate on Sunday, May 13, I believe that Mark Hughes should be appointed as Southampton manager for the upcoming season.

Embed from Getty Images

After 30 Premier League games of discontent, turgid football and almost certain relegation, Southampton called quits on Mauricio Pellegrino and went for the ‘tried and trusted’ option in Mark Hughes. We’ve seen an upturn in performances and attitudes ever since, and I don’t think we can afford to roll the dice again.

By handing Hughes a longer contract, it brings about some much-needed stability and allows the club to have a clear identity after two seasons of continual regression. This alongside constant asset stripping of key players has left Saints with next to no stability on the pitch.

What the club desperately needs is time with a manager who can at last help our players find an identity within the squad, as well as getting the fans back on side with the board and establishing a new set of standards for our performances. Something which was lost with the sale of key dressing room figures and poor managerial appointments.

We all want to go back to being the ambitious club we once were, but we’ve got a long way to go before such hopes can be a reality. For now, we need to focus on putting ourselves back together again piece by piece. One step at a time.

Is Mark Hughes the man to deliver our long-term goals? Probably not. But is he capable of lifting this squad and digging us out of this rut with his many years of experience? I think so, and for that reason, I believe the club could do a lot worse than extend Sparky’s deal further than this season. Especially when you consider our last two managerial appointments have only taken us backwards. 

Embed from Getty Images

It’s the little things on the sidelines that I enjoy from Hughes. From geeing up the fans to passionately hugging his players after crucial victories, it’s refreshing to see after the lack of engagement from Puel and Pellegrino. Hughes was nicknamed Sparky during his playing days for leaving all his emotions out on the pitch, and he’s certainly transferred that into his management with us so far.

Koeman was rumored to have left after not seeing eye to eye with Les Reed (on top of the substantial salary increase of course) and this why we potentially saw the likes of Puel and Pellegrino appointed. From the fans perspective they appeared to be yes men to Reed, agreeing to every command he asked. This isn’t the case for Hughes, who will be sure to make his feelings known in the event of a disagreement.

No manager is perfect, and Hughes has definitely had difficult times during his managerial career. After successful spells in charge of the Wales national team and Blackburn Rovers, Hughes was appointed as Manchester City manager in 2008. Sparky was in charge when Sheikh Mansour transformed City with his immense wealth, but unfortunately the task of managing big names and egos was too great as Hughes failed to produce the immediate winning football that the owners demanded.

After a successful season where he guided Fulham to 8th in the Premier League, Hughes found himself at Loftus Road midway through the following season. QPR were, like Saints, battling relegation and needed Hughes to keep them in the top flight. Hughes achieved this on the final day of the season.

Embed from Getty Images

But it was the following campaign where the wheels well and truly fell off. Reported ‘bust-ups’ with senior players alongside a 12-match winless run saw QPR at the foot of the table. After spending substantial fees on deals on wages, Hughes, effectively, sent QPR down prior to Harry Redknapp’s arrival.

Hughes then went on to record three consecutive top half finishes with the Potters, but this season they dropped like a stone down the Premier League table, leading to Hughes’s dismissal following defeat in the FA Cup to League 2 Coventry City.

It’s safe to say the Welshman’s previous two jobs have ended on a sour note with Sparky failing to maintain strong finishes in the Premier League, but perhaps circumstances haven’t helped. Mass squad changes at QPR proved too much of a task when trying to bed-in contrasting personalities. And it’s not like any managers since have managed to steady the ship.

At Stoke, losing key players such as Marco Arnautovic and failing to replace them makes the task to progress even harder. Not to mention the horrific transfer policy installed by the higher forces at the club and the attitude problems within the squad.

Although Hughes had been dealt a bad hand in terms of keeping Saints in the Premier League, it doesn’t mean he’s exempt from criticism during his tenure either. Our approach towards the Leicester game was far too defensive when we were desperate for points, and failing to react to the shift in momentum when Chelsea pulled a goal back in the defeat at home are two examples where he’s failed to take the initiative in games.  

Embed from Getty Images

But where Mauricio Pellegrino failed during his time at the club was being unable to develop and bring out the best in individuals, and already Hughes has achieved this. Dusan Tadic has regained his confidence and is once again looking to be the hub of our creativity. Nathan Redmond has looked more like the player we signed as he’s looking to take players on and turn defence into attack. Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand have had poor seasons for their standards, but already Hughes has helped them to become vital in our transitions from back to front.

All things considered, I genuinely believe that we wouldn’t have been in any type of relegation battle had Hughes been at the helm from the beginning of the season. But that’s all hypothetical, and instead we find ourselves just two games away from potentially playing Championship football next season.

The fans support against Swansea is vital and if the players show the same fight and passion that was on display against Bournemouth and Everton, as installed by Hughes, then we’ve got every hope of maintaining our top-flight status.

Arsenal 3-2 Southampton: Where do we go from here?

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Review: Newcastle 3-0 Southampton

In arguably our biggest game of the season so far we set up negatively and paid the price, falling to a 3-0 defeat against Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle. But in all honesty, are we really surprised?

Embed from Getty Images

One win from 17 league games tells the whole story of Pellegrino’s torrid tenure in charge of Southampton FC.

We’ve now played relegation rivals West Brom, Stoke City, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield twice, managing to only pick up 11 points from a possible 24 – recording only three wins. For a side with “European ambitions,” this is totally unacceptable. Our only wins of this campaign have arrived against sides who were currently below Saints at the time of playing, proving that Pellegrino has only been able to manoeuvre past sides at their worst.

Pellegrino and the board have sucked the life and enjoyment out of watching Saints and major changes need to be made now rather than later. We can’t afford to wait until the end of the season and hope we’ve scraped survival. There’s currently no single reason as to why Pellegrino should remain in his job.

There’s the rigid and uninspiring system, the unnecessary decision to constantly drop in-form players, and the fact that he’s still yet to improve a single member of our squad this season.  

Embed from Getty Images

However, the blame doesn’t just fall at the feet of Pellegrino. The board have to take a large slice of the blame for this season’s shortcomings too.

Our dealings throughout the January transfer window were disastrous. Les Reed and co felt it was necessary to sell stories to the press stating our intent for players such as Theo Walcott, Daniel Sturridge and Fulham’s wonder kid Ryan Sessegnon. Walcott departed Arsenal for Everton, Sturridge departed Liverpool for West Brom and Fulham stated no intent to sell their most prized asset.

Did we ever have any real interest in these players? Or did the board just send these stories to the press to please begrudged fans?

After little activity over January, Saints broke their transfer record to sign Argentinian striker Guido Carillo for an estimated £20 million. Fans were screaming for the club to show ambition in the transfer market, and whilst the signing of Carrillo certainly done that in the financial sense, we assumed that it would be spent in the right places. More specifically on a goal-scoring winger – someone that would be capable of creating a link between the midfield and attack, on top of being a real threat inside the box.

Embed from Getty Images

It may seem harsh to judge Carrillo already, especially when you consider that the problem all along has been providing support for our centre-forward. But he hardly seems the type of player to fire Saints clear of danger via his own individual performances – even less so when Pellegrino remains reluctant to play someone alongside him.

Arrogance is the best way to describe our board because we’re no longer sleepwalking into the Championship – we’re staring it right in the face whilst Reed and Kruger have remained silent with no indication of a change in strategy.

The 3-0 defeat to Newcastle was our worst result to date, but it’s amongst a whole host of bad results. There was no fight, grit, determination or realisation this was a relegation six-pointer, and as a result, Saints have been crushed by a team filled with all those traits.

I’m not stating anything new here: this has been the story of our season and every fan is thinking the same. I truly wish there were some positives to include in this piece, but any slightly positive signs are instantly tarred by Pellegrino’s tactical incompetence and shortcomings.

Out with our old ways, in with the new

After two promising results within a week, Southampton now have to use the momentum gained to do something they haven’t done all season – record back-to-back wins.

Embed from Getty Images

A well-earned point against Tottenham followed by an F.A Cup victory against Watford may well have kept Mauricio Pellegrino in his job for a little while longer. Throw in the addition of Guido Carrillo for a club-record fee and heavy rumours of the highly rated Dutch winger Quincy Promes joining him, and there’s a slight optimism surrounding the club at the moment. However, all of these promising factors will be meaningless if we fail to beat the teams in and around us.

It’s truly been the story of our season; picking up points against top teams and then failing to gain maximum points where it truly matters – a prime example of this is during the festive period. After the boxing-day drubbing to Tottenham, Pellegrino’s side travelled to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. After fears of another thrashing, Saints performed valiantly and gained a point at Old Trafford.

However, Saints failed to build on this performance and lost at home in a real relegation six-pointer against Crystal Palace. At St Mary’s the usual traits in our performances under Pellegrino became apparent. Southampton took the lead through Shane Long’s first goal of the season, buring the second half Pellegrino instructed his side to sit deep and Palace took full advantage.

Embed from Getty Images

Southampton have failed to win in the league for 11 matches which has seen the Saints drop into the relegation zone. They obviously believe he can turn this situation around, but these so called ‘signs of improvement’ still haven’t come to fruition. It’s quite apparent that the board have decided to back him instead of sack him.

In our most recent match against Watford, Saints were controlling the game expertly and limiting the Hornets to virtually no chances. With twenty minutes to go, Pellegrino decided to replace our most creative outlet on the day, Sofiane Boufal, with Maya Yoshida. Saints then dropped deeper and deeper and invited unnecessary Watford pressure. The last twenty minutes shifted the dynamic of play from Saints dominating, to looking shaky as they desperately trie  to defend for the final moments of the match. Unlike recent fixtures, however, Saints survived a late scare and booked their place in the 5th round of the F.A Cup.

Our next two games are arguably our biggest since Southampton returned to the Premier League in 2012. First up is Brighton at home, followed by West Brom away. The Seagulls have one more point than us at this moment in time and are currently two places higher in the league table. The Baggies are currently one place below in the league and two points worse off.

Embed from Getty Images

The enormity of these games go without saying and if we truly wish to retain our Premier League status, we simply can’t afford to lose either.

In the reverse fixtures Saints actually played relatively well. At the AMEX, we controlled much of the first 45 and through a sublime curling free-kick from James Ward-Prowse, Steven Davis was able to nod home the opener on the rebound. In our usual style, however, the Saints decided to soak pressure in the second half and through a weak Glenn Murray header that was matched by an even weaker reaction from Fraser Forster, Brighton shared the spoils. At St Mary’s, West Brom were arguably playing their worst football of the season, but thanks to a Boufal wonder goal, Saints grabbed all three points.

We find ourselves currently sitting in 18th place in the table,meaning it’s now or never to pull ourselves out of this situation. The fans have been great in backing the team and now it’s their turn to deliver. Southampton have only three home games against sides outside the top eight remaining and the only way we climb out of the bottom three is by picking up vital points from those teams around us. We can no longer rely on other teams doing us favours – It’s a far too risky game that we can no longer afford to play.

Swansea picked up all the points against Liverpool and the teams around us are now starting to find their flow under new management. With Pellegrino seemingly set to stay at this moment in time, there are no longer any excuses for the Argentinian to hide behind; the Saints need to show that they’re capable of dominating a game for an entire 90 minutes, and that starts with three points against Chris Hughton’s Brighton tomorrow night.