Much to my confusion in the build up to the 2017/18 Premier League season, few fans believed Charlie Austin had a serious future in red and white – let alone that he’d be starting ahead of Manolo Gabbiadini.
Yet here we are. With 18 games gone in the season so far, we find ourselves in a potential relegation dog fight, in desperate need of rediscovering our identity, confidence and goalscoring ability.
In the form of Charlie Austin, however, there’s at least a glimmer of hope that we’ve re-discovered the latter for the time being.
So why did we have to turn to Austin in the first place? And how has he found form in front of goal so quick, when others were being pardoned for poor service?
The demands of a Premier League forward are going through the roof as each year passes, particularly the further you go up the table. So many top six teams demand their forward to have a sharp turn of pace, the ability to play between the lines, and the technical skill set to be a competent ‘player’ before anything else.
So when Southampton sold their 6ft 4 target man, Graziano Pelle’, in the summer of 2016, I believe that those features were something the club were striving for with the acquisition of Gabbiadini.
That with a player of his style, we could cement our place as the ‘best of the rest’ in the Premier League, knocking of the door of the top six.
As we know all too well though, this hasn’t been the case and much to the frustration of every Southampton fan, there’s no way of knowing exactly why.
Could it be the overly defensive mindset that’s been installed by Mauricio Pellegrino? The boards failure to identify and sign another wide goalscoring threat? Or maybe even complacency within the squad? These are just a number of factors that are often discussed by fans.
The Italian International is a proven goalscorer at just about every club he’s played for, but football is a funny old game, and sometimes someone’s true ability can’t quite be transferred from club to club.
Gabbiani’s talent is there for all to see, but sadly something’s still missing. He’s yet to truly find his place in the frontline this season, failing to build a strong partnership with many of his teammates and often finding himself isolated from play.
But given that the former Napoli talisman is without a doubt our most technical forward, many feared that resigning him to the bench could only harm us.
But when one door closes, another opens, and with that decision we’ve been able to enjoy Austin’s glorious return to form.
Despite starting just four Premier League fixtures this season (yes, you read that correctly) the Englishman sits at the top of Southampton’s goalscoring leaderboard.
And whilst were on the topic of goalscoring leaderboards, let’s not forget that Austin finished the 2016/17 season as our top goalscorer, despite spending months out with a shoulder injury.
He’s hardly an oil panting on the ball and he certainly isn’t an athlete. Watching the 28-year-old clutch his chest in pain with a stitch the other week was one of my season highlights.
But this is what makes Austin such a remarkable footballer; despite the worries mentioned above and the talk of him being unable to play in multiple systems, he’s got this beast inside of him that comes alive inside the penalty area.
Austin’s one of those players that doesn’t particularly fall under one style of football, but place him in a side that’s enduring a rutt or a dry spell infront of goal, and you can gurantee that he’ll put his body on the line to fashion chances out of nothing.
I’d go as far to say that he seemingly flourishes when the rest of his team looks down and out. It gives him the opportunity to step up as their knight in shining armour, and my word does he love every last bit of it.
Whereas previously our midfield were hesitant to hit the frontline quickly, hunting for that perfect neat and tidy goal, we’ve seemingly embraced Austin’s more gritty and hard-hitting style. He’s brought us back to basics at a time when we lack an attacking identity.
On top of that, Southampton have now somewhat restored the physical edge that was lost with the departure of Graziano Pelle’ – someone that can take the pressure off the midfield with a simple ball into his feet, chest or head. Admittedly that side of his game is not nearly as effective as our beautiful Graziano’s, but it’s certainly a foundation to build upon.
These actions have helped him to average a goal every 105 minutes in the Premier League this season, with a total of five goals in just four stars.
Gabbiadini’s the more complete and skillful forward out of the two, but when you’re failing to dominate possession effectively throughout large parts of games, just how often can those skills be put into practice? At this moment in time it seems far less in comparison to Austin’s greatest strengths.
But this isn’t about trying to put one striker one-up over the other – far from it.
Our club currently appears to be covered by a blanket of negativity, where, justified or not, holes are being picked in just about every department of the club.
So this is just a gentle reminder that when all things seem doom and gloom, sometimes it’s worth taking a look around and appreciating the positives.
Southampton haven’t had a better striker than Charlie Austin to ‘fall back on’ since returning to the Premier League.