Southampton Football Club boast a defence that’s rife with quality, depth and the versatitlity to operate in a number of tactical systems; in fact, I’d go as for to say that outside the Premier League’s elite top six clubs, you’ll be hard challenged to find a better backline than the side currently at Mauricio Pellegrino’s disposal.
But as I so painfully had to once again realise last weekend, there’s still one area of our defence that’s failing to match the high standards set by others within our squad.
I’m of course talking about the demise of Fraser Forster…
Now at this point I must reiterate that Forster appears to be a true professional, a fantastic character inside the club, and an all-round good guy judging by comments from his team-mates.
But for as long as we continue to field a goalkeeper that’s slow on his feet and seemingly indecisive with any shot placed on target, Southampton remain helpless and vulnerable to conceding sloppy goals; a feature of Forster’s play that’s become a serious problem over the past 18 months.
This season alone mistakes against Newcastle and Brighton have already cost Southampton a potential four points, whilst his tendency to palm the ball into the oppositions frontman has also punished us twice; Romelu Lukaku and Chicharito being the fortunate goal-scorers.
Rolling back to Glenn Murray’s equaliser on Sunday, I remember seeing a fair amount of criticism toward Cedric Soares after the fullback was bullied in his tussle for the ball, and I can understand that.
It was embarrassing defending from our backline to leave Brighton’s biggest goal threat with our smallest defender, but that was the only troubling shot Forster faced on target throughout the entire 90 minutes.
With a tight margin of just one goal in the Premier League you need your keeper to step up with efforts like Murray’s, and surprise surprise, Forster failed to do so.
The best goalkeepers in the Premier League step up for their team when they’re called upon, and to be quite honest with you, I’d be stumped if you asked me just how often Forster has “stepped up” over the past year.
The same keeper that used to clatter players to claim crosses and throw his body on the line for a clean sheet, now appears scared under the spotlight and unaware of his physical strengths.
Given this shaky start to the 2017/18 campaign, It’s also worth noting that Forster had the second lowest save percentage among regular PL goalkeepers last season. Only Manchester City’s Claudio Bravo recorded a lower percentage.
What makes this form so worrying however, is our complete and utter shortage of options in what we can possibly do next. Time and time again Forster has fallen short over the past 18 months and failed to warrant a starting place, yet when the following fixture comes around, he’s instantly placed back between the sticks.
It’s all well and good saying that he deserves to be dropped, but for who? And where do we go from there?
It seems that neither Pellegrino or Dave Watson trust Alex McCarthy to step up, and as a result, Forster’s place in the lineup has become somewhat untouchable. This is dangerous territory for a goalkeeper, as more often than not, this is when complaceny begins to creep in on a weekly basis.
During a summer transfer window when fans were crying out for a new number one or at the very least some competition, the board instead opted to reward Forster with a new contract.
And whilst at the time that decision could have been seen as an act of faith to motivate Forster, it now feels as if the board have rewarded mediocrity, and consequently sent Forster down a path of complacency.
If this same form was replicated by a Southampton centre-back or central midfielder over a time frame of 18 months, reinforcements would no doubt be shipped in; so why’s Forster exempt from such treatment?
Criticism toward the England International can’t be put down to “poor form” or a “lack of confidence” anymore, as this is no longer a short term problem that simply needs a quick fix.
Persisting with Forster beyond this next transfer window is becoming an increasingly worrying gamble to take, and I’m convinced that if the board opt to do just that, we’ll once again find ourselves discussing his shortcomings this same time next season.