The curious case of Charlie Austin

Having scored twice against Sparta Prague last Thursday, many Southampton fans were bemused as to why Charlie Austin had been dropped to the bench against Swansea City – but come the final whistle at St Mary’s stadium yesterday, Austin was once again the name being sung from all fans in red and white.

Charlie Austin joined Southampton on the 16th of January 2016, and it was a signing that many predicted to be the deal of the window. Having scored 18 Premier League goals in the 2014/15 season, it seemed that a then goal-shy Southampton had found the solution to their problems.

But despite opening his goalscoring account on his debut in dream fashion with a winner at Old Trafford, the signing of Austin coincided with Shane Long’s immense rise in form. From here, even Graziano Pelle struggled to get game time – considering Koeman’s tendencies to stand by the Italian in eye-gouging form, that’s really saying something.

Now however, there is a new man in charge. Austin has managed to find the back of the net three times under new boss Claude Puel, making him Southampton’s current top goalscorer for the season so far. This has given Puel a lot of food for thought, and here’s why.

It’s now been widely documented that Puel’s hopes for success at Southampton come in the form of his 442 diamond formation, but for anyone that can see the qualities needed from a forward in this system, they will see that Austin doesn’t fit the profile. In this role, your forward must possess pace, the ability to work the channels, be an accomplished passer of the ball and be fit – very fit in fact.

Austin however isn’t quick off the mark, has always played as a central striker, isn’t selected for his build up play and struggles to meet his defensive requirements. Due to this, whenever Austin is playing in this system he can sometimes make the attack look disjointed, and in truth, clueless. The moment that one player isn’t carrying out their duty, the system can come crumbling beneath itself like a toddler playing Jenga.

But this is no fault of Austin’s, and in the 53rd minute of Sunday’s clash against Swansea, Puel recognised that. Charlie Austin is Southampton’s best striker – he knows exactly where to place himself, he can act as a focal point for the side and damn can he finish a ball – and therefore, in order to see him at his best, he must be played in his favoured position.

Whilst Puel could see that his side were dominant at the back, composed in midfield and fluent in attack, anyone could see that the team was screaming out for a natural born finisher. So, in that moment, Puel opted for a 433 formation with Austin leading the line. The effect was disastrous for Swansea City.

Within minutes, Austin was causing havoc amongst the Swansea defence. After getting in behind Jordi Amat, Nathan Redmond cooly slotted the ball into the path of Austin, who watched on in horror as his effort rattled the crossbar.

But like all good forwards, Austin picked himself back up and prepared for the next chance. As it happens, that chance turned out to be the winner. Tadic lofted a ball into the Swansea box which was then deflected into the feet of Austin. With a fine touch and a laced shot, Southampton finally had their much-deserved lead in the 64th minute.

This all but confirmed to everyone in St Mary’s stadium something that we already knew – that Charlie Austin is Southampton’s best finisher – but now, Puel is presented with what could prove to be a season-defining decision: does he continue to stand by his 442 diamond? Does he opt for a 433 with Austin leading the line? Or does he find a balance between the two?

One thing is certain however, and that’s that Charlie Austin has now truly made his mark on this Southampton side.

 

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