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