SOUTHAMPTON SIT 18TH AFTER ONLY TAKING 2 POINTS IN 3 GAMES. WHAT NOW?
The horror, the sheer horror. In the dying minutes of an ugly game that looked to be salvaged with a consolation draw, Cardiff’s Kenneth Zohore delivered a gut-punching, shield-your-eyes-in-terror dribbler to the far post. In a defensive calamity where all notions of clearing a football seemed to have fleeted from those wearing red shirts, Southampton keeper Alex McCarthy rooted in his place, could only look with presumably the same emotions of shock as the dribbler of a ball narrowly missed the only object that could have denied Cardiff all three points on the day, the post. The thought of that play alone caused such trauma, I am only finding the courage now, two days on, to recollect it in words. I’d be lying if I said I was over it. In a second consecutive weekend, Southampton found themselves victims of late-drama. In a second consecutive weekend, my face found itself on the underside of one of my couch pillows. I thought Burnley’s late penalty was punishment enough; enter some sluggish Southampton defending and desperate effort of Kenneth Zahore to restore his side’s lead and the dread, the deflation, the abysmal shroud of hopelessness were ever-present to keep me company on a second-consecutive Saturday.
It is not that Southampton were beaten by Cardiff that instils the most sorrow. It’s not even the fact that a less-than-poor Cardiff side, being led on weekly camping trips by Neil Warnock, have taken 6 points from Southampton this season. It was the thought that in the span of 2-3 minutes over two games, Southampton missed out on attaining 5 out of 9 possible points. Instead, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton has settled for 2 points in 3 games against genuine rivals in the race to avoid relegation from the Premier League. The situation is less than ideal, to say the least.
Contrary to what much of Twitter might have one believe, all is not lost, friends. To write Southampton off to the squanders of relegation in February because of a few poor results will only contribute to the issue further. In 2-3 minutes, Southampton could have easily had 5 points and the situation would look entirely different. If Southampton had just cleared the ball before the lethally soft touch of Zohore could nudge it, the chatter of relegation would not be as intense as it is now. But at the end of the day, football is football and it can be cruel. To look at upcoming games as unwinnable or visualize the number of points that are attainable because of the opponents look on paper is hazardous and can reflect on the squad. To tout the common cliche, games are not won on paper. While remaining matches against Fulham and Huddersfield look like life-lines on the fixture schedule, it would be foolish to think that Southampton should not win games against the best in the division and deserve to stay up. Southampton must beat the best, and they have the ability to beat the best. Only a week ago, James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond were being labelled “world-beaters”. That is reflective of the impact Ralph Hasenhuttl has had. Under Hasenhuttl, Southampton has shown a capability of competing rather than surviving. Those beliefs must continue to be carried by the fans.
Looking at the state of things less idealistically, matches against Manchester United will not be the same as matches against Cardiff. For one, Southampton will have the luxury of relying on Hasenhuttl’s trusty counter-attacking strategy that saw them get the better of sides like Arsenal and Everton. While showing weakness in the possession game against three consecutive opponents that prefer to sit back, there are many fixtures left on the calendar that have opponents with styles of play Saints have seen recent success against. Sitting back and hoping for a draw might be something that is of Mark Hughes’ fancy, but it certainly isn’t Ralph Hasenhuttl’s.
Despite a seemingly apparent tendency to play five defenders, Yan Valery has shown he can quickly transition to the call of offence. The young Frenchman made a spectacular run against Cardiff City that bore shades of his fellow countryman Kylian Mbappe’s infamous run-in Kazan against Argentina in the World Cup. The Cardiff defenders looked shocked as the 19-year-old surged toward them into the final third with the cure of their paralysis coming from a Neil Etheridge save on Charlie Austin. The defender on the opposite side is Ryan Bertrand, who impressively played a full ninety minutes despite missing Southampton’s previous 16 league games with an injury. A bit of rustiness is expected. Nevertheless, the veteran fullback has proven his ability to be a box-to-box player and there is no reason to believe he cannot fulfil that expectation. Given Hasenhuttl’s history at Leipzig, he notably used three defenders and two wingbacks that could offer support on both sides of the ball. This is consistent with Southampton as recent lineups have suggested and it may take some time for these players to adjust as versatile assets. If Valery’s performance against Cardiff is any indicator, we should be optimistic.
Beyond the defence, the midfield performed slightly less than adequate against Cardiff. However, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has shown he can play on an extraordinary level and expressed his commitment to being better. James Ward-Prowse continues to show his newfound aggression in the middle of the pitch; not only with the effort of trying to win balls but also trying to put them in the back of the net. Oriol Romeu has admitted a sense of rejuvenation under Hasenhuttl and has been fine-tuning his place in the starting XI after being exiled by those previously in charge. Despite not playing against Cardiff, young Callum Slattery has shown immense promise with his performance against Burnley and is lending hope that the academy can once again impact the first team in a positive way.
The only obvious change is in the attack. Until Danny Ings returns, Hasenhuttl must repay the faith in striker Charlie Austin after the Englishman chose to remain at St. Mary’s despite rumours circulating of an immediate departure. Although a loyal servant to the club, Shane Long has clearly struggled in the role of a starter and must be preserved for late boosts of energy in matches. Austin deserves the opportunity to prove his usefulness as the club chose not to replace Manolo Gabbiadini. In a bright glimmer of optimism, Michael Obafemi looks to be nearing a return and will hopefully kick-on after showing his skill and potential in Hasenhuttl’s first few games in charge.
A little less than two weeks stand between Southampton and trip to the Emirates to face a contentious Arsenal team. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s squad have arrived in Tenerife to begin a 5-day training expedition of intensive focus. The Austrian made it clear that the Saints trip to the Canary Islands was not a holiday and provided some brief insight into the contents of the camp. Perhaps a change in environment will be good for the squad. A chance for the squad that controversially failed to make any new acquisitions in the winter transfer window to continue building togetherness and belief. This is something the squad will certainly need in the fixtures to come; not only from within itself but from those who support it. Imagine the spectacle if Saints do the double over Arsenal. If the dream of that manifests, who will remember the horror of Zohore’s soft shot and the 6 points dropped against Cardiff? Who will care?