When I considered writing a few thoughts on Southampton Football Club after their performance at Fulham, the idea of reliving another consistently shambolic performance could surely have been likened to many other gruesome tortures. Nevertheless, it is worth dissecting the performance of the team in an attempt to silence the critics who say, “At least we’re playing better football under Hughes.”
This time last season thirteen games saw us in 10th place after a 4-1 home win against Everton that put us up to 16 points. Southampton fans in general however were bemused by our slow start to the season under Pellegrino and by this stage had already begun to question his credentials. The position Southampton were in even then looks far better now than it did at the time without even having to go back as far as Pochettino or Koeman; and that in itself can be used as a gauge to illustrate just how far we have fallen. The 8th place league finish and cup final his predecessor brought us in 16/17 now seems like ancient history, and the memory of it, for many of us I’m sure, is quickly being pushed from our minds by subsequent back to back relegation fights and a culmination of winless runs and unwanted records both this season and last.
The Fulham game, like many of our matches this season, did show a display of heart and positivity from a few specific players, and while Hughes seems to almost practisedly guile his way out of every disappointing post match interview, he is right when he says that games we lose are lost by key moments and not from being the inferior team on the pitch.
Stuart Armstrong made sure to stake his claim for a place in our starting team, after only starting two previous matches and making most of his appearances from the bench so far this season. One of many decisions of Hughes’ that fans have questioned was his regular absence from the starting XI, especially as he has always looked a dangerous option any time he has came on. Giving Southampton the lead 18 minutes in was a rare cause for cheer for the team who had only scored two goals in their seven games prior to this. And I’m sure it came as no surprise to many of us when Fulham equalised 15 minutes later. A combination of Cedric being slow to chase down Le Marchand’s run down the left, and Wesley Hoedt, doing a routinely poor effort to mark Fulham’s target-man Mitrović, allowed Fulham to hit back comfortably soon after going behind. Cedric himself would later say in an interview that at 1-0 he had a feeling that Fulham would ‘get the 1-1 because we were very exposed.’ The admission of the right back, who after his 2016 Euro success was linked with some big moves to far superior clubs, is clearly indicative of Southampton’s mental and tactical frailties that we have all witnessed consistently this season.
The game was properly turned on his head another ten minutes later and the Southampton fan base, as it so often does took to social media to convey their individual complete lack of surprise. Matt Targett, up against the team he helped secure promotion and spent the entirety of last season with on loan, was slow to pick up the onrushing André Schürrle who had a tap in at the far post. Even less surprising was that ball was played across goal by Sessengon who himself didn’t need to do much to get away from Cedric – who again defended weakly on the right. Targett could perhaps arguably be absolved of responsibility as just seconds before the goal it looked as though his fullback counterpart had everything covered. Having watched as many games this season as many of us have, some might suggest that no one in that team these days could hold too much faith in any other team mate comfortably dealing with any defensive scenario.
I’m sure I shared the same elusive and frequently misplaced hope as many of our fans when the second-half began. On the bad side of a 2-1 margin at half time you have you believe your team can get back into a game, especially if you have had as much of the ball and created as many good chances up until that point as we had. And that hope was seemingly not in vane, as just eight minutes into the second half Stuart Armstrong again got himself a goal, this time from outside the box with a beautifully struck shot that nestled into to the top right corner, after a clever back-heel from Cedric. At this point I asked my brother who was watching on with me if he could, would he take the draw. He was quite adamant that he wouldn’t, having started the game by taking the lead and having played as well as we had, nothing but the win would be in any way satisfactory. If the @NI_Saints Twitter moderator knew then how Sunday’s Wolves V Huddersfield game would end up, and where that would leave us, he might have considered a draw as less of totally disastrous result. Hindsight and speculation aside, a draw and a point would not come our way.
A series of comedic defensive errors allowed Fulham a goal on 63 minutes that would prove to be the winner. Hoedt held the ball up by the touchline level with the penalty area and instead of doing anything constructive, he cleared the ball only as far as Christie whose cross into the box was first met by the head of Sessengon. Maya Yoshida had not done any wrong individually up until this point, but he was out-jumped by Sessengon just beside the penalty spot, and the latter got enough contact on the ball to direct it across the area to an unmarked Mitrović. Not for the first time this season we saw a panicked and poorly positioned Cedric who rushed to close down the Serbian national who scored 12 goals for Fulham last season after only joining them in February. Cedric could not recover from his poor positioning fast enough and that left Mitrović with enough time to place a close-range unmarked volley beyond the reach of McCarthy to seal the win for the home team.
Stuart Armstrong was replaced on 81 minutes for Obafemi who had made his international debut as a late substitute for Ireland at the start of the week, and the youngster earned himself some amount of credit and gave Saints fans a brief display of what he can offer going forward. The substitution was originally met with jeers towards Hughes from the away fans that taunted with ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’. The youngster had two big opportunities in the 87th and 94th minutes to level for Southampton but his quick reactions on both occasions were just not enough; the first of which looped just over the crossbar and the second chance forced a double save from Fulham’s Sergio Rico who had racked up 114 appearances for Sevilla before joining the London team on loan in the Summer.
The result is just disappointing contribution to a catalogue of upset for Saints fans, who have now witnessed their team winning just three of the last thirteen games this year in which they have taken the lead; and witnessed their team failing to win a league match for the thirteenth time in fourteen games, and ninth time consecutively. I am sure that damning stats such as those contribute to the team’s mentality and are partly accountable for their frail approach to protecting any lead they seem to come by and their weaknesses both in front of goal and in defending their own. In many stats Southampton can see positives. Alex McCarthy has made the sixth highest number of saves in the league this season, helping them keep a joint-fifth tally of four clean sheets. The team are are also ranked fifth in the league in tackles. The Saints tally of 192 shots so far this season is the third highest in the league, and goes alongside the fifth highest number of crosses (261). These stats can make it a struggle for some to understand how the team now sits in the relegation zone, only off the bottom on goal difference, with the lowest number of wins out of every team in the league. But a team that averages 0.77 goals per match, and lets in an average of 1.85 goals per game can surely do little but feign surprise. Our 192 shots have yielded just 10 league goals so far, which makes our conversion rate the worst in the league at just 5.2%. Last season we finished with a conversion rate of 11.4%, which was 19th in the league and just 0.2% better than West Bromich Albion who were relegated.
There can be no mistake that a big spotlight now shines on Mark Hughes who has done well to survive as long as he has, and who surely the club should be looking to imminently replace. The appointment of Ranieri at Fulham was enough for them to double their win tally, though it is possible the club may wait until inevitable losses against Manchester United and then Tottenham Hotspur are out of the way before looking for a ‘new manager bounce’. Mark Hughes said post-match, “You look back on the game and we are scratching our heads considering what we produced.” Many Saints fans, even in the cold light of day, will be scratching their own heads wondering how many more disappointing results it will take for the board to replace him.