Southampton All But Relegated by South Coast Rivals
When the eulogy of the 2022-2023 Southampton season is written, there will be blame aplenty to go around. Inability to turn up in the biggest matches against relegation rivals. Inexplicable managerial hires and decisions. Big money signings going missing, not just on the pitch, but from the matchday squads altogether.
Tonight, the Saints repeated the same issues that have plagued them all season. But the last dagger, the potential final gasp of this era of Southampton FC Premier League football, will be Ché Adams’ big toe.
The Saints had played thirty-two Premier League games this season leading in to this must-win clash with the Cherries. The Southampton formula for losing games is as follows: start brightly, create a few chances, do not take those chances, give up a soft goal, repeat. Game thirty-three was no different.
The Saints again started very well, with Walcott forcing a smart save out of Bournemouth keeper Neto. Striker/winger Adam Armstrong followed by hitting Neto’s post from a tight angle, and Saints had all the momentum.
Warning signs were present, however. Bournemouth were pressing high in the Saints’ half. But if Southampton broke into the attacking zone, the Cherries were content to fall back into their 5-4-1 low block, and fire long balls up for lone striker Dominic Solanke to go against Jan Bednarek. Twice in the first twenty-five minutes Solanke won his battle against the Polish defender, producing half-chances for Bournemouth which worried the Saints’ defense.
The Rain Starts to Dampen Southampton’s Night
Rain had been coming down hard at St. Mary’s for most of the evening, and the pitch (and the players) were incredibly waterlogged. Simple passes were becoming more difficult to play, and both sides were making unforced errors. Southampton and Bournemouth players seemed content to let the other team have possession, pressing high trying to create chances in transition.
In the driving rain, Southampton players were completely unable to break through the Bournemouth press. Roméo Lavia seemed the only player able to carry the ball more than five yards on the drenched St. Mary’s grass. Time and time again the ball would be hoofed long to Adam Armstrong or Theo Walcott, neither of which are formidable in the air. Bournemouth started to take control of the game.
Here is the first of the criticisms of Southampton manager Rubén Sellés. Both Ché Adams and Paul Onuachu were available to play and once again the Saints opted to play without a traditional striker. The lack of a pressure-relieving out ball was evident throughout the first half, as clearance after clearance to the 5’8 Adam Armstrong and 5’9 Theo Walcott were calmly dealt with by the Bournemouth defense. The St. Mary’s crowd was noticeably upset at halftime, as boos started to be heard.
Rubén Sellés’ halftime adjustment was to bring on Lyanco for captain James Ward-Prowse. This shifted the Saints into a three-center-back formation, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (who had replaced Romain Perraud due to injury earlier) moved from right back into Ward-Prowse’s vacated central midfield.
It was announced over the TV broadcast that Ward-Prowse had been feeling ill in the lead-up to the game and had to come off. But in a game that Southampton had to win, Rubén Sellés elected to replace a midfielder with a central defender. Once again, leading scorer Ché Adams was available on the bench.
In the fiftieth minute, the wheels started to come off. The Saints turned a ball over in midfield, and Bournemouth striker Dominic Solanke drove thirty yards past converted midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles and laid it off to Marcus Tavernier. A few unchallenged touches later and Tavernier rolled a dribbling shot towards Saints keeper Alex McCarthy’s goal.
Somehow Tavernier’s slow roller eluded McCarthy and ended up in the Southampton net. The shot did take a slight deflection, and the defending leading up to the shot was poor, but McCarthy really should have done better. Between Gavin Bazunu and now Alex McCarthy, goalkeeping has cost the Saints valuable points this season.
For the next ten minutes the Saints proceeded to lose control. Carlos Alcaraz, seeming to forget that free kick ace James Ward Prowse was no longer on the pitch, gave away two free kicks for simulation. The Saints looked lost, and Bournemouth were in complete command of the game.
Changes were needed, and to his credit, Sellés made them. Ché Adams and Stuart Armstrong were inserted for Theo Walcott and Mohamed Elyonoussi in the sixty-first minute. With his first touch of the game, Adams dropped deep to receive a press breaking pass and won a free kick. The Saints looked much more comfortable playing through Adams, and questions will rightfully be asked why he was not on the pitch sooner.
Inspired by Adams and Stuart Armstrong, the Saints started to show the urgency that had been missing for the previous sixty minutes. Bournemouth started to sit back in their low defensive block, letting the Saints have the majority of possession.
Bournemouth’s gamble paid off, as the Saints were incredibly wasteful. Alcaraz was wonderful against Arsenal, but against the Cherries he seemed to lose possession whenever he touched the ball. He is the creative force in the Southampton lineup, and without the nineteen-year-old’s influence, Saints did not look like scoring.
Southampton Briefly Equalize
But on 86 minutes, after twenty minutes of not sniffing Neto’s box, the substitutes combined. Stuart Armstrong broke through the Bournemouth defense and laid a ball across to Ché Adams. Adams took what felt like an eternity to settle the ball but eventually lashed a shot past the Bournemouth keeper from close range. Pandemonium erupted at St. Mary’s, as Saints looked poised to continue their siege of the Bournemouth box in search of a winner.
I will start this paragraph by saying: I am in favor of technology in sport. It is important to get big decisions correct, and nothing hurts more than a missed referee decision costing your team a game. That being said, the decision to rule out the Adams goal will be another strike against a system that has dulled the magic of football time and time again. Che Adams was offside by millimeters. If he had clipped his toenails at halftime, it might’ve stood. He wasn’t making a run off the shoulder of the last defender, he was statically waiting in the six yard box for a square cross. In a season of incorrect VAR decisions, enforcing the letter of the law here felt inconsistent and wrong. If this is what relegates Southampton, the sense of injustice will not leave Saints fans for a long time.
The remainder of the game saw Southampton create very few clear cut chances. Towards the end Lyanco shifted to the right wing, and looked to have more on the ball technical ability than the starting attackers combined. Nonetheless, it was all for naught, and gap between the Saints and safety widened to a massive six points.
Southampton will once again rue a missed chance to move up the table against a fellow relegation candidate. The Saints have won just fourteen points off their fellow bottom-half teams this season. Several of the players looked disengaged over the course of the match, and with relegation looming, Saints boss Sellés will have to work to keep his team motivated over the final five games.
Mathematically Southampton is still alive, and until they absolutely cannot reach safety Saints fans will keep a glimmer of hope tucked away. But with Newcastle away on the horizon, survival chances are looking bleak.