Southampton Once Again Lose to a Relegation Rival
If before the 2022-2023 Premier League season started, Saints fans were offered two points off Arsenal, a point off Spurs, a point off Manchester United, denying Manchester City the quadruple by knocking them out of the League Cup, and doing the double over Chelsea for the first time ever, you wouldn’t have been remiss in asking how high the Saints finished. Top half? A Conference League spot? Surely not Europa?
The answer: rock bottom. Eight points from safety with only nine possible left to win. For every strong performance against a top team, Southampton have laid an egg against a relegation rival. In massively important matches against Forest, Leeds, Wolves, Palace (twice), Bournemouth, and West Ham, they did not score a single goal. They even lost to a ten-man Wolves side at St. Mary’s after going ahead 1-0. Intensity, endeavor, aggression, compassion — the Saints repeatedly showed none of these qualities as they remained superglued to the bottom of the table.
Given this history, Saints fans would be forgiven for expecting another flat performance against Forest. Forest have actually put together decent performances at the City Ground this year, channeling their boisterous home crowd. And for what seems like the one-hundredth time this season, Southampton started well, creating good chances and dominating possession for the first 10-15 minutes of the game.
But once again, the chances were not taken. On six minutes, the Southampton high press created a transition opportunity, and the ball found Ché Adams in acres of space in the Forest box. Adams took an eternity to settle the ball, and did not even muster a shot on target.
Ché Adams’ finishing has always been an issue since his debut for the Saints, but in previous years playing alongside proven goalscorers such as Danny Ings has allowed him to showcase his excellent passing range and hold up play. Southampton were linked with several goal scoring strikers both in the summer and January transfer windows. They eventually splashed 18 million pounds on Paul Onuachu and 25 million on Kamaldeen Sulemana, both have not scored for the Saints since arriving. Squandering periods of being on top has been a problem that none of the Southampton attacking options have been able to solve.
Southampton manager Rubén Sellés had largely gone with a similar team that he has used in the previous several matches. However there was one major change: Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Kyle Walker-Peters swapped flanks, with Maitland-Niles on the left, and Walker-Peters on the right. The purpose of this was for attacking threat, as Maitland-Niles was staying incredibly narrow and combining with Stuart Armstrong out wide to initiate Southampton attacks. The switch paid dividends going forward early, but Forest had a response.
Southampton have looked clueless against teams that sit in a low block and allow the Saints to have possession. For the first 15 minutes against Forest, Southampton actually looked incredibly dangerous. But once again, individual mistakes cost them. Nottingham Forest have scored the majority of their goals this season through Brennan Johnson led counterattacks. In the 17th minute the Saints committed a foul in midfield. The resulting free kick was taken quickly and Maitland-Niles was slightly out of position and could not adequately mark Johnson. In the blink of an eye the ball found Forest striker Taiwo Awoniyi and the ball was in the back of the net. 1-0 to Forest.
Once again poor goalkeeping cost the Saints, as Awoniyi’s strike was directly at backup goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, who could only paw the ball into his own net. Sound familiar Saints fans? It was not the easiest of saves, but one a Premier League standard goalkeeper should make. From Gavin Bazunu to now Alex McCarthy, the Saints keepers have repeatedly cost Southampton goals. But blame should not be solely on the keeper. How Forest were able to take a quick free kick without any Saints player reacting is dumbfounding. It also must be asked why Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a player who has struggled defensively all season, was asked to mark Forest’s best attacking option instead of Kyle Walker-Peters, who is perfectly capable of playing on the left.
Awoniyi would get a second not 3 minutes later. Southampton would fail to clear the ball twice, and then a comedy of defensive errors led to the ball finding Awoniyi with his back to goal. He quickly rolled over Armel Bella-Kotchap, and laced a wonderful half-volleyed finish past the helpless McCarthy. Awoniyi had scored just one goal in his previous thirteen matches before this game. That goal was also against Southampton.
In every other game they have fallen behind in this season, the Saints have immediately lost intensity. But this time they fought back. Again their high press led to a transition chance, and after some sleek passing from Adams and Stuart Armstrong, Charly on the spot Alcaraz put the ball past Keylor Navas. 2-1 and Saints had some momentum with still 20 minutes to play in the half.
But once again individual defensive errors struck. Ainsley Maintland-Niles in an attempt to clear raked down the back of Brennan Johnson who had poked his toe in to try to win the ball. Referee Michael Oliver immediately pointed to the spot. While it was a soft penalty, VAR was never going to overturn it, and Forest were up 3-1 going in to halftime.
The Saints would fight back again however, with Lyanco scoring his first Southampton goal off a James Ward-Prowse corner. Lyanco would come away bloodied after battling for position in the six yard box, and his passion and intensity would rub off on the Saints as they sought an equalizer.
It was Forest who scored the next goal, after some poor defending again from Maitland-Niles the ball found Morgan Gibbs-White in the box. He played a wonderful back heel to Danilo who finished with aplomb into the top right corner. Danilo taking one touch and placing a shot was a stark juxtaposition to Ché Adams who had an aforementioned chance wasted in a similar position 60 minutes earlier.
Southampton would find a third after Roméo Lavia won a soft penalty of his own which was coolly converted by James Ward-Prowse in the 96th minute. But the Saints’ search for an equalizer was dulled by the fact that a draw was not enough. They needed all three points. And in what is the story of the Southampton season, they scored three goals, but conceded four.
Looking ahead to the remainder of the season, Southampton play Fulham, Liverpool, and Brighton. The Saints will be heavy underdogs in each match. While they still can mathematically survive by winning all their remaining games and praying for a miracle, the expressions on the players faces after the final whistle on Monday gave away their feelings. They know it is done and dusted.
The dissection of what went wrong for the 2022-2023 Saints can now begin in earnest. Three managers, muddled recruitment, inconsistent tactics, and poor performances on the pitch. All of these factors played a role. A few highlights to point out: the hiring of an unproven manager in Nathan Jones, allowing experienced players like Oriol Romeu and Nathan Redmond to leave without a succession plan, not signing a top league proven striker, relying on a 21 year old goalkeeper who’s previous season was for Portsmouth in League One, and hiring first-time manager Sellés when experienced relegation survivalists like Sean Dyche and Sam Allardyce were available. The list of gaffes Southampton have made go on and on, and to go into a deep dive is beyond the scope of this article.
The upcoming three matches for Southampton should be used to assess what players they want to keep for their fight back to the Premiership. Players like Carlos Alcaraz (who is thankfully rumored to be staying), Kamaldeen Sulemana, and Paul Onuachu are now trying out for their jobs. Perhaps Mislav Oršić (remember him) and Joe Aribo will be dusted off and given a shot. The Saints have nothing to lose in these final three games, and must use them productively and assess what they have for a run in the Championship next season.