5 burning questions that will define Southampton’s season

Southampton (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Southampton (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images) /

Ah, the joys of supporting Southampton Football Club. Undefeated in 4 followed by 3 straight defeats, this is the (Southampton) way. There’s no need to recap how poor the Saints have been during their September losing streak — one only needs to look at the aggregate scoreline: Opponents 10 – Southampton 1.

Any Saints fan hoping for last season’s Burnley-esque bossing of the league — put that expectation away. Southampton are going to have to scratch and claw their way up the Championship table just like everyone else. And they better start soon — the fixtures are coming thick and fast over the next several weeks.

Perhaps the most worrying part of Southampton’s skid is that despite playing Russell Martin’s intensely attacking system, Saints have scored just 1 goal in 3. Martin has repeatedly emphasized the need for bravery, and to trust the process as Southampton acclimates to his methods.

But the strengths of his system, the emphasis on possession and chance creation, have gone missing while the weaknesses have become rampant. Martin has problems to solve — here are 5 questions keeping him up at night that could define Southampton’s season.

1.) What is going on in the Southampton midfield? 

How’s this for a damning statistic: Russell Martin has used a different midfield 3 every single game this season. The lack of consistency has shown on the pitch. Southampton’s midfield has been completely brushed aside during their losing streak — too often being played around as if they weren’t there.

If you look at the specific players, this isn’t incredibly surprising. Shea Charles is the only true defensive midfielder on the roster — Flynn Downes and Will Smallbone have played in that role, but both have been inconsistent defensively. Charles has been forced to play center back recently due to injury — and the Saints haven’t won a single of these games.

Russell Martin has even more of a selection problem with the two more advanced midfielders. His options: Adam Armstrong, Carlos Alcaraz, Stu Armstrong, Joe Aribo, and Will Smallbone. In theory, this is a stacked lineup. In practice, the Southampton midfield hasn’t created much. xG against Sunderland – 0.8, against Leicester 1.6, against Ipswich 0.8. Go back to QPR where they only had an xG of 0.4 — a worrying picture is starting to form.

Martin needs to find a combination that works. For large stretches, Southampton’s midfield has looked static and uninterested, both offensively and defensively. Recall Ipswich’s goal on Tuesday. Shea Charles has no options to pass the ball, so attempts to drive forward.

This was a poor decision — but someone in the Saints midfield needs to take responsibility and come get the ball. Romeo Lavia was incredible at this — but he is gone, and no one has picked up his missing on ball bravery. Each Saints midfielder has strengths and weaknesses, and so far Martin has not found a lineup that brings out their best.

2.) Can the Saints fix their disastrous set pieces?

Whenever you lose the set-piece delivery of James Ward-Prowse, some dropoff is expected. But Southampton’s set pieces have been an outright disaster. They have taken the most corner kicks in the Championship so far (58), their record: scored – one (a short corner), conceded – one.

That’s right, they’ve conceded the same amount of goals from ATTACKING corners as they have scored. Add in no goals from free kicks (taken 5th most in the Championship), and this is a massive issue. Saints hired a new set piece coach, Andreas Georgson, away from Brentford in the summer, but he has his work cut out for him because…

3.) Do the Saints have the players to fix their disastrous set pieces? 

Southampton are small. Their tallest outfield players are 6’3” Jan Bednarek, and 6’2” Shea Charles and Taylor Harwood-Bellis. The issue is they are all defenders — their attack features Che Adams (5’9”), Adam Armstrong (5’8”), Sam Edozie (5’10”), and Ryan Frasier (5’4”). Not exactly the Broad Street Bullies.

Other teams can easily key in on the Southampton height, knowing that most other players will not hurt them. The new arrival Ross Stewart (6’2”) will have to make an immediate impact because having no threat from set pieces hampers the Southampton attack immensely. Thinking forward to the January transfer window, I have a great target for the Saints. He’s 6’7” and has a great record scoring goals — just scored a nice bullet header for his new club Trabzonspor. Oh, wait…

4.) Don’t want to harp on Southampton’s lack of height…but it is seriously an issue

Southampton are 2nd in the league in crosses. This is a great stat! The issue, the Saints aren’t great at attacking them. Against Ipswich, the Tractor Boys were more than happy to press narrow and allow Southampton to ping cross after cross into the box trusting their center backs to deal with them. And deal with them they did. Leicester used a similar gameplan. Che Adams is decent aerially, but he has never been amazing at attacking crosses, preferring to receive the ball to feet. Ross Stewart cannot get fit soon enough.

5.) Was Adam Armstrong the right choice for captain?

Adam Armstrong is off to a flying start to the season, there’s no denying that. But I fear Martin was hasty in naming James Ward Prowse’s replacement to wear the armband. For the record, this is pure speculation by me and backed up by nothing but my observations. But in 3 consecutive games now Saints have conceded sloppy goals and immediately dropped intensity.

Armstrong may be a leader by example, but in terms of competitive edge, he is not that type of player. I found it telling that immediately after coming on against Ipswich, veterans Jan Bednarek and Stu Armstrong immediately committed fouls and mixed it up with the opposition. Che Adams also got into the action picking up a yellow card for a hard foul.

Too often Southampton’s heads drop when matches aren’t going their way. In these situations, you need your captain to step up and lead from the front. Take a yellow, argue with the ref, get into it with the other team, something to generate a spark.

Taking nothing away from everything else Adarma brings to Southampton, I don’t believe he is that kind of leader. However Saints need someone to fill that void, and whether that is via vice-captaincy or just regular locker room dynamics, a leader with some nastiness and edge to them must emerge.

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Next up for Saints is Middlesbrough away on Saturday at 3 pm BST. Michael Carrick’s side are surprisingly bottom of the table after a 4th place finish last season. Southampton cannot go 4 straight defeats — anything short of a draw will be a massive disappointment.