Well, that was kinda, sorta more like it! Nothing exemplifies supporting Southampton FC more than the roller coaster ride the Saints have been on for the past few weeks. Start the season unbeaten in four, losing four games on the spin, then get seven points out of nine. And it gets more Saints-y: of the 9 points, win against promotion rivals Leeds, win away at Stoke, lose at home to bottom feeders Rotherham. Conventional logic thrown out the window — the true Southampton Way.
As the Championship pauses for the October international break, Southampton manager Russell Martin seems to have found his first 11. The back four of Ryan Manning, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Jan Bednarek, and Kyle Walker-Peters was unchanged in all 3 games last week, however, a decision will have to be made when captain Jack Stephens returns from injury. Kamaldeen Sulemana appears to have won the left wing job from early season starter Sam Edozie, and Championship leading scorer Adam Armstrong has locked down the right.
The midfield has been the biggest headache for Martin, however, he found a winning combination against Leeds and has (mostly) stuck to it. Stu Armstrong, Will Smallbone, and Flynn Downes started all 3 games last week, and Carlos Alcaraz operated as a false 9 in the forward tip of the midfield diamond. The only starting lineup change made throughout the week was the insertion of Che Adams for Carlos Alcaraz against Rotherham.
Southampton have a lot of work to do to fix 2nd halve issues
And it worked! Southampton dominated Leeds, grinded out a well-earned win against Stoke, and was incredibly unlucky to not take away all 3 points from Rotherham. As an aside — the Rotherham result was incredibly disappointing, but play like they did Saturday (80% possession, 23 shots with 8 on target, one goal disallowed for a tight offside, and a whopping 3.0 xG), and Saints will be just fine. To Southampton fans booing after the game — the frustration is understandable but it was a good performance, these things happen in football.
However, despite all the positivity, it wouldn’t be Southampton without the shadow of a doubt creeping over them. The Saints have started incredibly well in each of their three-game unbeaten streak, but late in the game as changes are made, they have slipped slightly. In fact, all of their 5 goals scored have been in the first half, both goals scored against them in the second.
The statistics back this up as well. Against Leeds: Southampton xG 1st half – 1.0, 2nd – 0.48, Leeds xG 1st half – 0.37, 2nd – 0.56. Against Rotherham Southampton xG 1st half – 2.04, 2nd – 1.42 (0.87 of the 2nd half xG came on two Jan Bednarek chances from a late corner) Rotherham xG 1st half – 0.02, 2nd – 0.1. Against Stoke, the Saints were practically the same first half to second by xG.
So that’s two out of three games where Southampton have created better chances to score and stopped their opponents from doing the same in the first half of games, then slightly faltered in the second. While xG is an incredibly imperfect statistic, this trend has translated into goals going in the net. Looking back to the beginning of the season, the warning signs were there. Against QPR, Plymouth Argyle, and Sheffield Wednesday Saints took the lead, gave away the lead, and had to leave it late to get all three points.
There are most likely a myriad of reasons for this pattern. Teams when leading tend to prioritize control of games rather than incisive attacking, so this naturally will lead to less offensive output. However, Southampton seems to be prioritizing control and sacrificing offensive output without actually getting any control, as opponents fare better attacking Saints when Southampton takes their foot off the gas.
This is likely due to the system Russell Martin plays. As has been discussed many times previously, Southampton plays extremely high, opting to push fullbacks Ryan Manning and Kyle Walker-Peters all the way up the pitch, leaving only the number 6 (usually Flynn Downes or Shea Charles) to aid the center backs in defensive cover. Thus when the ball is turned over, the Saints are incredibly vulnerable to direct counterattacks.
Slowing the ball down and playing more patiently is a good way to protect a lead — you have the ball more and thus the opponent cannot score. But if the opponent can identify pressing opportunities intelligently, all it takes is one misplaced pass and suddenly the Saints’ high-playing center backs have to defend in space. Bednarek and Harwood-Bellis, despite having only kept one clean sheet all season, have actually played quite well given the immense responsibility they have. When Saints are protecting a lead, their responsibility actually increases due to Southampton’s slower style.
This is a problem that Southampton should start addressing sooner rather than later. With the quality Russell Martin can bring off the bench (Sam Edozie, Ryan Fraser, Shea Charles), the Saints should be upping their performance late on in games. Instead, their levels are dropping, and at least visually, it looks like a mentality issue. As Southampton try to slow down and exert control, they actually sacrifice defensive solidity. As we’ve seen on the pitch, this Saints team is a work in progress, but improvements have been made. My backseat driving recommendation to Russell Martin, put 2nd half systems on the training ground agenda. Southampton has a poor recent history of dropping points from winning positions (it was their specialty under Hasenhüttl), and fixing that would do them a world of good.
Two Random Thoughts
1.) Southampton have actually been solid defensively in their past 3 games, conceding only two goals. Both of them have come after Flynn Downes has been beaten aerially. Downes is closest to Leeds’ Pascal Struijk for his goal and has a chance to clear but is muscled away, and before Hugill’s equalizer for Rotherham, the goal scorer boxes out Downes far too easily off a long ball forward. Downes has been good for Southampton so far, but this could turn into a long-term problem.
Want your voice heard? Join the Saints Marching team!
2.) I think Russell Martin was a tad naïve with his substitutions against Rotherham. With Saints completely in control, he brought off the three most dangerous attackers (Adam Armstrong, Kamaldeen Sulemana, and Stu Armstrong), opting to allow Carlos Alcaraz to play in central midfield. Alcaraz’s defensive issues have been an issue for him since he arrived at St. Mary’s, and 10 minutes later, Rotherham had equalized. With more defensively-minded options (Shea Charles, Mason Holgate) on the bench, without a 2nd goal I’m not sure bringing on Alcaraz in midfield was the right option.