90 minutes, 4 goals, 250 miles, and 10 chewed-off fingernails later, Southampton have escaped their date with Preston North End at Deepdale Stadium with a single point. A point away from home with a largely rotated side is a good result on paper. However, as always with the Saints, it felt like a missed opportunity for more.
Once again, Russell Martin’s men established control early and were rewarded with a 1-0 lead through Kyle Walker-Peters. But once again, Southampton could not put their opponents away, and rather completely lost their heads in the 2nd half, requiring a 96th-minute Gavin Bazunu-inspired equalizer to get out of dodge with the points shared.
But the Jekyll and Hyde show of the South Coast continues to march on with their now 5 game unbeaten run, leaving fans and analysts alike befuddled trying to figure out who this team is. Are they the first-half team who dominated possession and looked to be cruising to an impressive win? Are they the 45th – 65th-minute group of individual players who looked like they had never been on a pitch together? Or are they the squad that finished the game with the pedal to the metal, and were rewarded with a late equalizer?
The Saints themselves will have to answer that question. But for now in the aftermath of the trip to the windswept North, here are three things we liked, and three things we didn’t from the match.
Southampton vs. Preston: The Positives
1.) Kyle Walker-Peters has a strong case for being the best player in the Championship. He may not have the gaudy goals and assists numbers (1 goal, 2 assists), but his importance to everything the Saints do cannot be overstated. He is first on the team in progressive carries (almost double the 2nd place Stu Armstrong), and 2nd in progressive passing. He consistently is the Saints’ press breaker, taking would be defenders on with relative ease. He is the most fouled player in the Championship. And he does it all while holding his own defensively on the right flank.
And in addition to all that — he has a wicked left-foot curler in his locker. If there is any room for KWP to improve his game, it is scoring goals. If he can keep banging those in, the Saints add another layer of versatility to their already potent attack.
2.) Flynn Downes has really settled in at Saints. The West Ham loanee struggled initially but has been undroppable during Southampton’s 5 game run. Comfortable in possession, dogged defensively, tactical about his runs forward, he has been the full package. He has been a real focal point for the Saints, but every player has weaknesses, which we will explore shortly.
3.) The list of people who get by with a little help from their friends: Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker, and now, Gavin Bazunu. Baz made his personal save of the season against Preston, looking like a professional gymnast getting a low save with his feet on a driven shot from 6 yards away. But in true gentlemanly fashion, our Dublin Donnarumma allowed Shea Charles to share in the glory. That brilliant save from Shea with his right hand was top stuff from the lad.
But Baz continued to get others involved! On his game-tying header, he let Preston North Ender Ched Evans get the final touch and get credit for the goal. What a good guy our Gavin.
Southampton vs. Preston: The Negatives
1.) Set pieces, set pieces, and did I mention set pieces? Well, it happened again. Another set-piece goal was conceded. Swung into the box, not dealt with, a halfhearted effort to close down a shooter, and bang into Gavin Bazunu’s net. This is not the first time, nor likely will it be the last. Every single time Preston won a corner or set piece, it felt as if they could score. This might just be who Southampton are, as whether it is with Jack Stephens, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Shea Charles, Jan Bednarek, or Mason Holgate, the Saints’ aerial presence is lacking thus far.
2.) But wait, there’s more! Speaking of aerial presence, it can hurt the Saints from open play and dead ball situations. I lost track of the number of times a hoofed ball forward from the back was picked up by a Preston player. Shea Charles and Flynn Downes had targets on their back, and were repeatedly beaten to first and second balls.
This is not the first time the Saints have been burned by this, against Rotherham and Sunderland they conceded goals from long balls forward. Southampton’s midfield is small, and other teams have been taking advantage. Aerial improvement and desire to win 2nd balls are needed.
3.) In physics, Newton’s Third Law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Forget apple trees, Isaac must’ve studied Southampton to come to this conclusion. Every…single…time they take a lead it is immediately responded to. They are physically incapable of putting teams away.
Wednesday, Norwich, Plymouth, QPR, Stoke, Rotherham, Hull, and now Preston North End, the pattern has repeated itself. I do not know the answer, I am not in the training ground, the halftime team talks, or on the pitch, but this is a problem.
Whether it be tactical, mentality, divine intervention, whatever it is, Southampton needs to fix this. The margin between promotion and remaining in the Championship come May is going to be incredibly slim, and the difference between good and great teams is can you turn the screw on your opponents when you are on top. Somebody tell Saints that Newtonian physics is obsolete anyway.
Southampton vs. Preston: Some Bonus Negatives
–Sam Edozie, James Bree, Che Adams, Mason Holgate, and Sekou Mara all had great chances to prove to Russell Martin they deserve to play more minutes. With the exception of Bree who was very solid, none made a convincing case. Edozie’s defending was poor for Preston’s 2nd goal and exemplifies why he lost his starting spot.
Adams came off with a knock but was generally invisible before then. Holgate was okay defensively and nervy in possession, but anything was better than the horror show his start has been. Mara might’ve been the worst offender of the bunch.
Consistently losing possession and ineffective on the ball, take away his goal against Manchester City last year, and the highly rated Frenchman has done nothing since his move from Bordeaux. The clock is ticking on his Southampton career, and he needs to start contributing meaningfully soon.
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–Ok one more, I can’t resist. The Saints don’t play balls over the top. *Taylor Swift voice* Like ever. Their focus under Russell Martin has been retaining possession and slow, methodical buildup. But at times, the balls dinked over the top are there. Che Adams and Adam Armstrong consistently made runs in behind, and not once was a ball to them attempted. Eventually, they just stopped running, and who can blame them?
I’d like to see, even just a few times a game, some through balls attempted. Armstrong is mighty quick, and Adams isn’t slow himself. The Saints have no shortage of pace in their other attackers as well. Some more passing endeavors might help the creativity dry spells Saints go through.