Southampton are starting to hit their stride in the EFL Championship. Unbeaten in 7 games, manager Russell Martin has finally found his starting 11, and players have settled into their roles. The Saints have jumped up the table into a playoff spot, and while early, fans are starting to dream of promotion again.
While the team has been progressing and looking better week after week, striker Ché Adams has gone the opposite way. His goals (3 in the first 4 games, none since), assists (last one September 23rd), and playing time have all gone down of late.
Adams is a bit of a polarizing figure on the South Coast. He has had a topsy-turvy career since joining Saints from Birmingham for 15 million pounds. Critics will point out that he never cracked 10 Premier League goals in a season and is an inconsistent finisher (who could forget his horror moment against Wolves).
Fans of the man known as Chele will use his solid work rate, great link-up play, and exquisite range of passing for their case. If you are a statistics person, Ché (slightly) underperformed his xG every season at Saints (2019: 5.3xG – 4 goals, 2020: 9.8xG – 9 goals, 2021: 7.1xG – 7 goals, 2021: 6.6xG – 5 goals).
Southampton has to make a decision on Ché Adams now
Regardless, all will agree Adams has not lived up to expectations so far this season. While 3 goals and 2 assists is an okay return through 14 games, in his last full season in the Championship the Scottish international scored 22 goals, Southampton need more from their striker. More worryingly, he often looks disconnected from teammates, and isolated up front.
For a striker whose arguable best skill is link-up play, Ché Adams looking isolated is worrying. But the issue may be tactical. While the progression from defending third to attacking third is equitable, the Saints’ ball progression in the final third is very heavily weighted towards the wings.
Aside from Stuart Armstrong, Southampton’s central midfielders (Will Smallbone, Flynn Downes, Shea Charles) rarely make forward runs, and even more rarely make forward runs through the center of the pitch.
But that is exactly Ché’s strength! Adams is at his best when receiving the ball on the half-turn and having runners run off him (if you would please turn your attention to Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and Exhibit C). It’s no coincidence two of these three clips feature Danny Ings, who has made a career making those incisive runs that Che loves to find. Sidenote — rewatching these clips was great: Juan Larios can really drive with the ball! Joe Aribo scored a Saints goal?
So Russell Martin’s brand of 4-3-3 does not play to Ché Adams’ strengths. What does it ask him to do? In short, get on the end of things, specifically crosses. With the emphasis the Saints have placed on wing play thus far, they get a ton of crosses into the box (7th most in the Championship). Southampton love to create isolation for their dynamic wingers and fullbacks, and then work the ball back into the middle either via a cross or quick passing to the midfielders.
And this is most definitely not Ché’s strength. Unofficially by my count, he has only scored one header for Southampton (an equalizer against Tottenham away in 2022 – please correct me if I am wrong). His movement in the box also hasn’t been great this season, as he often doesn’t get near the service provided to him. And at 5’9”, he isn’t the most physically imposing of strikers. He wants to be providing the service, but the Saints have asked him to be a scorer, and he hasn’t shone in that role.
(Forgive me another tangent — Saints might be evolving, I wrote about their unwillingness to play passes over the top after Preston, they attempted several against Birmingham. Che is a willing runner in behind, so it remains to be seen if this adaptation will benefit him going forward).
So to conclude Southampton have a striker whose skill set isn’t being highlighted by the system they play. His performances have steadily worsened (although he has been dealing with an injury). And interest is swirling, he had several suitors in the summer and with his contract up at season’s end, more will likely start lining up. Southampton have just the January window to either convince him to stay or try to get some value before he walks for nothing.
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And the Saints are well stocked with strikers — Carlos Alcaraz and Adam Armstrong have looked good this season, and newcomer Ross Stewart could be the physical finisher Southampton have missed since Shane Long departed. The clock could be striking midnight on Ché Adams’ Southampton tenure, despite him reportedly being offered a new contract that includes the Vice Captaincy. The Saints have a decision to make — and time is ticking away.