Welcome to the 4th edition of the Southampton Weekly Rondo -- where we discuss the past 7 days of the biggest club on the South Coast. We will briefly recap the week, then analyze what happened, and predict how the Saints will move forward. If you enjoy -- we march on next week! (Note - this was written before the Swansea match. A recap of the Swansea, Plymouth Argyle, and Norwich City matches will be forthcoming in the new year)
E-I-E-I-E-I-O / UP THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE WE GO. With pacesetters Leicester and Ipswich flying high, it has been a long time since the Southampton fans have broken out that chant. The occasion: Ipswich Town dropping points. And finally, the Saints took advantage with a nervy, gutsy 1-0 win against well-organized QPR. Technically, Southampton didn't move up the table at all, remaining in 4th place. But the gap between Russell Martin's men and 2nd place Ipswich is down to 7 points, and the holiday spirit is alive and well on the South Coast.
Last week, we wrote about how Southampton have a key stretch of matches over the festive season. A string of fixtures against bottom half-sides (and Norwich), while Ipswich, Leeds, and Leicester battle it out against each other. The top 3 are assured to drop points, and if Saints can maintain winning ways, a climb up the table is beckoning.
Step 1: achieved. While it was admittedly nervy for most of the game, the Saints and Jack Stephens' beautiful forehead earned a 1-0 victory at Loftus Park Road on Saturday. The match, plus injury news for the Saints and a blip in the road for the women's team leave plenty to discuss this week. As always, let's get right to it.
1. Super Sub Jack Stephens is Here
Speculation over where the Saints captain Jack Stephens will play has been mounting over the past several weeks. He has the quality to start, but it would be foolish to break up the partnership of Harwood-Bellis and Janny B. In a previous edition of the Weekly Rondo, I advocated for using Stephens as a defensive substitution in the midfield. Well, I was half right. Stephens did come on as a defensive sub, but slotted into a back 3 alongside his center back compatriots.
And Russell Martin's gamble paid off. The Saints had been under extended pressure for much of the 2nd half, and the 87th minute introduction of Jack Stephens for Adam Armstrong immediately relieved some pressure. Until Shea Charles' 89th minute sending off that is...but Stephens remained pivotal, making the final goal mouth clearance off a QPR last ditch corner.
Having Jack Stephens available to kill off games could be massive for Southampton. Their tendency to sit in and try to absorb pressure when defending a lead might just be who they are at this point, and adjusting to that is vital. Super Sub Captain Jack might be the answer for this all important 2nd half of the season.
2. The Best and Worst of Che Adams
This Weekly Rondo is going to sound like a broken record...but wow was the duality of Che Adams on display Saturday. His hold up play was excellent, including one sequence where he chased down a poor pass from Jan Bednarek, shrugged off one defender and nutmegged another, before releasing a teammate with a layoff. His pressing was tenacious, winning the ball back in dangerous situations. But once again, his finishing and final 3rd play was ineffective, especially his shades of Shane Long against Watford attempted lob of QPR keeper Asmir Begovic, which ended up squarely in the Bosnian's chest (for statistics nerds like me, this was the 2nd highest xG attempt of the game at 0.38, THB's goal was 0.4).
Despite this, overall it was a productive outing for Che. He has value to the Saints as a 2nd half substitute whose main role is hold up play and pressing. However, the Saints do and will need him to start putting away the big chances he often creates for himself. Especially if there is no striker incoming in the January window.
3. Shea Charles is Close, but not Quite There
After his 2nd yellow against QPR, on the Saints Play broadcast Dean Hammond mentioned that Shea Charles as a young player will learn from these bookings. Well he'll have to learn quickly, because as Flynn Downes returns to full fitness, the Manchester City youth product is going to play a lot of minutes for Southampton in the next few months.
Charles is very close to being a quality player. He shows flashes of being a true number 6: constantly breaking up the opposition play, calm on the ball, and measured in his late runs into the box. He even worked his way into a nice shooting chance Saturday!
But the next step in his development is mental. Against Watford, he took a bad early yellow card and was muted the rest of the match. His first booking against QPR was needed, his second was mindless. Once the Northern Irishman starts reading the flow of the game more, he has a bright future ahead of him.
4. Get Better Soon Ross Stewart
The past week also brought the news that new Saint Ross Stewart will not feature again this season. The 8 million pound striker made two substitute appearances for Southampton before re-injuring a hamstring. While it may be the right long-term move to shut down the Loch Ness Drogba, in the short-term it leaves the Saints very reliant on Adam Armstrong and Che Adams as the only out and out strikers on the roster.
As January approaches, Southampton have several areas of need, and striker is now one of them. Stewart's injury is even more painful as his physical finishing profile is exactly what Saints have lacked so far this season. While he may become a striker befitting of his prolific (nick)namesake, Didier Drogba, he will have to wait until 2024 to do so. Get well soon Ross, hopefully the next time we see you will be in the Premiership.
5. The Women's Championship Race is Heating Up
On the women's side of the club, the Saints sufferend a 1-0 defeat to promotion rivals Durham last Sunday. Despite the Saints applying lots of pressure, a stoppage time goal from Durham's Amy Andrews doomed Southampton to defeat. The Women's Championship table is starting to take shape as they head to a break in fixtures (next match is an FA cup tie January 14th). The Saints are in 5th spot, but only 3 points off promotion spot holding Birmingham, and 6th spot Durham are nipping at their heels. As we head into winter, every single point will be precious if Southampton want to make a shock promotion to the Women's Super League this season.
6. Welcome to Southampton Joe Aribo
I'd like to end the roundup by giving some flowers to Joe Aribo. Aribo has struggled to settle in at St. Mary's since his move from Rangers in 2022, and that is putting it lightly. After a slow start under Russell Martin, many (including myself), wrote him off as another failed signing. But the winter has been great for the Nigerian international. He has worked his way back into Russell Martin's good graces, been rewarded with multiple starts, and has played pivotal roles in Southampton's unbeaten run. While he has not contributed with goals or assists, his ability to play out of tight spaces, strength in the tackle, and willingness to play as a false nine has been valuable. He will be missed as he travels to the African Cup of Nations tournament this January with Nigeria, but Saints fans will have one of our own to root for as the tournament goes on.