Southampton Weekly Rondo: To Stephens or not to Stephens

Captain Jack Stephens is back to the starting eleven for his Southampton side, but should he be? With Russell Martin's men conceding goals at an alarming rate, it could be time for Stephens to return to the bench

Birmingham City v Southampton FC - Sky Bet Championship
Birmingham City v Southampton FC - Sky Bet Championship / Cameron Smith/GettyImages

Welcome to the 10th 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!

Once again I have to begin with my sincerest apologies for missing another week. We will have to start calling this the Southampton Biweekly Rondo if this keeps up. To recap the results since our last Weekly Rondo.

Liverpool 3 - 0 Southampton
Birmingham 3 - 4 Southampton
Southampton 4 - 2 Sunderland

All in all, this was a good response on paper from the Saints after the disaster against Milwall. The Liverpool loss had no business being as one sided as it ended up. Poor finishing cost Southampton dearly, but they were right with Liverpool for the majority of the match (xG: Liverpool 1.89, Southampton 1.71).

Couple a good fight away at Anfield with two Championship wins and happy days right? Well...not so fast. All of a sudden Southampton are shipping goals. Birmingham City had scored 3 goals in a game just twice all season: they put 3 past Southampton including one after they had gone down to 10 men. Sunderland had lost 5 straight matches and Saints almost blew a 2-0 lead after halftime to the Netflix documentary side. Zoom out to the bigger picture: during the unbeaten run Southampton conceded more than one goal just twice (Preston and Huddersfield). They've done it now 6 time in their past 7 games!

So what is going on? There are likely a myriad of reasons why Russell Martin's defense has gone from a brick wall to a leaky sieve seemingly overnight. But one, 6'1, Cornish, Southampton captain has become a lightning rod for criticism in recent weeks. So this week, we have to deep dive into the 2nd coming of Franz Beckenbauer, Jack Stephens.

To accommodate Stephens back into the starting lineup, Russell Martin has made some drastic changes to his formation. Initially, Martin tried Stephens at left back, then right back, now has given up on that altogether and put him in his natural center back position next to Jan Bednarek.

But Saints already had a center back there in Taylor Harwood-Bellis, who has been an absolute stud for Southampton this season. Which creates a problem. So Russell Martin has gotten creative, shifted THB out to right back in the absence of Kyle Walker-Peters, and played some serious tactical games. Out of possession, Southampton looks like their usual 4-3-3, with Stephens central and THB out wide. But in possession it shifts to a back 3, with THB, Bednarek, and Ryan Manning building from the back.

But wait a second, you might be asking, where did Jack Stephens go? Excellent question. The answer has surprised Southampton fans, opposition fans, opposition players, and probably Stephens himself. Russell Martin has said screw it, Libero Jack Stephens, here we go. Stephens has been given the ultimate freedom to roam forward. In possession, he almost becomes an attacking midfielder, driving forward with the ball, turning up in the opposition box, and generally creating havoc in the opposition defensive shape.

And offensively, it has worked! Southampton are scoring goals at an decent clip. Stephens looks calm on the ball and has actually played quite well. But defensively, Saints are slipping, as mentioned above. But are they actually slipping? They conceded 3 against Birmingham City, but on only 0.8 xG. They conceded 2 against Sunderland, but on only 0.6 xG. They conceded 2 against Milwall on only 1.1 xG. So on the scoreboard the opposition sides are pumping the ball into Bazunu's net, but the statistics say Saints have been unlucky and don't deserve the scorelines they are getting.

The actual answer is likely somewhere in the middle. While Stephens has played well, it seems that Russell Martin has overreacted to a poor run of form. Yes Saints lost 3 games of 4 last month, but they did so without arguably their best overall player in Flynn Downes. A complete tactical switch to fit in Stephens (playing out of position) seems like overkill. Especially when it forces another stalwart performer in Harwood-Bellis to play out of position.

So why does Martin continue to stick with this new tactic? We can only speculate. It could be good man management, as Martin has spoken recently about Stephens' football IQ and leadership skills. Or it could be a response to how teams have begun to play against Saints. Rather than sitting deep and letting Southampton pick them apart, opposition sides have started to aggressively man mark the Saints in a high - mid block press. Saints really struggled against this versus Bristol and Hull City, before finding some footing. Allowing Stephens to roam and building up with a 3 instead of a 2 has helped Saints create man advantages in deeper areas to bypass the opposition press.

But since it has come at the cost of defensive solidity, I like many others, believe it is time for Stephens to return to the bench. Despite the analytics saying otherwise, Saints have been frail defensively, and part of that is likely because a settled partnership in Harwood-Bellis and Bednarek has been broken up. I really like Jack Stephens in this John Stones, Franz Beckenbauer, Libero role in possession, and believe it has a place in Martin's setup, especially when chasing a game. But for now, it might be time for James Bree to return to the lineup until regular right back Kyle Walker-Peters is back from injury. All the 4-3 thrillers are great viewing for the neutral, but horrible for my blood pressure, so even if it is just for my health Russell, let's go back to the 2-1 scorelines. Offense wins games, defense wins (the) Championship.