What’s Happening at Southampton?

To those on the outside looking in, what’s happening at Southampton might not be totally clear. In the summer, the club sacked most of its backroom staff minus Ralph Hasenhuttl, one of the longest-tenured managers in the Premier League, then spent more than €70 million on 10 new signings. With 14 games gone, Saints are languishing in 18th place on 12 points, and Hasenhuttl is Outenhuttl as of Monday.

So, what’s happening at Southampton?

The Malaise

There haven’t been many positive runs for Southampton the last couple of years. The only reasons Saints stayed in the Premier League at the end of the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons were because short bursts of form in the beginning or middle of the campaigns were enough to keep the team afloat above the truly dilapidated husks of Burnley, West Brom, and the like. Otherwise, all other portions of the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons were full of choke jobs, blowout defeats, and general ineptitude.

In the summer, the club shipped out lot of older, more veteran players, all through either loan or free transfers, and spent tens of millions on very young players. Of the 10 players Southampton signed, six were 20 or younger, and none were above 25.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Building for the long term is a smart strategy, particularly for a club of Southampton’s size. Assuming players like Samuel Edozie, Sekou Mara, Gavin Bazunu, and Juan Larios will be regular contributors to a successful team in a handful of seasons, then Saints can look back on this window with great pleasure.

But here’s the problem: somebody has to score goals now.

Someone. Please. Finish. Please.

This squad’s forwards include: Adam Armstrong, Che Adams, Sekou Mara, Theo Walcott, Samuel Edozie, and Dominic Ballard. Combined, this collection of “goal scorers” has scored 4 goals in the Premier League.

Southampton does not have a clinical finisher among its forwards. Adams is adept at holding the ball up and laying it off to a more capable finisher, a la Danny Ings. But since Ings left the club in 2021, he has not been adequately replaced. A €17.7 million attempt was made via Adam Armstrong, and that’s gone significantly worse for Saints than it did for me when I bought him in my FIFA20 career mode with Cardiff City. In real life, Armstrong has shown through 15 months in the Premier League that he can run quickly to chase a ball down the wing. That’s about it.

At 33, Theo Walcott no longer has the legs for the top flight. Dominic Ballard is 17 years old. Sekou Mara and Samuel Edozie have each shown a few slivers of sparks in their limited opportunities, but they don’t even have 40 years between them.

It’s so bad that Hasenhuttl was mostly playing central midfielder Joe Aribo out of position at striker, hoping his sheer size and strength would be enough to wrestle something positive going forward. Aribo has done well given the circumstances, but I doubt he signed with Saints intending to play target man.

It doesn’t matter who is managing this team – unless a clinical finisher is added in January or Edozie and/or Mara miraculously shed their rawness to find incredible form, this team will not score enough goals to stay up.

Also, James Ward-Prowse

One of my least favorite tropes in soccer is the scapegoating of a team’s best player, or any one individual really, when things are not going well. This is an incredibly team-oriented game, and individual performances can be impacted by teammates in a higher capacity than in many other sports.

All of this is to say, for as much as he’s meant to the team for years, and for as much as the blame for Southampton’s current situation can be spread wide, James Ward-Prowse is having a stinky time of it.

Ward-Prowse was everywhere for Southampton in previous seasons, scoring and assisting goals from set pieces, cleaning up defensive errors, and progressing the ball forward when other midfielders weren’t as interested to do so. But in the 2022/23 campaign, he has scored just one goal, his shots per 90 have cut in half compared to 2021/22, and his progessive passes are a fraction of what they were the last three seasons. He has fallen off a cliff in most statistical categories.

This isn’t entirely his fault. Southampton doesn’t have the same targets for him to find in the box, and the departures of defensive-stalwart Oriel Romeu as his midfield pairing is putting more pressure on Ward-Prowse. But nobody is forcing his corner kicks to never make it beyond the first man, nor is anybody forcing him to rarely even look to pass the ball forward, even when the opportunity to move up the pitch presents itself.

So far, this has been Ward-Prowse’s worst season in multiple years, and it is taking its toll.

What’s the Solution?

Maybe it’s Nathan Jones?

Jones the next manager at Southampton, leaving Luton Town to come to St. Mary’s. I can’t say I’m a regular watcher of the English League Championship nor Luton Town, so I can’t give much of a personal assessment of Jones nor this appointment.

But change was needed. Hasenhuttl did a lot for the club, but his message had clearly run stale. Someone else needed to become the boss at Southampton – whether or not Jones was the correct replacement remains to be seen.

Otherwise, Saints must find someone who can reliable finish off chances to survive the drop this season. That will have to come in January. If a striker of reasonable quality is not found in January, Southampton will play in the Championship in 2023/24.

The purchases from last summer were positive, and I do believe Saints have a bright future ahead of them with the young pieces introduced to the squad. Armel Bella-Kotchap is an interception machine and done pretty well in the back as a 20-year-old. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from players like Edozie, Larios, and Romeo Lavia. There are some exciting young talents at St. Mary’s. But if relegation strikes this year, it makes everything about the future much, much murkier.

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