The problem with Southampton

By: timbersfan , 12:30 AM GMT on September 22, 2012

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The league table doesn't lie -- and neither do the record books. Bottom of the Premier League with no points, Southampton is faced with a statistical barrier to survival: no newly promoted side has lost its first four matches and escaped relegation.

There are mitigating circumstances: three of the Saints' first four games were against Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal -- last season's top three in order. For a newly promoted club, these are known as "bonus" matches where no points are expected. And besides, Southampton played well against the two clubs from Manchester.

More concerning was the 2-0 home defeat to Wigan. That, coupled with the nature of the 6-1 thrashing at the Emirates last weekend, has prompted questions about the safety of Nigel Adkins' job. It would be tremendously harsh if Adkins was dismissed in the coming months, especially considering he guided Southampton to consecutive promotions in order to reach this division in the first place. The bookmakers believe he is the favorite to leave his job first, and the usual names -- which these days generally include Rafael Benitez, improbable as it may be -- have been discussed as a potential replacement.

Of this season's promoted trio, Southampton is undoubtedly the most exciting side. West Ham is a classic Sam Allardyce team -- direct and combative, yet unimaginative -- and he'll probably guide them to comfortable survival. Reading is a decent side but its performance against Tottenham this past Sunday was remarkably tame. The Royals won't be embarrassed this season though they're difficult to get excited about.

Southampton, on the other hand, is a very likeable side. There are plenty of creative midfielders, plenty of direct attackers and a couple of handy strikers. The problem, however, is at the back -- Southampton has neither outstanding individuals nor collective organization. Regardless of the opposition, conceding 14 goals in four matches is a disastrous record.

Statistically, Southampton is equally fascinating. According to WhoScored.com, the Saints have conceded the most shots in the league. It’s also telling that they’ve won fewer aerial duels per game than any other side while conceding the fewest fouls. Their method for winning the ball is through interceptions, where they are the league leaders, and their attacking is attractive -- they’ve played fewer long balls than any other team.

This leads to a simple conclusion -- Southampton is too nice. The defense isn't fierce enough, the center backs aren’t dominant enough and the squad lacks players who rough up the opposition. Which is fine. In fact, it's quite pleasant and contributes to the Saints being the most interesting of the newly promoted sides. But the opposite approach, probably best fitting Allardyce's football -- is more of a guarantee of survival.

As a newly promoted side, attractive football must be finely calibrated in order to achieve survival. Swansea did it last season, but there was much greater structure to their play. The ball was retained for longer periods, so the Welsh club could press without tiring and win possession quickly. Its midfield remained compact without the ball while the wide players defended the flanks reliably. The movement of attackers was integrated, so when Swansea conceded possession, the team was evenly distributed across the pitch to prevent the opposition from exploiting obvious spaces.

Southampton has been much more anarchic: in addition to lacking physical power, its defensive shape is poor, a combination that has played into its opponents' hands. They play too high up the pitch and the defense receives little protection from the midfield.


no_source / Michael Regan/Getty Images
Morgan Schneiderlin has established himself as a solid and elegant holding midfielder, but the Saints' overall lack of mettle gives opponents plenty of opportunities to attack.

Morgan Schneiderlin is a good holding midfielder and has completed more tackles and interceptions (combined) than any other player in the league this season. But elsewhere, Southampton is far too open. Its wingers are casual in retreating to their defensive positions, which is acceptable in the Championship (opposing full backs tend to have limited technical quality) but suicidal in the Premier League.

Against Manchester United, Southampton conceded three goals from deliveries into the box from wide -- granted one was a corner, but a constant theme was United enjoying too much time on the flanks. Against Arsenal, Kieran Gibbs was constantly free to overlap down the left -- he forced Southampton into two own goals.

What is the defensive approach? Well, as the statistic mentioned earlier suggests, it is based around interceptions in midfield, combined with a high defensive line. That was the wrong approach against Arsenal, though -- the Gunners played with a quick attacking trio of Lukas Podolski, Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who thrived on the space in behind. Gervinho looked like a world beater, which is less of a reflection on his own talent and more a damning assessment of Adkins’ strategy.

Going forward, Southampton has some terrific attacking options. Adam Lallana is an outstanding talent who deserved his England call up; Rickie Lambert is a fine striker capable of scoring varied and spectacular goals; Emmanuel Mayuka was highly impressive in Zambia’s victorious Africa Cup of Nations tournament and will lead counter-attacks; Gaston Ramirez is Southampton’s record signing and a potential superstar. Jay Rodriguez, Jason Puncheon and Guiherme "Guly" do Prado are more established at a lower level but are decent alternatives. Southampton will score goals this season given its attack with speed and variety.

Unless the approach at the back changes, though, Southampton will concede more than they score. Overall, the Saints are reminiscent of Roberto Di Matteo’s West Bromwich Albion side of 2010/11, who were promoted and played some sparkling football to much media fanfare but were terrible defensively as they slipped towards relegation. Di Matteo was sacked, and West Brom chose Roy Hodgson as his replacement, enticed by his rigid defensive organisation. It was an effective move -- West Brom combined individual attacking talent with defensive structure and comfortably survived.

The situation is fairly simple: Southampton has talented attackers, but lacks defensive steel. They must add that quality in order to survive -- if Adkins can’t provide that in the next few matches, his departure is inevitable.

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