Southampton failed to net for the third consecutive game as their woes in front of goal continue. Following another blunt display against West Ham, Southampton’s scintillating start to the season seems to be running out of steam. The way Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side have finished the year hasn't been an accurate reflection of what the club has achieved throughout a successful 2020.
Saints have looked a shadow of themselves the past three games, unable to replicate the form shown at the start of the season. The goalless affair at St. Mary’s meant that Southampton have gone 340 minutes without a goal and 290 minutes without creating a ‘big chance’. This comes as a shock in the system for the Southampton faithful as prior to the clash against Manchester City, Southampton had scored a record of two goals in six successive home games.
There has always been a lingering doubt within the back of the supporters’ heads whether the system Hasenhuttl opted with was sustainable throughout the entire season. Saints have endured a decline over the past three games but what has gone wrong in front of goal?
Absent key players prove costly
Hasenhuttl’s side have lost their spark they kickstarted the campaign with. From creating a plethora of chances to not creating a big chance in 290 minutes, Southampton supporters have been brought back to reality.
Southampton’s top goal-scorer, Danny Ings has struggled with injuries of late, putting the spotlight on Shane Long and academy graduate Nathan Tella to fill the missing piece. As shown, Saints’ talisman is proving to be irreplaceable as the side have lacked real quality and fluidity in the final third.
The lack of depth within the squad has forced Ings to be rushed back within the starting 11, proving to be costly as the number nine had to be replaced in the first half against the Citizens after picking up a muscle strain. The English international made a return to the starting 11 against West Ham yet failed to have a major impact. Ings reinstated on Tuesday night the fact that he is still making a return to full fitness and was forced to play on around 80% of what he’s capable of.
Another absentee has proved costly, contributing towards Southampton’s woes in front of goal of late. The 6ft 6in Dane, Jannick Vestergaard has been nothing short of a revelation this season, playing a fundamental part to Saints’ success so far. The defensive ace’s work off the ball in defence hasn’t gone unnoticed, having a significant role in administering the second most clean sheets in the League (7). However, Vestergaard further plays a pivotal role in possession of the ball, swaying diagonal balls towards the onrushing full-backs, as seen on numerous occasions this season as well as fizzing the ball in towards the likes of Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse to break the pressing lines of the opposition, proving to be crucial towards the team’s attacking strategies.
Jack Stephens came into the fold to replace the Dane, yet couldn’t dictate the game from deep to the same extent as the latter. Kyle Walker-Peters and Theo Walcott were continually seeking to run in-behind West Ham’s backline but were not found with Stephens not possessing the ability on the ball Vestergaard attains.
Vestergaard’s importance from set-pieces is not to be overlooked with the Dane netting a healthy total of three times already this season. The free-kick specialist and skipper Ward-Prowse has often picked out the man-mountain to provide a goal when most needed, seen against Brighton, Aston Villa and Chelsea. Vestergaard’s aerial presence has been a notable miss as Southampton have failed to create anything from set-pieces in the last three games.
How sustainable is the pressing system?
As mentioned before, the manager has extremely high demands of his players, with and without the ball. The famous 4-2-2-2 system Hasenhuttl has opted with has flourished this season but is starting to run its due course, appearing to have come to a halt especially in the final third.
This has resorted Southampton to administer a Claude Puel-esque style of football, with several risks not being taken and movement becoming too reactionary. Throughout this busy set of fixtures in the festive period, the side has come to learn that the pressing system is not plausible to execute three times a week with minimal squad depth.
Many consistent performers such as the likes of Che Adams and Stuart Armstrong have understandably looked leggy in the past couple of games. A rest-bite is clearly a necessity right now. Saints will have a 6 day rest period before their next game against league leaders Liverpool, then two weeks until the next Premier League game. 26 points is a good haul at this stage of the season, and with the batteries recharged Hasenhuttl’s side can have a real crack at the second half of the season, potentially becoming European contenders if they can replicate their form first shown at the start.
It goes without saying, Saints aren’t playing at their best but have been able to pick points up that in previous seasons they may not have got at all. With the table tighter than ever before, each point is crucial in pushing towards the European spaces. Only 4 points separate the Saints from second-place Manchester United.
Every team goes through a slump at some stage in the season; Hasenhuttl will hope that this is only a minor blip that can be fixed in the training ground with the objective to achieve some form once again.