Solace for the Saints – An encouraging start for Southampton FC

There is no question that the year 2021 has thus far been a bit of a miserable one for Southampton Football Club. After a blistering start to last season that saw the Saints top the table in early November, the team fell apart at the turn of the year due to badly timed injuries and poor squad depth, to the point where they sat at the bottom of the 2021 calendar year league table.

Southampton FC

Having previously lived in the city for three years, attending a handful of matches, the Saints have become something of a second team for me in the Premier League. Whilst I’m unsure of the consensus of Saints fans at large before the season kicked off, I was one of a number of Premier League fans who feared the worst for the South Coast outfit this season. In the first five matches of 2021/22 however, I have been pleasantly surprised with what I’ve seen from the Saints.

Emerging from the Crisis

I mentioned how terrible the second half of last season was for Southampton, and the results really do speak for themselves. A second 9-0 loss in the space of 18 months back in early February was the nadir for the team, but in truth, it only served as the standout of an awful nine game run in which the Saints picked up only one point. In fact, after earning a valiant 1-0 victory over Liverpool at the turn of the year, the St. Mary’s side lost 15 of their final 21 games – textbook relegation form.

It’s no surprise, then, that Southampton’s first five fixtures of this season were highlighted as being particularly daunting. Clashes with both Manchester clubs, a tricky away trip to Everton, and games at home to West Ham and away at Newcastle (two fixtures in which the Saints have an appalling recent record) totalled up to forecast a punishing start to the season. Instead, Southampton have lost just once so far having drawn the other four, with each of their four points accumulated being very impressive ones.

Out With the Old, in With the New

A key factor behind the projected doom and gloom for Southampton, other than their awful form in 2021, was down to their summer transfer window, in which they again fell victim to the trend of key players moving on to more prestigious clubs higher up in the table. Big names such as Ryan Bertrand, Jannik Vestergaard and the talismanic Danny Ings all sought pastures new.

But whilst this appeared to be fatally damaging, it perhaps wasn’t quite as damning as it initially seemed. In truth, Ryan Bertrand had stagnated on the South Coast in recent times, and whilst Vestergaard showed flashes of brilliance last season, the Dane never found the consistency during his three years at Southampton to be considered an irreplaceable player.

Adam Armstrong

Danny Ings, of course, is a massive loss, but the new signings have given some cause for optimism. New striker Adam Armstrong has had a few bright moments in the opening weeks, and although the club need more from him, they were wise to hedge their bets by bringing in loan striker Armando Broja to try and shore up the void further. At left back, Romain Perraud has looked capable of succeeding Bertrand, and the teenage Tino Livramento has turned in some fantastic performances on the other side, already looking like a future star.

A Problem Remedied?

The greatest shortcoming during Ralph Hassenhuttl’s time at Southampton has undoubtedly been the defence. Whilst it’s commendable trying to play attractive, attacking football (particularly after the non-stop borefest under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes) there have been times where the Saints have been caught woefully short at the back – 68 league goals conceded last season tells you all you need to know.

This time around, there are early signs that things might be beginning to improve in this area. Other than some mistakes being made at Everton on the opening day, Saints have looked encouragingly solid, with the aforementioned Perraud and Livramento really having an impact. On top of that, Mohammed Salisu looks like he’s growing into the side after an injury-ridden debut year, and whilst questions hang over goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, two clean sheets in a row have given him something to build on.

But perhaps the biggest praise for a single game performance goes to Jan Bednarek. The Polish international pretty much embodied the team’s form in the second half of last season, enduring a number of defensive horror shows as the fans started to doubt him. It may only be one game, but his exceptional performance against Manchester City suggests that there could be light at the end of the tunnel for him as well.

Who knows – maybe the Saints can even avoid suffering a 9-0 for the third year in a row.

Looking Forward

The main concern is the fact that so far, the Adams – Armstrong partnership has yielded just one goal, as the shadow of Ings still looms large over St. Mary’s.

It perhaps isn’t down to them, but more the lack of attacking from Southampton in general so far this season. Saints have created the least xG (expected goals) in the league so far, at 4.09, and that figure will simply have to improve if they are to push on.

But maybe all isn’t as bad as it seems – in achieving four very commendable draws in a row, it appears that Ralph is willing to sacrifice some of the attacking intent in trickier fixtures for more defensive solidity, and after some of the batterings that Southampton have taken in recent seasons, that certainly doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Still, the attacking play still needs to improve, and hopefully the impending return of Stuart Armstrong, as well as the successful reintroduction of winger Mohammed Elyounoussi after two impressive years in Scotland, can begin to make a difference. With somewhat kinder fixtures coming up in October and November, let’s hope the problem can be remedied, beginning against Wolves this weekend.

The Final Word

All in all, whilst Southampton Football Club haven’t set the world alight in their opening five fixtures – and to be fair, nobody expected them to – they have unquestionably fared much better than I and many others thought they would.

The improved defending, having achieved two clean sheets already, has generated hope for some progress in 2021/22. No doubt the attacking needs to be improved, and the next few games should give us a barometer of how likely this is to occur – but some positive signs have been there.

It’s a long way to go, and the Saints could still end up struggling badly this season. But for the time being, a little bit of optimism is returning to the Southampton atmosphere, and the rays of light may just begin to re-emerge at St Mary’s as the club hopefully shake off a dark, miserable and lockdown-choked first half of 2021.

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