Strik­ing prob­lems leave Saints stuck in fa­mil­iar rut

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - PAUL DOYLE

DUR­ING Claude Puel’s year as Southamp­ton man­ager, he tended to speak so qui­etly in pub­lic that he was al­most in­audi­ble, so it is hardly sur­pris­ing that no one has heard him laugh­ing this sea­son at his old club’s form. But that does not mean the French­man is not tit­ter­ing away to him­self at this very mo­ment. And who could blame him if he is?

Puel was let go in June de­spite lead­ing Southamp­ton to their first ma­jor fi­nal for 14 years and an eighth-place fin­ish in the Pre­mier League. But ap­par­ently his style was too bor­ing and some play­ers and many fans dis­liked his method, so he had to go — fair enough, but look at them now.

As they pre­pare for to­day’s telling match with New­cas­tle, Southamp­ton are 12th in the table, and new man­ager Mauri­cio Pellegrino has in­tro­duced such piz­zazz that they have mus­tered five goals in seven league matches. Puel’s fate was sealed when his team failed to score in six of their fi­nal seven home games of last sea­son. Hey presto, they have failed to score in four of their first five home games un­der Pellegrino, in­clud­ing the 2-0 de­feat by Wolves that elim­i­nated them from the League Cup in which they were run­ners-up last sea­son. Puel may or may not be guf­faw­ing; sea­son-ticket hold­ers at St Mary’s are def­i­nitely still groan­ing.

Puel was not the prob­lem, then. But noth­ing so far sug­gests that Pellegrino is the so­lu­tion. The Ar­gen­tinian has tended to play the same for­ma­tion as his pre­de­ces­sor, made sim­i­lar selec­tions and sub­sti­tu­tions and presided over a sim­i­lar pos­ses­sion-based style. Yet Southamp­ton still strug­gle to score. It is too early to con­clude that Pellegrino will flop but is it un­rea­son­able to have ex­pected progress on the at­tack­ing front? Kind of, yes.

It is not a ques­tion of what has changed at the club so much as what else has re­mained the same.

The an­swer, of course, is Southamp­ton’s for­wards. Last sea­son the Saints de­liv­ered more crosses (al­beit of vary­ing qual­ity) than any other team but none of their strik­ers got close to a dou­ble-digit goal tally in the Pre­mier League. Char­lie Austin struck six be­fore suf­fer­ing an in­jury; Manolo Gab­bia­dini fired in four goals in his first three league matches but then he, too, was in­jured. The Ital­ian has been back in ac­tion for months but his sharp­ness has not re­turned.

Austin is a nat­u­ral fin­isher but not mo­bile enough to serve as a lone striker in the for­ma­tion that both Puel and Pellegrino pre­fer, so he has not started a league game this sea­son. Gab­bia­dini is also a classy fin­isher when at his best but he, too, has not been dy­namic enough to be en­trusted with a reg­u­lar start­ing spot. Pellegrino has al­ter­nated be­tween the Ital­ian and Shane Long, who drags de­fences all over the place and gets much more in­volved in play (av­er­ag­ing 39 touches per match this sea­son com­pared with 13 for Gab­bia­dini) but has never been a reg­u­lar scorer.

Graziano Pellè used to en­dure bar­ren patches but Southamp­ton still miss the striker who left for China in July last year. Southamp­ton spent a club record £18.1m in the sum­mer on the tidy mid­fielder Mario Lem­ina, and the club’s chair­man, Ralph Krueger, said that re­tain­ing Vir­gil van Dijk was “a state­ment we need to make” but, bear­ing in mind that they also signed the cen­tre-back Wes­ley Hoedt, a more im­por­tant dec­la­ra­tion of in­tent would have been to im­prove their fire­power by buy­ing a striker who can thrive in the sys­tem that they ap­par­ently want to play.

Ei­ther that, or Pellegrino has to find an­other sys­tem, per­haps by play­ing with two strik­ers, which he has been re­luc­tant to do.

The at­tack­ers be­hind the strik­ers re­main no more re­li­able than the play­ers in front of them. They shine in spells but there seems no way of know­ing how they will ra­tion their magic.

These are un­cer­tain times for a club whose vi­sion has been mostly true in re­cent years. Maybe Pellegrino will work out a way to coax more con­sis­tency from tal­ented play­ers, and maybe Gao Jisheng, the Chi­nese real es­tate ty­coon who bought 80 per cent of the club in Au­gust, will sanc­tion in­vest­ment in Jan­uary. If not, a club that has earned the right to as­pire to hob­nob­bing with Euro­pean com­peti­tors could find it­self brawl­ing against rel­e­ga­tion.

Southamp­ton v New­cas­tle, Sky Sports , 4.0

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