Southampton returned to winning ways as they beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at Selhurst Park last weekend, and while manager Mauricio Pellegrino will be pleased with the defensive options he has, the Argentine certainly has some conundrums to deal with from an attacking point of view.
Having kept the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand at the club during the summer transfer window – with the former making his return from injury as a late substitute at Selhurst Park – Pellegrino will be confident that having also added Wesley Hoedt and Mario Lemina – two of the most impressive performers against the Eagles – to his squad that he now has a solid backline and one that almost picks itself when everyone is fit.
With three clean sheets in their opening five Premier League fixtures this season, it is obvious to see that the south coast outfit’s main problems lie at the other end of the pitch.
In fact, Southampton have failed to find the net in nine of their last 13 Premier League matches stretching back to the end of last season, and despite the narrow victory against Roy Hodgson’s side Pellegrino certainly has some thinking to do in next few weeks and months.
The Argentine boss opted to go with Nathan Redmond, Steven Davis and Dusan Tadic behind Shane Long in south London, and to be fair to him on the day it was probably the right selection.
The move saw Manolo Gabbiadini, James Ward-Prowse and Sofiane Boufal drop to the substitutes’ bench from the disappointing 2-0 loss against Watford at St Mary’s previously, with Charlie Austin also unavailable because of injury.
While having the likes of Van Dijk, Hoedt, Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens as the centre-back options would suggest that Pellegrino has the tools to adopt a formation with a three-man defence, he has only trialled that once when a largely second-string side were beaten 2-0 at home by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the EFL Cup last month.
Otherwise we have seen a fairly standard 4-2-3-1 system, but the former Alaves manager still doesn’t know the best players in each attacking position and his side look much less effective now than when they had the likes of Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane in the same formation two seasons ago.
While Gabbiadini and Austin have proven they can score on a regular basis, it was Long that was preferred up top against Crystal Palace and he certainly did well with his hold-up play, strength in the air, running into the channels and putting the opposition defenders under pressure.
The problem with Long is that while he offers all of those attributes, the Republic of Ireland international has only hit 10 Premier League goals in a single season once – two years ago with Saints – and his finishing isn’t good enough to be a starter for a club that want European football.
If the 30-year-old is to start regularly he needs the attacking midfielders behind him to chip in with goals, like Steven Davis did last weekend.
The problem is that they aren’t doing that with Davis’ strike adding to one from Redmond against Middlesbrough and a Tadic penalty against West Ham since their 3-0 defeat against Manchester City in April.
While Pellegrino could choose to stick with an unchanged line-up for the visit of Manchester United to St Mary’s on Saturday, he certainly has a lot of things to think about in the future.
Redmond may have a pretty effective partnership with Ryan Bertrand on the left-hand side, but does Boufal or even Tadic deserve an extended run there if captain Davis is going to continue in the middle?
On the opposite flank any of Redmond, Boufal or Tadic could feature, but Pellegrino will also know that Ward-Prowse is fighting for a spot in the side and either Long or Gabbiadini could potentially play there if the other is up top.
Then you have Charlie Austin, who perhaps has more strength then either of his striker teammates and has quickly become a fans’ favourite at St Mary’s because of his ability to find the net – no surprise given his team’s struggles in recent months.
Pellegrino will be well aware that he needs to find the solution sooner rather than later with the St Mary’s faithful showing their disapproval at the final whistle in the defeat against Watford – as well as Frank de Boer having already been sacked by Crystal Palace after just four matches at the helm – otherwise he will find himself under pressure.
While a formation with three at the back seems favourable, if the Argentine boss doesn’t want to risk making that change then going with Davis in the middle and Tadic on the right seems the best bet now, as well as giving Boufal an extended run on the left with an out-of-form Redmond dropping to the substitutes’ bench.
The striker conundrum is a tough one too but Long deserves to keep his spot following his performance against Palace, but in the future Pellegrino must find a formation that suits either Gabbiadini or Austin because of their ability to score on a regular basis.