We may be only a few months into the new Premier League season but Southampton and Newcastle’s clash at St. Mary’s this Saturday already feels like a crucial relegation clash, essentially a shootout for whoever will join Huddersfield and Cardiff City in the drop zone come the end of the campaign.
It looks set to be an intense game for all the wrong reasons, the most attritional of chess matches for Mark Hughes and Rafa Benitez. So where exactly will it be lost and won? Football FanCast look at four factors that will decide the 3pm kickoff…
Neither side have particularly impressed on the ball this season, with Southampton and Newcastle averaging just 47% and 41% possession respectively in the Premier League, but someone will need to take control of the match and in that regard Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Jonjoe Shelvey are the standout candidates.
As well as scoring twice, Hojbjerg is Southampton’s only central midfielder to average more than one key pass per match this term while his overall pass accuracy has been a solid 87%, highlighting the former Bayern Munich youngster’s ability to orchestrate from midfield.
Shelvey, meanwhile, is the chief playmaker in the Newcastle midfield, registering the fourth-most key passes per match of any Premier League player this season. If Southampton let him get on the ball instead of Hojbjerg, he’s got the potential to cause serious damage – providing Newcastle improve in one key area, which brings us onto…
It’s no secret where both sides need to improve to move up the Premier League table. Aside from points being far from forthcoming, Southampton and Newcastle both enter Saturday’s game with a record of six goals scored and 14 conceded from just nine games. Clearly, there’s work to be done at both ends of the pitch, making this match a curious skirmish between disorganised defences and completely aimless attacks.
Whoever ups their game in either department then, has a pretty good chance of coming away with all three points. But once again, cancelling each other out appears the likeliest scenario; whereas Southampton have the top scorer between both teams, Danny Ings on three goals, Newcastle will expect to improve their defensive record having already faced five of last season’s top six.
For all the discussion of tactics and individual battles, both teams clearly enter this game under a dark cloud following incredibly disappointing starts to the season. Of course, this is one of the most winnable games Southampton and Newcastle have been involved in thus far, so there is natural cause for optimism. But after Newcastle’s worst-ever start to a campaign and a pretty poor one from Southampton as well, the respective managers will need to find a way of picking up their troops for this one.
Right now, it feels like Southampton are in a better place after a scoreless draw at Bournemouth last time out, by no means the most inspiring performance but a decent one nonetheless considering the Cherries’ form this term. Benitez though, managed to bring Newcastle through a rut like this last season so his team are by no means down and out just yet.
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Salomon Rondon should be available for the weekend after an injury-plagued start to his Newcastle loan spell and although the Venezuelan striker has never been the most potent of centre-forwards, he is a good fit for the way Benitez sets his team up, capable of holding off defenders and bringing the midfield into the game.
Should he be thrown on in the latter stages, his presence in the box and ability to provide a focal point will be key to finding a late goal.
Manolo Gabbiadini, meanwhile, has netted just five times in his last 69 Premier League appearances despite an explosive start to his Southampton career under Claude Puel. But he does have a knack of delivering for the south coast outfit in big moments, his winner against Swansea City last season being a key example, and Saturday’s encounter certainly qualifies as one of those.