Mauricio Pellegrino will hope the 1-1 draw with Tottenham on Sunday proves to be something of a turning point in Southampton’s relegation-threatened campaign.
Saints are still winless in the Premier League since November but there has been a noticeable upturn in performance recently and with the top six so far away from the rest of the division this season, a point against a Tottenham side boasting the top flight’s leading goalscorer, Harry Kane, is almost as good as a victory. In any case, it breeds vital confidence into a squad that knows it has underachieved this season and knows results must improve instantaneously.
And yet, a point against Tottenham isn’t the real litmus test of Southampton’s survival credentials. We know this Southampton side can defend well and give top opposition a run for their money – they’ve conceded just four goals to Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City so far this season – and in many ways, Tottenham’s tendencies played perfectly into their hands on Sunday as Mauricio Pochettino’s side tried to play their way through a sturdy and resolute engine room in central areas.
Indeed, the real barometer of whether Southampton can move clear of the drop zone comes next weekend when they host a Brighton side equally fearful of dropping into the Championship. In stark contrast to decent defensive displays against the top six – barring the reverse with Tottenham that ended in a 5-2 defeat at Wembley and a 3-0 loss to Liverpool – Southampton have averaged just 0.9 goals per game against sides in the bottom nine this season. If Saints are to avoid what would be a shock relegation, they need to start breaking down sides who will let them have the ball and won’t allow them space on the counter-attack.
Brighton certainly fall into that category. This season, only five Premier League sides have averaged less possession than the Seagulls, who have spent the most time of any top-flight team, 32%, in their own defensive third and the least time, 23%, in the opposition’s third. Chris Hughton’s policy is, understandably, to protect the point his side already have rather than open the team up in search of two more – and, perhaps because they’re still viewed as something of a big drawer by bottom half sides, that’s where Southampton have really struggled this term.
The good news though, is that from the remaining 14 games, Southampton face five non-top-six teams away from home. While that gives them less chance of victory, in theory, it does mean the likes of Swansea, Newcastle, West Brom and Burnley will be more open than they were when they visited St. Mary’s earlier this season. But Southampton are still due to host Brighton, Stoke and Bournemouth and Pellegrino will know his best chance of avoiding the drop is claiming all nine points from those games – that will push Saints up to 31 and leave them needing just a handful more to ensure survival.
In order to do that, however, Southampton will have to improve upon their biggest failing this season – making clear-cut chances and actually putting them away. It’s certainly true that finishing has been a problem for Saints; they’ve averaged just one goal per game in the Premier League despite creating the seventh-most chances; but it’s a question of the quality of those scoring opportunities as well. Just 21% have ended in goals or qualified as a big chance missed, so it’s not as if Southampton’s creators have been consistently laying it on plate for the strikers in front of them.
Southampton are currently 16th in the home table and still to face Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City at St. Mary’s, it’s clearly home results against the Premier League’s more ordinary sides that have let them down this season. In many ways, that’s symptomatic of the Premier League right now – the middle order who try to play more expansive football, the likes of West Ham, Stoke and Crystal Palace, have all suffered with the likes of Burnley and Leicester replacing them as the top six chasers.
But there are signs of that trend coming to an end as we reach the business portion of the campaign and Southampton cannot afford to be excluded from that revival. Whether it requires a change of mentality, formation or personnel, Pellegrino needs to find a way of ending Southampton’s struggles against the Premier League’s lesser sides when Brighton come to town. Fail to do so, and relegation becomes a frighteningly real possibility.