Any Southampton fans thinking the appointment of Mark Hughes would provide an instantaneous bounce to steer them clear of the battle of survival were brought crashing down to earth on Saturday as Saints were thumped 3-0 by relegation rivals West Ham at the London Stadium.
The Welshman’s utilisation of 4-4-2 appeared the much-needed solution to Southampton’s lack of goal threat this term and although it had the desired effect in a 2-0 win over Wigan before the international break, it backfired spectacularly in east London as the visitors failed to register a single shot on target.
Southampton still have enough games left to make amends; they have a game in hand on the rest of the bottom five and seven fixtures remaining in total, so the two-point difference between themselves and 17th place is certainly surmountable.
But the pivotal question is where Southampton go from here tactically after Hughes’ brave adoption of 4-4-2 resulted in such a humbling performance. Football FanCast outline four potential solutions…
Southampton looked miles off the pace using 4-4-2 on Saturday but the performance was so bad that it’s almost simplistic to put it down to merely the formation.
This side is clearly low in confidence and a back-to-basics approach will surely be required to turn their form around. 4-4-2 certainly falls into that remit and while it does leave Southampton more open defensively, they’ve reached a point in the season where they need to score enough goals to win games.
Having two strikers on the pitch could be key, however creativity and penetration from out wide is just as important in 4-4-2 – Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond didn’t offer much of that on Saturday.
Claude Puel’s persistent utilisation of a diamond midfield last season drew criticism but Southampton’s results were almost incomparably better than they have been so far this term.
It certainly addresses how Saints’ wide players have struggled to impact the more the season’s gone on, by simply taking them out of the side altogether and moving the creative hub to the tip of the engine room – a role that may suit the ageing Dusan Tadic far better.
It also allows the full-backs, who are good going forward, the natural space to join the attack while keeping two centre-forwards on the pitch.
Fans grew increasingly frustrated with Mauricio Pellegrino’s almost unwavering insistence on 4-2-3-1 but Southampton did at least look far more solid in the setup compared to last Saturday when the openness of their midfield was continually exploited by West Ham.
It always seemed a little too conservative under the Argentine but Hughes can give it a more offensive feel if he pushes Redmond and Sofiane Boufal much higher up the pitch, creating space for Tadic in the central role. The big problem, however, is how isolated the striker can become in these systems.
Charlie Austin’s hold-up play isn’t the best anyway, so he’ll definitely need support from out wide and the midfield.
Southampton briefly flirted with a three-man defence earlier this season but after losing both of their games quickly reverted back to 4-2-3-1.
Perhaps it’s time to give the setup another try, especially with Maya Yoshida back on the mend and Saints undoubtedly requiring defensive improvements from their last performance. Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares have the attacking flair and industry to operate as wing-backs, while utilising Boufal and Tadic as inside forwards should at least ensure there’s some support for Austin up front.
It’s a seismic shift to experiment with at this point in the season though, and could backfire.
So, Southampton fans, which formation do you see as crucial to your side’s survival? Let us know by voting below…