When Southampton sacked Claude Puel, appointed Mauricio Pellegrino as his successor and kept hold of all of their in demand players during the summer, Saints fans perhaps would have been hoping to see a masked improvement from their team after a disappointing end to the previous campaign.
Even though they secured an eighth-place finish, the south coast outfit only won one of their last eight Premier League games last term and scored just four goals during that run.
With Jay Rodrigruez the only real high-profile exit over the summer and with the additions of Mario Lemina and Wesley Hoedt, Southampton have a stronger squad than last season but it certainly hasn’t shown on the pitch.
More than a quarter of the way into the season and Saints have only faced one of the current top six sides – Manchester United at St Mary’s in September – while they have faced all three of the newly-promoted club as well as Swansea City, West Ham United, Watford and West Bromwich Albion at home, as well as Stoke City and Crystal Palace on the road.
Yet, they have only taken 13 points from those fixtures and rather than just the results being slightly underwhelming, the performances on the pitch haven’t been deemed to be good enough either.
Considering Pellegrino’s men needed a last-gasp equaliser from Charlie Austin to beat 10-man West Ham and a late wonder goal from Sofiane Boufal against West Brom, it is no surprise that there are already more than a few murmurings of discontent from the St Mary’s faithful.
It would be hard to say that any of Southampton’s players have been at the top of their games so far this season – with perhaps Lemina, Maya Yoshida and Manolo Gabbiadini being the only possible exceptions – and the likes of Fraser Forster, Ryan Bertrand and Dusan Tadic haven’t been performing at anywhere near the level they have shown in previous seasons.
So is this down to the individuals, or the way that Pellegrino is setting up his team?
It’s probably a bit of both to be honest.
Confidence comes from results and Southampton haven’t really had a consistently great sequence of those since the end of the 2015/16 campaign, in which they finished in sixth position in the Premier League.
That nervousness in front of the home crowd because of the lack of wins they have picked up and goals they have scored on their own patch over the course of the last 15 months or so will be affecting them, and they will be more wary of taking a risk now than they perhaps would have been previously.
Any team would struggle when five, six or seven of their players aren’t at the top of their respective games, and that is the situation that Saints find themselves in right now.
However, there was perhaps a telling comment from last season’s player of the year Oriol Romeu in the Daily Echo following the 1-1 draw against Brighton at the Amex Stadium last Sunday, which suggests that Pellegrino could be partly to blame for the side’s shortcomings.
Speaking about his manager, Romeu said: “He’s always telling me when we’re attacking we need to be closer to their strikers because if we lose the ball and they’re free it’s easier for them to be free and run and get that counterattack.
“While we’re attacking we have to defend and allow our attacking players to create problems but we defensively have to be ready for the counter.”
It was something that was clear to see when they took an early lead against the Seagulls on Sunday, as they instantly dropped deeper and were more compact following Steven Davis’ goal.
Bearing in mind they were playing against a newly-promoted club Southampton should really have kept attacking to get that crucial second goal, but Romeu’s comments suggest that the players were instructed to try and hold on to the 1-0 lead.
With goalkeeper Forster clearly not in the best form right now – he should have done better to keep out Glenn Murray’s header – it didn’t seem to be the right tactic and even though they did take a point, Davis’ goal proved to be their only shot on target during the 90 minutes.
Those statistics allude to the fact that Pellegrino is getting it wrong at the moment and being far too cautious.
Considering he has attacking players like Gabbiadini, Boufal, Tadic, Shane Long and Nathan Redmond at his disposal, as well as a strong backline that includes international stars Virgil van Dijk, Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares – who are protected by Romeu and Lemina – it seems crazy that the team doesn’t seem to have been handed much, if any, attacking freedom by their Argentine boss.
It seems as every week goes on Pellegrino isn’t learning from the mistakes he is making, and his tactical naivety and general cautiousness certainly won’t bring the supporters on his side, and could ultimately jeopardise his long-term future at St Mary’s.