It was understandable when many saw Southampton’s decision to dismiss Claude Puel as a shock at the end of the 2016/17 campaign.
In the end it was the Frenchman’s inability to recreate the positive, attacking style of his predecessors, Pochettino and Koeman that saw him leave St.Mary’s.
Mauricio Pellegrino arrived after an exceptional season with Deportivo Alaves, he showed an ability to work to a budget and get the very best out of players limited in their natural talent.
Southampton felt the club needed a boost, a lack of home goals left match-going supporters frustrated, a feeling that has carried over into the current campaign.
The Saints have not started well under the Argentine coach, their play has been too pedestrian and focused on possession, there hasn’t been any attacking improvement on the football played under Puel from March onwards.
Two wins, two draws and three defeats have landed Southampton in 12th place, although they are actually just five points off the Champions League qualification places. It is a situation that can be turned around, there is no reason to panic, however they need to find their attacking rhythm, and quickly.
Football teams often fall into patterns of play, especially when results aren’t heading in a positive direction. Southampton’s performance in the 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Manchester United was a perfect indication of their problems.
United scored a first-half goal and then slipped into a defensive mindset, the hosts controlled possession and Mario Lemina dominated the midfield in Paul Pogba’s absence, yet Pellegrino’s side barely created a chance that troubled De Gea.
Style needs tweaking
There is no use controlling matches in the Premier League if you aren’t going to create chances. Southampton need to tweak their style ever so slightly, this might even include bringing Manolo Gabbiadini back into the starting line-up.
Aside from the 3-2 victory over West Ham United on August 19, the Saints haven’t scored more than a single goal in a match. This is deeply troubling, their Premier League tally of 5 is only marginally better than Everton/Bournemouth, Swansea and Crystal Palace who have scored four, three and zero respectively.
It is very early in the season and Pellegrino showed his ability to get results throughout his time with Deportivo Alaves, but these results need to come quickly.
You can’t have a team that doesn’t score goals and expect the supporters not to lose faith, the end result obviously is the same, but if Southampton were losing matches 3-2 or 4-3, there would be more reasons to be optimistic.
There are personnel issues though; it can’t all be put at the door of the former Independiente coach. In his last 42 appearances for both club and country, Shane Long has netted just one goal.
For a centre-forward this is a catastrophic return, especially at Premier League level, even if the former Reading forward brings a lot of enthusiasm and hard work to the team dynamic.
It seems a little unfair to be critical of a coach who is trying to play football in a patient controlled way, especially when England’s finest routinely get embarrassed in the Champions League due to simply not being able to defend, yet Pellegrino needs to be flexible.
More service has to be provided for the forward players; Southampton may have to be a little more direct, at least to get a few victories on the board.
Whilst the former Liverpool defender may not have all the players he wants to develop his team, if results don’t pick up soon then he won’t be given the summer to bring those players in.
Lemina, a bright spot
Lemina is one of the few positives of the campaign so far, he has settled to the Premier League perfectly and has the intelligence to run matches in midfield.
More interestingly, he is also a gifted athlete, he can play as a box-to-box player and this is something that may be worth exploring.
A powerful runner such as the Gabon international can make Southampton more incisive, without having to play long balls from the defensive areas.
Bringing the ball out of defence at speed panics teams, they have to return to their own shape far more quickly than normal and as such it tires them out.
This is something that would work to Southampton’s advantage once they take a lead in a match as their patient passing would even further fatigue an opponent.
Sunday’s opponents are an example to follow
Rafael Benitez signed the Argentine when he was in charge at Liverpool, on Sunday the pair will be in opposing dugouts when the Saints welcome Newcastle United to the south coast.
Newcastle are an example to follow, they started the season poorly but have since put together a fine run of results by playing to their strengths.
Southampton’s strength remains Van Dijk in defence, Lemina in midfield and Gabbiadini in attack, Pellegrino has to start to get the best out of these players if he is to last long in England’s top flight and really get a chance to show his coaching acumen.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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