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Southampton FC show familiar frailties in Premier League opener vs Spurs

08 Aug 2022 | 08:22 | Football

That’s the time between the catastrophe that closed out Saints’ 2021/22 campaign and the disastrous moment that set the fresh campaign in motion on Saturday afternoon. 

On that day in May, it was Lyanco heading the ball directly into the path of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy en-route to James Maddison’s opening goal. Nearly 76 days later, it was Mohammed Salisu somehow contriving to scoop the ball into his own net rather than simply clearing it with his right foot to hand Spurs their third.

In both games, the 4-1 defeat to bookend last season and the 4-1 defeat to enter this one, Saints had their positive spells and stayed in the contest. 

At Spurs they led early through James Ward-Prowse’s first goal of the season before trailing 2-1 – but remaining in the game – at half-time. At the King Power, a solid if unspectacular first 45 saw Saints head into the break level at 0-0 before it all unraveLled in the second half.

Daily Echo: Ward-Prowse celebrates his goal vs Spurs. Image by: PAWard-Prowse celebrates his goal vs Spurs. Image by: PA

Eight goals conceded. Two goals scored. Brief hope. An almighty thud on the ensuing fall.

Welcome to the 2022/23 Premier League season. It feels a lot like the old one.

Here’s how to collapse like Saints in three easy steps…

1. Take the lead

This is a crucial element of any patented Saints collapse. There can be no collapse without the hope that precedes it. Granted against Leicester, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side didn’t manage to score first but at Spurs, they took a 12th minute lead when Ward-Prowse smartly controlled his volley past Hugo Lloris. 

The perfect start to the new season. Maybe, for any other team that is. But that doesn’t seem to apply to Southampton who have been virtually allergic to holding leads since Hasenhuttl’s arrival on the South Coast.

No Premier League side have lost more points from winning positions in that time while Saints once again sat atop that statistical category last season with 29 points dropped from leads.

Now, obviously the positive side of this is that at least they are taking the lead. Historically, teams that score first in the Premier League tend to win more than 65% of the time. Unfortunately, for Saints that number last season (+ Spurs) is much lower, at 38.9%. Their opponents meanwhile won 62.5% of the time when scoring first against Hasenhuttl’s team.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise to see Saints lead the points dropped table throughout Hasenhuttl’s tenure. The worry though, is that this hasn’t been improving.

In the Austrian’s first full season, Saints dropped 17 points from winning positions. That number shot up to 23 in his second full season before reaching 29 most recently. Unfortunately, the counter has already begun for the new campaign, sitting at three points dropped after one game.

That’s not a sustainable statistic. You have to be able to hold your nerve and hold onto your advantage. Otherwise, those leads mean very little – as they unfortunately have in recent seasons.

That brings us to step two…

2. Concede headers and easy goals

You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d already seen yesterday’s defeat long before it happened. This may be a new Saints team in a new season but the habits and defects on show in North London were scarily reminiscent of last season’s epic deterioration.

The one thing you absolutely can not do in the Premier League, particularly against a team as good as Spurs, is concede easy goals. It’s hard enough to keep out the likes of Heung-min Son, Harry Kane and Dejan Kulusevski playing at your best. But handing them opportunities on a silver platter? Nope, you can’t do that. 

The minimum, the bare minimum, is you have to make them work for their goals. And once again on Saturday, Saints handed their opponents free goals.

Salisu’s cataclysmic own goal will – fairly – grab the headlines and it was yet another example of the kind of mind-boggling individual errors this Saints team is so adept at providing. But it was Tottenham’s first two goals that were maybe even greater cause for concern.

READ MORE: Why are Saints conceding so many headed goals?

Only Leicester conceded more goals from headers last season than Saints’ 14 and they’ve started exactly where they left off in May, conceding twice from the same situations on Saturday.

Addressing this issue last season following the 2-0 defeat at Turf Moor, we largely touched on slack marking, the inability to win one v one in the air, and losses of concentration for second balls.

Saints weren’t a big team last season and with the loss of Armando Broja they aren’t likely to be much more physically imposing this time around. Therefore some level of vulnerability with the ball in the air is expected but simply giving the players a free-escape on the basis of size would be disingenuous. 

Ryan Sessegnon who notched Spurs’ equaliser with a back-post header is 5’8”, just one inch taller than the player he out-jumped – Kyle Walker-Peters – while Eric Dier was virtually lying on the ground when he skimmed his header into the far corner.

So if we’re taking height off the table as an excuse, let’s see what else is causing this weakness. Well, for a start, there’s no doubt that under Hasenhuttl, this team has had major problems marking in the box, both from set-pieces and open play. Last season, when Nathan Collins nodded home Burnley’s second at Turf Moor, Oriol Romeu and Jan Bednarek were spotted holding onto each other. That’s an extreme example but an extreme example that highlights wider problems.

It doesn’t appear to be something that has improved. It’s not fair to single out any one player with such a team-wide issue, especially a new signing still getting to grips with his team and league, but Joe Aribo was the culprit for Spurs’ second goal. 

As the initial corner is headed away, Walker-Peters is marking Dier but when the ball moves wide to Son, the Saints full-back pushes out. This hands Dier off to Aribo who seemingly acknowledges that he has him covered by touching his back…

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But he doesn’t actually get goal-side and when the cross comes in, the former Rangers man is in no position to stop it.

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This is symptomatic of wider issues seen all through last season. Just to show how strong of a team trait this has been, here’s an example of Ward-Prowse totally forgetting to mark Trevoh Chalobah at Stamford Bridge, allowing the defender to stoop low and score.

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It’s one thing to lack height, that is what it is. It’s another thing to lack height and any sort of semblance of concentration or man-marking ability.

Without wanting to sound overly critical as someone doing the much simpler job of simply writing about football from the sidelines, these are the ‘easy’ fundamentals that every team needs. Marking doesn’t take the skill or talent of a brilliant goal or save but it’s equally impactful and should be easier for a team struggling defensively to get right. Concentration. Dedication. Determination. 

Unfortunately, there was another problem that allowed Spurs to rack up their easy goals on Saturday – and perfect marking may still not have solved it. Take nothing away from the deliveries of both Kulusevski and Son – the two wingers gave Saints a nightmare to deal with by virtue of their wicked crosses from either side – but for both headed goals the danger on the ball was just allowed to flow.

It’s something Alan Shearer immediately picked up on when analysing the game for Match of the Day.

“That was their Achilles heel last season, certainly towards the end of the season and it was today,” the legendary striker said of Saints defending. “You can’t give good players this amount of space. You’ve got to close them down. It was a great ball in (for the first goal) and a fantastic header, but far too easy from a Southampton point of view.”

It’s no secret that Kulusevski and Son are top-quality players. Given the opportunity they will hurt you. And the duo were invited to do so against Saints.

For the first goal, it was a great cross as Shearer points out, leaving Walker-Peters with a tough job trying to stop Sessegnon. But the space Kulusevski has to pick out the cross is just ridiculous for a Premier League game. 

I guess Moussa Djenepo might get an element of the benefit of the doubt considering he’s primarily a winger but it’s still really slack defending as the Swede is handed as much time as he wants to cut inside onto his stronger left foot and whip in a devious cross.

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Spurs’ second might be even worse. Yan Valery heads the initial cross away and as it falls to the feet of Son, both the Frenchman and Walker-Peters start to shift over before stopping. With as much time as he wants, Son moves the ball to his right foot and crosses perfectly for Dier to head in.

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There’s a school of thought that says it’s better to allow crosses and just stay compact and try to defend the box but Saints clearly aren’t good enough to do that – as already discussed above. For the first goal, they had three defenders to two Spurs attackers waiting in the box while they outnumbered the North Londoners six to three for the second. 

Yet as we saw time and time again last season, they struggle to defend their box regardless of the numbers. Therefore they absolutely must do more to stop the crosses coming in.

Obviously, this all comes back to the conversation that was on repeat at the back-end of last season. Where’s the organisation? Where’s the leadership?

The defence that played against Spurs was the exact same personnel that finished last season with Armel Bella-Kotchap the only new defender brought into the club, surprisingly left on the bench. 

Speaking after the heavy defeat, Hasenhuttl commented on his side’s inability to defend crosses.

“This was frustrating to see how big the gap is between these two teams to be honest because after the first goal you had the feeling that they were absolutely in the game and then they smashed us with crosses and we couldn’t defend in a way that we wanted to do.

“Yes, it is the effect of not always having pressure on the ball and they have free cross there. It’s not easy to defend in the box but it happens when you play in the shape and when you’re defending around the box because we are normally more active up front and give them more pressure in our moments in the game. We know this, but I wasn’t expecting that we struggled so much in defending the crosses to be honest, and this was a little bit annoying and I must say.”

Hasenhuttl might have been surprised about Saints’ concessions from crosses but he probably shouldn’t have been. This was a massive problem last season and it’s the exact same players on the pitch this time around.

These instances are particularly frustrating as they are largely effort and diligence-based mistakes. Saints fans can understand and accept that their team won’t be on the same talent level as the likes of Spurs. But laziness and ignoring the fundamental necessities of defending is much harder to take.

Now, onto step three, the cherry on top…

3. Concede in bunches

Just don’t make it worse, please. 

Mistakes happen and every team concedes goals (some more than others). But what you absolutely can not do is compound a mistake with more mistakes. When you concede once, make sure you don’t concede again. Stay. In. The. Game.

Unfortunately, Saints aren’t very good at this. They are, however, very good at completely falling apart and reinforcing mistakes with more of them. One goal conceded usually means another is right around the corner.

On Saturday, this was the case yet again. Actually playing some decent football and looking capable of getting back into the game, Salisu’s comical own goal ended those hopes and with the floodgates open, Kulusevski made it 4-1 less than 120 seconds later.

At Leicester, Saints conceded twice in seven minutes either side of Ward-Prowse’s penalty to completely kill off a game that they had just about stayed alive in. 

At Brentford, it was two goals in two first-half minutes (13′ and 14′). Against Chelsea at St Mary’s, it was two in five first half minutes (16′ and 21′) and again two in five second half minutes (49′ and 54′). It took Watford a full 20 minutes to go from 1-0 to 2-0 up but that was more due to their profligate play in front of goal rather than a strong backbone from Saints. 

Daily Echo: Brentford celebrate scoring against Saints in May. Image by: [ABrentford celebrate scoring against Saints in May. Image by: [A

Meanwhile, Aston Villa went from 2-0 to 4-0 in the space of three minutes (52′ and 54′) just after half-time (following a 44th-minute goal to make it 2-0 initially).

This tendency to crumble certainly became more extreme during Saints’ late-season slide, but it was still there in the months prior.

Arsenal stormed into a 2-0 lead at the Emirates in December with a pair of goals in the space of six minutes (21′ and 27′). Liverpool notched twice in five minutes (32′ and 37′) one month earlier to end the first half 3-0 ahead. 

Chelsea did much the same in early October, scoring in the 84th and 89th minutes to make it 3-1 while on the opening day last season Everton struck after 76 and 81 minutes to go from 1-1 to 3-1 and take the game away from Hasenhuttl’s team.

That’s eight distinct occasions last season when Saints conceded twice in the space of ten minutes. And they did it again (twice) on Saturday, Spurs’ first two goals coming in the 21st and 31st minutes before their third and fourth arrived in the 61st and 63rd minutes.

This team has a crumbly gene and as soon as they concede once, their opposition understandably smells blood.

The ‘why’ of this can be seen pretty clearly in Spurs’ fourth goal. Suddenly in full panic mode after giving away the third, Saints are all over the place when Spurs attack moments later.

It starts with Emerson Royal receiving the ball in acres of space on Spurs’ right side before he’s allowed to saunter into the box. 

But not to worry, Saints have four defenders in the box (plus Lavia chasing back). But locked into a fit of panic, they all race back to the goal seemingly in desperation to block a shot while nobody bothers to follow Kulusevski who is sitting 12 yards from goal with a ridiculous amount of space to pass the ball into the far corner.

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This kind of blind panic that leads to these deer-in-headlights moments is nothing new. Take Brentford’s goal in West London late last season.

Moments after scoring their first, Brentford are on the charge again and this time Salisu and Bednarek are both out of position, the former out wide and the latter pushing high. This allows Yoane Wissa to play the ball into the massive hole behind Saints’ defence…

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The duo attempt to recover but as they dive in for the ball, they collide with each other, and are left in a heap on the floor to gift Wissa the time and space to glide through and place his effort past Fraser Forster.

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Here’s one more example against Chelsea. Torn to shreds all afternoon, the Saints players are magnetised towards the ball as Kante runs through and when his eventual effort is saved, Timo Werner is free to tap into the empty net.

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This is obviously a contrast to Kulusevski’s goal in which no one went to the ball but it’s really the same issues rearing their head in a different way. Once again, there’s no organisation and the defenders all appear to be acting as individuals rather than as a collective group. Panic will do that to you, take away all rational thought, and just push you to instinct, but their defending needs a lot more calm and rational decision-making.

A leader would no doubt help, but it seems unlikely Saints will add to their defensive options unless multiple sales are made. They currently have six centre-backs (Salisu, Bednarek, Jack Stephens, Bella-Kotchap, Valery, Lyanco), and that in itself looks like a bloated central defensive room. Conor Coady seems destined to leave Wolves and on paper, he is the perfect profile for what Saints are missing at the back; a leader who will help organise and establish a sense of calm when things start to spiral out of control.

But again, an addition at the back seems unlikely at this time, leaving Saints to work with what they have. There’s no doubt talent in that group but there is also huge inconsistency and growing question marks around pretty much all of them. That being said, the defensive deficiencies are not solely down to the defenders. You defend as a team and that means Saints concede as a team. 

It’s important to note that Spurs are good. Very good. In Kane, Son and Kulusevski they have one of the better front threes in world football. They will be a stern test for any side in the division. Losing to them is not the worry. The worry is the manner of the defeat and the re-emergence of the same problems that killed any and all of last season’s budding promise. 

With just under a month until the end of the transfer window, there is still time to solve these issues with new additions. But patience from supporters is wearing thin – understandably so.

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