Rotation, formation, capitulation, tribulation

Torpor

We’re pretty much at the halfway point of this season, and so I thought it would be time to take stock, and analyse any trends in our performances.

Mauricio Pellegrino

It’s tough, isn’t it?

I always try to adopt a positive mindset when supporting Southampton FC – I’ve always regarded it as a character-building trait to support my home team. To be part of something that wasn’t wildly successful when most people in my class when I was growing up supported Manchester United or, in some isolated cases, Blackburn (the ultimate in perverse glory-hunting for any self-respecting southerner), made me feel like part of the fabric of the city I grew up in.

But the problem with this season? There is no pattern on the pitch. There is no rhyme or reason. This is the most staggeringly inconsistent Southampton FC team I’ve seen in quite some time. Good performances (Arsenal, Manchester City) are followed up by utterly atrocious results (the 4-1 defeat to Leicester City should be a mark of deep shame for the squad and the manager – not something to be brushed under the carpet). We are deep into December, and as far as I can see, there is no discernable pattern or style of play emerging. Who is Mauricio Pellegrino? He needs to stand up.

Hope is what keeps you going as a football fan. It’s what keeps you there when you are 0-3 down at home to a side no better than yours. Hope keeps you renewing your season ticket or membership. Hope is a feeling.

But football is a mixture of passion, data-points, strategy and finance. All of which must be balanced to deliver a successful club. How many of these have we seen this season?

That’s not to say that there haven’t been bright points. Charlie Austin looks like a threat against clubs of every stature in the league. Fitness concerns aside, he has proven himself to be a ‘right time, right place’ player. His goals for us, whilst rarely spectacular, come from finding space in the box, and anticipating where the ball will land from our crosses. He turns chances into goals, and half-chances into goals. When he plays, you can see the confidence of the players around him increase. Our wide players know that he will do his best to get something on the end of their crosses. Our playmakers know that he can be relied upon to latch onto through balls.

Sofiane Boufal terrorises defences. Whilst he’s far from the finished article, he creates confusion and has excellent close control.

The key problem, however, isn’t the squad of players that we have at our disposal. It’s our manager, Mauricio Pellegrino. I fear that he’s not up to the job for a number of reasons.

Firstly, formation: whilst we know that the fabled, marketing blurb of ‘The Southampton Way’ is not to be taken at face value – but it is December now, and our team are still playing without any fixed identity.

Pellegrino picks his squad from game to game, seemingly totally without regard to form or emotional intelligence, something I think he prides himself on, but is clearly lacking in some of his management of the first team squad.

Watching the players body language throughout the games, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they didn’t have a clue what they were doing.

I think this comes from the fact that, quite simply, Pellegrino doesn’t know what he’s doing with the players, and is still genuinely unsure of the best formation for us to play as our first choice.

We’ve heard a lot of talk about the ‘Southampton Way’ over the course of the past year and a half with regards to the supposed abandonment of our playing style. Whilst, in the light of recent proclamations, the attacking football that we were promised when Pellegrino took over has not manifested itself, we have to be careful not to just simplify any potential solutions that we may have.

There is no ‘Southampton Way’ – it’s just a concept and a formation (4-2-3-1, no long ball). Pressing never entered into ‘The Southampton Way’ – it was just a style of play that Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed playing whilst he was with us, and has slowly evolved into a more pragmatic, possession-based style. This started with Koeman, who favoured a more direct approach at times.  We have to be careful not to start acting like West Ham fans, and start talking about ‘The Southampton Way’ as if it is ‘The Best Way’, or ‘The Only Way’.  It is not the only way.

That is not to say that as supporters, we do not deserve a little bit better than what we are getting at the moment.

Secondly, squad rotation: whilst beneficial and necessary in the case of teams playing in multiple competitions (as we were last season), rotation only works if it is consistent, and there is a set shape and style to the team. Whilst adaptability is essential for top-level pros, it can’t be easy for them to be rotated in and out of a starting XI that is seemingly changing shape every week.

The other difficulty is that the rotation is not regular. 1 game in 7 for a player is not rotation. Being suddenly brought in from the cold and expected to play flawlessly is part of why they are paid so highly as professionals, but I’d like to ask our management for a bit of consideration for these players.

The best teams have a consistent, settled starting XI. The manager knows his best lineup with regards to skill, attitude and application. Players are brought in and out when there is tiredness, loss of form, or injuries.

Pellegrino has been here since the Summer. He does not know our best starting line-up. I cannot emphasise this enough: HE DOES NOT KNOW OUR BEST STARTING XI.

That is why the alarm bells are sounding in my mind.

I don’t buy into alarmist clap-trap about pushing the panic button and picking a short-term, pragmatic replacement for our coach in the mold of Tony Pulis, or any other coach playing that style of football.

But I would argue that we do need some kind of style. We do not have one at the moment. Our football lacks identity.

Our game against Huddersfield on Saturday is a must-win. As fans, we do not have a choice but to turn up (or tune in), and have our guts torn to shreds by every kick of the game.

Whilst I’ll be clear and say that I do not think the current coach is right for us, I will not give in and hope that we do not get a result. My wish for the club is to always win, and to get as many points on the board as possible.

I don’t dislike Pellegrino. I didn’t dislike Puel. But that doesn’t mean I think they are right for the job.

Whatever happens on Saturday, it is vital that we get a bit of clarity from the club over the festive period over plans for 2018 and beyond. What do the new owners (‘partners’) want? What was our goal for this season? Are we achieving it (arguably not)? Who is accountable?

By not having one point of failure, the answers to these questions will be messy. Enough people at the club – players, coaching staff, the board have enough room for plausible deniability when it comes down to finger pointing. Blame shared equally means that most of the people responsible won’t take the fall. That’s where football mirrors politics quite closely. It’s how torpor sets in. It’s how mediocrity takes root.

Either way, whatever happens, we need a catalyst.

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