Southampton lost 2-1 to Liverpool in their penultimate game of the season on Tuesday. On the face of it, this is a narrow loss to one of the best teams in the world. However, dig a little deeper and you will see why Southampton fans should be considered about their club’s mentality.
Following an exhausting 120 minutes plus penalties in the FA Cup final on Saturday, Liverpool made nine changes to their starting 11. With the Premier League out of their hands regardless of the result against Southampton, Jurgen Klopp surely feels his side has more chance of success in the Champions League final against Real Madrid on 28th May and subsequently rotated his side accordingly.
Liverpool were there for the taking. With all due respect to the players involved for the Reds, Southampton should have been licking their lips once the teamsheets came in an hour before kick off. The Saints started brightly and took the lead through Nathan Redmond in the 13th minute, but what followed was difficult to digest. In their last home game of the season, with the knowledge that their Premier League status is safe and against a Liverpool second-string side, Southampton sat in and waited to be broken down. They didn’t look to impose themselves on Liverpool again until after the 87th minute, despite being 2-1 down form the 67th, having thrown away yet another lead.
Worrying patterns continue to haunt Southampton
Losing from a winning position is something that always leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for the club it has happened to. For Southampton, though, it has become a feeling their fans have come to expect. In fact, there is often an air of inevitability about it. Fans of the club can never be confident that a lead is safe; their team has left them red-faced too many times before.
Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men have dropped a remarkable 26 points from winning positions this season, which is unsurprisingly the highest in the Premier League. Since the Austrian coach took over at St Mary’s in December 2018, his side have dropped an embarrassing 89 points after taking the lead in the Premier League which, again, is higher than any other team in the league over that period of time.
Statistics as woeful as this can be attributed to a number of factors. Some blame Hasenhüttl’s high-pressing style which often doesn’t change once his side take the lead; although more recently it has been less aggressive. You can blame the defenders and goalkeepers; plural as Southampton have changed in this department throughout the season. Defensively there is no doubting Southampton struggle. They have conceded the fourth most goals in the division this term and it is perhaps not surprising given their playing style combined with central defenders who are all prone to lapses of concentration and mistakes. Another consideration is that they cannot sustain their high-energy pressing for 90 minutes and are therefore prone to throwing leads away later on in matches as fatigue kicks in. Ultimately, despite the number of factors, there is one element which contributes more than any other: mentality.
The scars of heavy defeats remain
This is not intended to call out individual members of the Southampton squad or coaching staff for their mentality but, as a collective, the group has a weak mentality. Over the past few seasons the club have endured some heavy defeats. Two 9-0 defeats in two consecutive seasons is something that simply should not happen. The damage of these record-equalling defeats has lasted far longer than just the days or weeks that followed. The impact that they have caused, alongside other heavy defeats, has been felt to this day.
The effect that those defeats at home to Leicester City and away at Manchester United have had on the confidence of the group lives on, despite the fact a number of the current squad were not involved at the time. Now, when Southampton take the lead, there seems a reluctance to kick on and push for more goals to seal victory. Instead you can sense the fear they have of being burnt once more gripping the players as they edge closer to their own goal and concede territory and control at an alarming rate.
The harsh reality is that Southampton are not good enough defensively to sit on a lead and see out a win. Their game management is equally as concerning. The best form of defence for Hasenhüttl’s side should be attack. They are at their best when they are on the front foot, applying pressure high up the pitch, and forcing mistakes from opposition defenders who have been given no room to breathe. It is difficult to conceive that the players and coaching staff are not aware of this, but putting this into practice becomes difficult for a side that seem paralysed by fear once they have taken the lead.
This doesn’t just apply to when Southampton are in the lead, though. When playing against superior opposition and conceding early there is a clear reluctance to chase the game. There is often visible concern from the players, who cannot avoid the feelings of déjà vu. Instead of pressuring the opponent and looking for a comeback they all too often go into their shell and seek to keep the scoreline respectable. Despite this, they still fall to heavy defeats on a far too regular basis. This season alone they have lost 4-0 to Aston Villa and Liverpool, and 6-0 to Chelsea.
Another pattern that is equally as concerning, if not more so, is the tendency to go on long runs of similar results. Over Hasenhüttl’s tenure the club have put together some really positive runs, such as this season when they went eight league games with only one defeat from Boxing Day. The worry is that these good runs are often sandwiched by disastrous runs of form. They are currently on a run of one win in 11 games, with defeats to Burnley and Watford among those results.
From 16th January 2021 to 1st March the Saints went on a run of eight defeats and one draw in a row. They also ended that season with two defeats and starting this without a win in seven to make another run of nine Premier League games without tasting victory.
It seems as though when the club are on these runs they can do very little to shift the momentum. Many teams in the lower half of the table are inconsistent but will pick up points across the season. Southampton tend to go on one or two good runs a season that ultimately secure their safety, but rather than kicking on and climbing the table they are let down by their really poor runs. If they have ambitions of being anything more than a team that finishes 12th and below then they need to learn how to stop this pattern of long periods without victory. More often than not these runs are towards the end of the season which implies that complacency may be allowed to set in as players feel that their top flight status is already secured.
Lack of on-pitch leaders?
Leadership is so important in football. Particularly when your team is up against it, it is the leaders who come to the fore and drive a team on. Barking instructions, organising, motivating, and leading by example. This is something Southampton are so clearly lacking. James Ward-Prowse is the captain and deservedly so, but he is a leader in the sense of leading by example more so than a vocal leader of men. It is probably fair to say that the south coast side have lacked real, vocal leadership since José Fonte departed way back in 2017.
It is not solely Ward-Prowse’s responsibility to get his team going and bark orders, however. The Saints skipper does a lot of heavy lifting for his teammates through his performances as it is, not to mention his set-piece prowess. This is not to say Ward-Prowse is not an effective leader, as his influence in the dressing room is difficult to quantify, but if he is a calmer captain then he needs others to be his vocal accomplices. A strong team has a core group who keep their teammates in check and, effectively, set the standard and ensure this is upheld. At Southampton it difficult to imagine who this group is. Perhaps Oriol Romeu is the only player you could throw into that category?
During the period in which games were played behind closed doors due to Covid it was very noticeable that the pitch side microphones barely seemed to pick up Southampton voices in televised games. This was in stark contrast to many Premier League sides, as the lack of fans offered greater insight into the level of communication that takes place in the majority of Premier League sides.
Hasenhüttl’s leadership skills do not avoid scrutiny either. The Austrian is undoubtedly a very good coach, with his ideology sculpted by the likes of Ralf Rangnick and Jurgen Klopp. The question marks come when he needs to make big decisions. He often waits too long to make substitutions when it is clear the tide of the game has turned on his side. All too often he waits until his team concedes to act which is something that frustrates fans as it is often too late by that stage. This comes down to decision making and game management; skills that a good leader should have.
Is Hasenhüttl too emotional? Does this impact his players? Emotion and passion are important in the game and this is not to discourage this as it is something that often resonates with fans and endears them to individuals. The worry is, though, that emotion can lead to erratic decisions. This may drip down to the players and may be why they seem to be so influenced by things not going their way on the pitch. Of course, it can be inspiring, but it can also be a cause for concern. Managers and players must control their emotions and harness them positively or they can become reckless and do things they would not normally do. This is particularly pertinent for defenders who need to concentrate for 90 minutes and may go some way to explain why Southampton’s defenders make so many errors.
There is also a lack of accountability, particularly from Hasenhüttl. When his side loses, often in disappointing fashion, he tends to praise the opposition by recycling the same tired line about their opponents playing well and congratulating them. This may be a ploy to divert criticism from his players but fans have grown weary of hearing this when they know that their team have underperformed. Fans will want Hasenhüttl to hold his players to account and demand higher standards. He may do this when the dressing room door closes, but publicly he rarely does. Sometimes Hasenhüttl and his players seem ‘too nice’ to play against and that is not a good quality to have.
This lack of leadership is not likely to be addressed through any transfer dealings which should be concerning to fans of the club. Southampton have reverted to a transfer strategy that has been successful for them in the past in which they sign young, talented, hungry players and develop them. The problem with this is that they are unlikely to be signing any ready-made leaders. These players may develop leadership skills in their time at the club but it will not bear fruit for the club for some time. It feels like the club could do with some experienced heads in and amongst the squad but that is unlikely to come to fruition.
It is a big summer ahead for Southampton and it is not unthinkable that they will go into next season with a new man at the helm. The club is under new ownership and, although the noise coming out of the club is that they back Hasenhüttl, they cannot be happy with the club’s form at the backend of this season.
One thing is certain, Southampton need to address their mentality problem.