The hangover lingers. We had our fun last week, ordering the spiciest curry on the me u, although eventually we couldn’t take the heat. Now it’s time for the curry to take it’s revenge and how it has made us suffer.
The start of yesterday’s game looked as if the entire starting XI had walked away groggily from the toilet just minutes before kick off, puffing out their cheeks, wiping the sweat from their brow and thanking the heavens that it was all over. Just in time for Nathan Redmond to nip in and give Southampton the lead. Romain Saiss had the look of a man who was either soiling himself as Redmond bore down on him, or of a man who had no idea where Redmond was at all. Either way, this was no way to get over last weekend’s heartache.
Once again we had given a team with genuine relegation fears a head-start in a game. Had we not learnt from Burnley? This game took on much of the same pattern. We dominated the ball and actually made good progress in the first half. As much as we weren’t looking too clever at the back, neither were Saints – I clearly remember how awful Jannik Vestergaard was at Molineux and he was true to form again. The Southampton defence actually looked quite prepared to gift us opportunities, but we were too polite to oblige on a number of occasions. So much more should have been made of this spell of the game than just Willy Boly’s powerhouse of a header.
Except no, we wanted to be behind again. I’m struggling to recall the last team we allowed an opposition to be one-on-one with our goalkeeper on more than a single occasion. Redmond took his opportunity and thankfully Josh Sims didn’t but this was so alien to all of us, it was difficult to comprehend what we were watching.
It’s quite normal business to see our centre backs split wide in possession, but we seemed to lack any kind of recovery if we did lose the ball. I also think Conor Coady’s performance was affected by his inability to pick out the wing-backs, with both being closely marshalled by Southampton’s copycat system. I have extolled the virtues of Ryan Bertrand before and although Yann Valery allowed us in behind a few times, his recovery speed consistently got him out of trouble. On the other hand, our game was littered with individual errors.
There’s not too much a manager can do about misplaced passes, lapses in concentration and just plain-old horror shows. But I do believe Nuno could have freshened up the line-up, not just in the context of last week’s heartache, but with the idea of being the more proactive side in the game too. What happened to the refreshing approach we took against Cardiff, successfully might I add? We’ve all come to the conclusion we need to be a bit more horses for courses, but Nuno has been too quick to revert to his favoured line up against the team’s bottom sides.
There were visible scars of last weekend’s defeat, particularly from the defence and the centre of midfield. Once the second half had settled into its rhythm, we desperately struggled to break through the Saints midfield, let alone the defence. Amidst all of our fluid, attacking football that has had the nation’s media cooing in awe, the misconception has been upheld that we’re an attacking side. We’re not. We’re a reactive side that has it’s foundations set firmly in defence. When this part of our game goes wrong, as it did this weekend, then we find ourselves in a hole. They often say a batsman in cricket will try to hit his way out of a bad patch of form, but we’re not capable of just going hell for leather in a game without it having an adverse impact on our play. Our strength comes from the impenetrable structure that we have created that keeps all of these formidable sides at bay.
Allow us the ball and ask the questions of us, and we struggle to come up with the answers. I don’t believe that this is a lack of quality though. If we lacked quality, we wouldn’t be picking up the results that we have done over the course of the season. 3 goals away at Tottenham, two victories in quick succession over Manchester United, points against Man City and Arsenal – these aren’t just pure dumb luck, freak results and we should treat the shoddy results we’ve had with the bottom six in the same regard.
We have to become a side comfortable dominating a game. The issue I have is that when you defend contently without the ball, you’re at the whim of the opposition. It’s what gave Gerard Deulofeu the opportunity to dink the ball into the far corner at Wembley and gives teams the opportunity to win a penalty in the dying embers of a game. You’re at the whim of the opposition, as stoutly as you may defend. What are you to do if a team has a player like James Ward-Prowse in their ranks, whose corners are akin to Tony Blair’s infamous Weapons of Mass Destruction? We seemed to go for the fingers crossed approach to defending. We’re operating at a level when opposition players can do what they like with a football, as evidenced most pertinently last weekend.
But as much as we had 70 percent of possession yesterday, this was all down to the fact Southampton were happy for us to have it. I have no doubt our three defenders had more touches than anyone else on the pitch. Our rigidity is our worst enemy here and we looked so bereft of ideas it was frightening to think we’re on the verge of a European spot in many way. Are we sure this is the same side? We have to make teams think more. The addition of Morgan Gibbs-White, whatever level of form he is producing, into the midfield area would just make teams think twice about how they set themselves up.
This also needs to be made clear to fans as well. You can’t revel in the exceptional victories and claim ‘we’re back’ and when it comes to a defeat hark back to how far we’ve come in a short space of time. The club is suffering from an odd dual personality at the moment, all borne out of the Jekyll and Hyde football we’re seeing at the moment. Maybe it is tiredness, a small squad and we just need a summer to work out the kinks. But we can’t behave like an elite club one moment and get all small-time and ‘newly-promoted’ when things don’t go our way.
Nothing about Southampton suggested we should lose the game 3-1 and yet we’ve conspired to do so. We have no-one to blame but ourselves for the lacklustre nature of our performance. I expect changes next weekend and I give Nuno his due for reducing the level of stubbornness we’ve seen from him during his Wolves tenure, although his reaction to a fairly mundane question from the press yesterday speaks of a man who is battling something within himself currently. May be he just doesn’t know what the next part of our evolution is right now, but I back him to work that out.
In the meantime, he needs to take a deep look at why we keep going from Saints to Sinners week-to-week.