In the summer there was a general acceptance that Southampton would be a team to watch this season, perhaps even dark horses for Europa League qualification.
There was some consternation when Nigel Adkins was ousted in January with the club 15th in the Premier League, but Mauricio Pochettino soon impressed, introducing an expansive, hard-pressing game and taking them to wins over Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Their signings this summer raised the eyebrows as well: £8.8 million (Dh51.3m) on Dejan Lovren, £12.8m on Victor Wanyama and £13.3m on Pablo Osvaldo. With an academy that has already yielded Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale in recent years continuing to produce quality, this seemed the sort of project to be admired: high-class home-grown young British talent supplemented by targeted spending.
“At Southampton we don’t have the possibility [of buying], we look to improve through our academy,” Pochettino said. “We haven’t made many signings and for the rest we look at the people of the house, the breeding ground.
“I remember well in Spain maybe the biggest problem was Spanish coaches not trusting their boys and seeking talent abroad in Brazil, in Argentina. It always looked as if the foreigner was better than the home player and maybe it’s happened here, I think there is a need to seek a change.
“I’m Argentinian and Spanish but I always defend the culture that gives you the possibility of working, in this case the English. You have to respect that culture, give the kids here the means to be able to evolve.”
Stirring stuff, the project so impressive that Gary Neville, who works as an assistant coach to England team manager Roy Hodgson, admitted this week that he had been wrong to criticise Pochettino’s appointment.
Yet their problem at present seems to be that if they are not playing in a high-profile game, they do not seem to play much at all. Apart from those three high-profile wins last year, they won only once under Pochettino last season, against relegated Reading, and finished 14th.
This season, their first three games have yielded only four points from fixtures against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland and Norwich City. They remain the only team to have dropped points against Paolo Di Canio’s Sunderland side this season – and it would have been a defeat but for an 88th-minute equaliser.
The Saints are in danger of becoming a team who only prosper against sides who attack them, specialists at giant-killing wins who falter against equal or inferior teams.
Although it took three fine saves from West Ham United goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen to hold them to a 0-0 draw yesterday, Southampton struggled for creativity, the gap between their six defensive players and the attacking four surprisingly and irreconcilably vast. Although Southampton have conceded only twice in their four games so far, they have also scored just twice, both times from set-plays.
That lack of fluency is not a major issue yet, but it must be a concern, particularly given the relatively easy start to the season they have had.
Promising they may be, but Southampton have won only one of their past 10 league games.