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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Southampton are sleepwalking into trouble under the underachieving Mark Hughes

Sunday's 6-1 defeat to Manchester City was club's heaviest for six years with only 15 points from 19 games under the Welshman's reign suggesting a change of manager is urgently needed

Mark Hughes saw his Southampton lose 6-1 to reigning Premier League champions Manchester City on Sunday. EPA
Mark Hughes saw his Southampton lose 6-1 to reigning Premier League champions Manchester City on Sunday. EPA

It isn’t often Pep Guardiola channels the feeling of the Portsmouth fans. Perhaps he did on Sunday. “Chapeau,” the Manchester City manager said. “I admire Mark.” And, in Mark Hughes’ defence, his Southampton side had mustered the most shots on target against the Premier League leaders this season. An alternative interpretation is that Guardiola praises anyone whose naïve tactics make life easier for City. Southampton, 3-0 down after 18 minutes, were the most obliging of opponents.

They suffered their heaviest defeat for six years to leave Hughes with the lowest win percentage – a mere 21.7 – of anyone to spend 20 games in charge. Portsmouth supporters are enjoying his reign rather more than their arch-rivals on the south coast. Hughes has taken 15 points from 19 games and even basic mathematics suggests that is relegation form. Southampton’s seasonal haul of seven from 11 is identical to this stage of 2004/05, the last time they went down from the Premier League.

Hughes used to ignore his culpability in QPR’s demise in 2012/13, when he was sacked after 12 games that yielded just four points to insist: “I don’t do relegation.” That pretence became rather harder to sustain when Stoke City went down last season, having erred by keeping Hughes until January, but Southampton may have been fooled into thinking he was a guarantee of survival.

The notion that history repeats itself used to comfort a manager with eight top-half finishes. It should not now. Diminishing returns have brought a sense of staleness; the only element of freshness at the Etihad Stadium came post-match when Hughes neither blamed officials, his usual scapegoats, or luck, his recent refrain, embraced honesty and admitted 6-1 was a fair scoreline.

Perhaps the strugglers should not be judged on their results against City, though a better-organised, less talented Brighton & Hove Albion team only lost 2-0. Yet Southampton’s are bleak against everyone. There may be a fatalistic argument that no one could do better, but they have one league win. Brighton have four, Bournemouth and Watford six apiece. A manager who was once an overachiever is now an underachiever.

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Underlying problems at St Mary’s predate Hughes’ appointment but it is hard to escape the sense they have been compounded by his choices. He spent much of pre-season using a back three only to swiftly revert to 4-4-2. That shape includes a striker, whether Charlie Austin or Shane Long, who never scores, but Manolo Gabbiadini remains marginalised. Guardiola inferred that James Ward-Prowse is the division’s best set-piece taker, but he has only begun two league games. Danny Ings was alone among the summer signings in starting at City which seemed Hughes’ way of suggesting he did not sign the other four and, thus signalling the blame belongs with others.

And, in truth, some of it lies with those above him. Southampton’s powerbrokers did not consider anyone else when giving Hughes a three-year contract in the summer, which seemed a missed opportunity then and looks like gross negligence now. One theory was that they were under the false illusion the fans were desperate to see Hughes appointed which, if true, means they do not understand their own supporters.

They delayed too long in sacking Hughes’ predecessor Mauricio Pellegrino. Perhaps that means, in the way that footballing decisions can be knee-jerk reactions to previous mistakes, the Welshman will not be afforded the same time. Certainly Southampton should not sleepwalk into trouble again. With pessimism engulfing the club, with a mixture of apathy and anger, Southampton are where Hughes’ Stoke were last year.

If it all feels rather predictable, it raises the question of what the point of Hughes’ management is any more.