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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Southampton's wretched home form a recipe for relegation

Mark Hughes' side face fellow relegation strugglers Newcastle on Saturday. A club once praised for their vision now looks in slow decline towards the Championship

Southampton striker Danny Ings has scored only three goals this season. Reuters
Southampton striker Danny Ings has scored only three goals this season. Reuters

There are different sorts of desperation. Newcastle United’s is loud and clear, bottom of the Premier League after making their worst start to a top-flight campaign since 1898. Southampton’s is a more quiet, concealed desperation, camouflaged by a station outside the relegation zone, a decent defensive record in a season of underwhelming results and minor setbacks, not weekly beatings or embarrassing thrashings.

As strugglers meet Saturday, the focus will probably be on Newcastle. Their plight is greater, their last relegation more recent, their Uefa Champions League-winning manager Rafa Benitez a frustrated symbol of how owner Mike Ashley’s penny-pinching has proved counter-productive. And yet, in some ways, Southampton’s start has been equally wretched.

Whereas Newcastle have faced five of the probable top six, Southampton have only met two. Their fixture list has been littered with winnable games they have not won. Their December looks intimidating. Their home form – two points from four games – is, remarkably, only the fourth worst, but it is a long-standing concern. They have tasted victory just four times in 28 league matches at St Mary’s. That looks a recipe for relegation.

Perhaps the smart money will be on a stalemate. Southampton, fresh from a 0-0 draw at Bournemouth, have failed to score in their last four league games. Newcastle had 27 shots against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday but none went in. Benitez’s men have a meagre 6.52 per cent shot conversion rate. Southampton’s, of 4.84 per cent, is dreadful; only Huddersfield Town’s is worse.

It comes despite the reality that the summer signing Danny Ings has been a required upgrade on the goal-shy pair of Shane Long and the departed Guido Carrillo in attack. Ings has delivered a respectable three goals. Perhaps he should be exonerated as the rest of the squad have only three between them, none from players with particular responsibilities for finding the net: left-back Ryan Bertrand has one, midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg two.

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Charlie Austin used to be a finisher who contributed too little else. Now, though Mark Hughes has tried pairing him with Ings in a supposedly attacking duo, he has mustered just two shots on target. Long, another striking sidekick, has drawn another blank with predictable displays of futile running.

Yet perhaps the biggest issue is that Southampton have never properly replaced Sadio Mane. They have averaged under a goal a game since the Senegalese’s sale to Liverpool in 2016. They have never recaptured such incision. Nathan Redmond was his immediate replacement and has one goal in his last 49 games, scattering 16 shots around this season without finding the net.

Stuart Armstrong and Mohamed Elyounoussi were the summer additions as attacking midfielder and winger respectively. Each arrived with a goalscoring pedigree. The Scot has made a negligible impact thus far. The Norwegian has created a reasonable number of chances, but is yet to register a goal or an assist. The downside of Southampton’s summer business was the loss of their most creative player, Dusan Tadic. Yet if the sense was that they emerged from the summer market stronger and that, assuming last season’s underachievers returned to par, a flirtation with relegation would be a one-off, the last two months suggests otherwise.

Now Hughes’ record of 14 points from 17 league games is actually fractionally worse than Mauricio Pellegrino’s 28 in 30. He was fortunate to be granted a three-year deal in the summer, yet it is undeniable problems predated his arrival. Like Pellegrino before him, Hughes has forged a unit that often looks competent, can usually draw but rarely wins.

It means games can become a grind. It also raises questions about the long-term prognosis for a club once praised for their vision. Southampton seem to have started on a long dragged-out decline, the sort suffered by Swansea City, Sunderland and Aston Villa, where narrow escapes from relegation gave way to a precipitous slide into the Championship.

Perhaps Newcastle will spare them that fate this season, but not forever.