It is surprising that defensive strategists see their goal-shy sides muster four between them
Southampton v Newcastle: Uncharacteristically entertaining game typically ends in a draw
Perhaps there was no shock that master and apprentice had to share the spoils.
Mauricio Pellegrino had home advantage and a more talented team. His mentor, and former Valencia manager, Rafa Benitez may have the sharper tactical brain.
The surprise, instead, was that defensive strategists with goal-shy sides saw Southampton and Newcastle United muster four between them.
“A chaotic game,” Pellegrino said. “I don’t like those kind of games.”
The control freak in Benitez probably does not, either.
There was an illogical element to the entertainment, even if it owed something to human error, courtesy of Southampton’s ever more unimpressive goalkeeper Fraser Forster and Newcastle’s otherwise excellent centre-back Florian Lejeune.
“We gave them the chance to score with the penalty,” Benitez rued.
Lejeune glimpsed redemption. His 89th-minute header was goalbound, but volleyed off the line by Steven Davis. Newcastle were denied seventh place, Southampton spared a third consecutive home defeat.
The sense that clubs at opposite ends of the country know each other well was reinforced by the identity of Saints’ other saviour: Manolo Gabbiadini, a man Benitez signed for Napoli, scored twice.
That was both welcome and a reward for Pellegrino’s greater boldness. For the first time, he paired the Italian with Shane Long in attack.
“We changed in the first half to play more direct and we put Dusan [Tadic] behind the strikers,” he added.
A shift in shape brought a dividend in the form of Gabbiadini’s equalisers. A man who had scored just once in his 16 games managed two goals within half an hour in the second half.
The first was the product of a lovely touch to control Nathan Redmond’s long pass, a winding run and a shot placed inside the near post. The second came from the penalty spot and owed much to his tireless sidekick. Long’s drought for club and country has extended to 25 goals but his energy drew an error from Lejeune, who tripped him.
A goal represented a rarity for a team who had failed to score in nine of their previous 10 games at St Mary’s. Two seemed a surfeit of excitement. While the dismissed Claude Puel is gone, Southampton are struggling to shed the Frenchman’s dullness. There was a sprinkling of boos from their fans at the interval and applause at the final whistle.
Indeed the first half had an unfortunate predictability from their perspective. Benitez seemed to have brought midfielder Isaac Hayden back into the side to add ballast. He promised more defensive solidity than the demoted Mikel Merino. He brought a clean strike from 20 yards which nestled in the bottom corner.
So far, so typical for Southampton.
What followed was less expected. A frenetic 10 minutes at the start of the second half saw both sides scored and Newcastle, with Joselu’s looping shot, also hit the bar, while their right-back DeAndre Yedlin somehow escaped a second yellow card for sliding in on Redmond.
Newcastle’s second goal was a personal ordeal for Forster. It may be harsh to fault him for their first but he was utterly culpable when he palmed Ayoze Perez’s shot straight back to the Spaniard, who scored the rebound. The concern from Southampton’s perspective is that such mistakes are too common and saves too infrequent from a goalkeeper who had second lowest save percentage among Premier League regulars last season.
“A couple of soft goals,” Pellegrino rued. “We are conceding goals every game [at home] and goals we can avoid. We have to improve in defence.”
Benitez voiced similar sentiments. Perhaps, if the spoils are shared when they renew acquaintances, it will be 0-0.
Soulmates may enjoy a stalemate more.