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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Struggling Southampton face a reminder of their finer days when they face Pochettino and Tottenham

The south coast side have regressed this season with poor tactical choices of Mauricio Pellegrino not helping their fortunes.

Some of Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino tactical and personnel decisions have not paid off since he took charge. David Klein / Reuters
Some of Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino tactical and personnel decisions have not paid off since he took charge. David Klein / Reuters

Mauricio Pochettino will recognise the stadium. He will remember some of the faces, of a handful of players and some of the staff behind the scenes. What will be unfamiliar is a league table showing Southampton in relegation trouble.

It is less than four years since Pochettino left a team in eighth place. He returns on Sunday with Tottenham Hotspur pushing for a third consecutive top-four finish.

If 2014 should be too recent to induce feelings of nostalgia, it may not be in Southampton. Pochettino bequeathed an overachieving, progressive, pressing, attacking side.

There was a notion that managers came and went but Southampton’s ethos remained, along with a capacity to outperform everyone with a similar budget.

Yet now they may be the division’s prime underachievers. Their football has been dour and defensive for much of the last 18 months, with one cautious manager, in Claude Puel, replaced by another, in Mauricio Pellegrino.

Perhaps they may lament the quality lost and eight of the players who appeared in Pochettino’s last match were sold to members of the current top six.

Perhaps it is proof that life as a selling club may be sustainable in terms of finance, but is not on the football pitch. Sooner or later, the arrivals will not be of the standard of the departures.

And yet Pellegrino has a host of players arguably good enough to represent a side in the second six, between seventh and 12th positions; part of his problem has been perming the right ones and forming the correct combinations.

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Mario Lemina, who impressed after his arrival from Juventus, is arguably Southampton’s best central midfielder but finds himself on the bench. James Ward-Prowse is back in the side and in the goals of late, but was a substitute for too long.

Pellegrino was too slow to drop Fraser Forster and too slow to pick Charlie Austin. Southampton’s best scorer is now injured but averages a goal every 100 minutes this season; Shane Long, who has stuck once in 11 months, was preferred.

Pellegrino failed in an attempt to re-sign Theo Walcott to address the lack of potency in the forward line.

Even when Southampton beat Fulham in the FA Cup, dissenting supporters questioned the manager’s judgment. There has been muddled thinking in every department of the pitch, and it is not just confined to Pellegrino.

The Virgil van Dijk saga scarcely helped, Southampton’s summer refusal to sell an unsettled player denying Maya Yoshida and Wesley Hoedt the chance to bed in as the regular centre-back partnership.

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Defending has been an issue as Southampton have developed a habit of losing leads. If Watford’s last-minute equaliser last week should have been disallowed for Abdoulaye Doucoure’s handball, it nonetheless conformed to two trends: Southampton concede late goals and struggle to defeat anyone.

No team in all four divisions has gone longer without a league win, with their last success on November 26. After 60 per cent of the season, Southampton, who recorded four consecutive top-eight finishes, are yet to beat a competent 11-man Premier League side.

Their four wins came against West Ham United, who had Marko Arnautovic sent off in the 33rd minute, Crystal Palace, pointless and goalless in Roy Hodgson’s first game in charge after Frank de Boer’s disastrous reign, West Bromwich Albion, during their club record 20-game winless run, and Everton, a shambles under caretaker manager David Unsworth.

There are still three points on offer for beating depleted or dysfunctional sides, but it is damning nonetheless.

And nor does it bode well for a clash with Tottenham, rarely a dysfunctional side under Pochettino. Southampton’s sides these days are not as young, as watchable or as successful.

Their past is not so much another country as another Argentinian; another Mauricio.

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