The Saints manager seems reluctant to take the handbrake off his team despite his predecessor being sacked for supposed dull football
2 March ~ For Southampton fans this season feels all too similar to 2004-05 when we were last relegated from the Premier League. Back then a squad of seemingly good players, which included a Liverpool-bound Peter Crouch, won only one of their last eight games, ending 27 consecutive years of top flight football. With only four home league games left, tomorrow is a must-win game against Stoke, who are fighting for their lives in 19th place – and a point behind us. We last beat Stoke two years ago, but you have to go back to 2014 for our last win against them at St Mary’s.
Graziano Pellè and Sadio Mané scored in those two victories. When those players were sold they were effectively replaced by Charlie Austin and Nathan Redmond. Austin is a great finisher – when he’s fit – while Redmond’s performances manage to even wind up opposition managers if Pep Guardiola’s weird exchange with him at the Etihad earlier in the season is anything to go by. This tells its own story. After adequately replacing players sold to bigger clubs in the years we’ve been back in the Premier League it would appear the well of new recruits has dried up.
This makes Mauricio Pellegrino’s reluctance to start Manolo Gabbiadini all the more puzzling, though his 90th-minute equaliser at Burnley last week has provided fans with some hope. For some Saints fans, though, the hope this season has centred on the expectation of the club replacing the current manager. Pellegrino’s reluctance to take off the handbrake and attack the opposition is all the more ironic given his predecessor Claude Puel was sacked for supposed dull football which saw just 17 league goals at home.
The players are making the right noises. Oriol Romeu said players must take the blame for performances, not the manager; while after the point earned at Turf Moor, James Ward-Prowse told reporters he was sure club will be safe come the end of the season. It’s hard to say whether this was genuine or just well-versed media soundbites of the modern-day footballer. But it was encouraging to see Ward-Prowse’s bickering with Sofiane Boufal over who would take a free-kick in the FA Cup at The Hawthorns a month ago dissipate as the latter was the first to bundle the former after he scored from the resulting kick.
However, if pressed on the chances of Premier League survival most Saints fans would shrug – it’s impossible to call for a team who followed up a 4-1 win over Everton in November with 12 league games without a win. Staying up would actually throw up more questions: back the manager? Or rip it up and start again, again? The result of Saturday’s game is set to define Pellegrino’s time at Southampton. Mark Sanderson