Paul MacInnes on 15 April 2018
Mark Hughes has not had much time to get to know his players at Southampton and he does not have much left either if he is to effect a transformation that will escape relegation.
Chelsea’s three-goal comeback at St Mary’s on Saturday must have felt like a blow to the solar plexus for Saints. But a performance that was built on heart and determination foundered on the same qualities. When it was time to stiffen the sinews and repel everything Chelsea were chucking at them, Southampton were not up to the job.
Hughes said: “It’s the key moments in games where you just need to be a bit resolute, when you’ve just got to clear your head a little bit more quickly and get something out of games that you deserve to get something out of. At the moment we’re having to score two goals against top-level teams and even that’s not enough, so that’s where the problem lies really.
“We’re in a situation where people have to take on a lot of information, and I’m conscious of that. It’s only the details of the game. I’ve said this for a long, long time at previous clubs as well: you get the details right, the key moments when you recognise a situation is developing and you nip it in the bud and then it’s not a problem for you. We’re a little slow in terms of recognising that.”
It is true that Hughes has said such things before. He was bemoaning Stoke’s failure properly to clear their lines as they slipped towards the relegation zone in the winter. He was unable to get the message through to his players then. This time it must click immediately, starting at Leicester on Thursday, if Southampton are to claw back the five-point gap to safety with five games remaining.
An alternative theory might be that Saints, and Stoke, are always going to find mistakes costly because of the respective qualities of their squads. Stoke struggled for goals with no leading striker and Southampton are in a similar position. They have lots of options but no surefire bets. A side struggling to create and score chances puts extra pressure on its defence to be immaculate.
On the upside Hughes is allowing Dusan Tadic free reign. The Serb has been the most effective attacking player for Southampton since he arrived four years ago and was so again in their productive first half. It is just all the rest that has to come together now – and in short order, too.