Ten games. Nine goals scored, with four coming in one game. 19 goals conceded. One win and one draw, but eight losses. Make no mistake; Southampton’s winter has been very bleak.
The 4-0 win over Arsenal has become an oasis amongst the desert, rather than the turnaround that many would have hoped. After two away goalless draws against Watford and West Brom back in the early stage of the season, the home doubleheader becomes unexpectedly vital.
Seeing Saints in 13th may not be that much of a surprise, even after two seasons of top-eight finishes. But currently, the gulf between eighth-placed Liverpool and Ronald Koeman’s side feels mentally far wider than the gap separating them from 18th-placed Newcastle, despite both only being six points either way.
With the mid-table section that Southampton find themselves in being so tight this season, it makes the poor form that they are showing currently even worse. Instead of dropping a place or two, a three-game losing streak can become an avalanche down the table at some rate of knots.
It also makes the visit of the Hornets and the Baggies this week take on a much bigger magnitude. Win both, and the picture looks far rosier, and the bleak run looks further behind. But come out the other side without a win, and the crisis becomes much deeper. Looking at the fixture list, looking where you can pick up wins; form like this makes those chances shorter by the game.
A winless week would suddenly make Ronald Koeman’s position far more scrutinised too. His position amongst the fan base is still strong, his name still echoing round St Mary’s despite the form. But Koeman himself has been pretty prickly recently; criticising the players, taking snipes at the academy and stating the need to talk to the board about ‘signings’ – all in recent weeks.
Using the word ‘signings’ is quite possibly code for ‘I need better players, and more of them’. He may feel that a fair few of the academy players may not be good enough, but his other criticisms make that comment a little more suspicious. Going from ‘I’ll see out my contract at Southampton’, to ‘I hate to stay in a situation where there is no ambition’ makes it pretty obvious that Koeman is currently not a happy bunny, but then again he has looked visibly annoyed all season.
An Achilles’ injury at the start of the season forced him to miss the opening game of the season and onto crutches for others; yet week after week, he has been slumped in his chair whilst the team struggles on the pitch. He may still be in discomfort, and the players may not want the distraction of someone ranting and raving in the corner of their eye. But his body language in the dugout pieced with his irritation at things off the pitch gives off a really bad impression.
In fairness, many supporters would agree with Koeman. The squad desperately needs investment and next summer needs to be about who is coming to Southampton not leaving; if nothing else, for PR purposes.
At the moment, the only players who want to join are those looking for that gateway to the top; that’s great in many respects, as they undoubtedly will be motivated to perform, and Saints should make a profit when they go. But if things go wrong, that motivation to fight for others isn’t there. Ambitious individuals, those who want to win stuff as part of a team; they won’t want to join.
And Koeman comes across as ambitious, yet the elephant in the room is himself. Southampton as a club is pretty staunch in its views and ‘philosophies’; it is a club famed for young players, and obviously has a clear view on how they want to play football.
But ultimately, every football club wants to do one thing: win. If not playing academy players and instead favouring importing players from elsewhere, playing a more defensive style, and preferring more experienced players means winning, then so be it. However, doing it, like Koeman has in recent weeks, whilst not getting results isn’t likely to go down well. Making demands for a bigger budget just adds to that; if you’ve got views that you want to stick to, why would you be more comprising to someone who goes against that?
That is why this week is so important – not just for the squad’s confidence, but for the manager. Garnering six points from Watford and West Brom may make Koeman’s position to request another player, like a new striker that the squad really does need, a lot stronger.
But come out at 5pm on Saturday with any less than three points, and things may look even bleaker. In a season where staying up is so financially attractive, decisions suddenly take on a much bigger scale; popularity may mean nothing if those decision-makers feel it is right.
Southampton fans know that better than most. After all, it’s only three years since Nigel Adkins was on the wrong side of a ruthless decision; whether or not a similar decision would garner the same result is a gamble plenty won’t want to take.