It is rather bizarre to think that just four games into the new season, Southampton have already played more than 10% of the whole campaign!
Yet the Saints will have been glad to have got to this point in the top half of the table, as the season so far has been one of real problems for Ronald Koeman and his staff, some slightly more complicated than others.
The transfer window has been one of those; seeing the names of Sadio Mane and Victor Wanyama linked away to Manchester United and Tottenham respectively was a real headache, and how to replace Morgan Schneiderlin is a dilemma that needs far more than paracetamol to solve.
But the way that his side were eliminated from the Europa League qualifying stage is the real problem, not just for Koeman but the fans too. The possibility of competing in Europe, just six years after nearly slipping into the abyss, was something that the club and the fanbase had embraced; ultimately, it ended in bitter disappointment.
The Danish champions are a tough nut to crack, but one that Saints should have been able to break with real craft and intelligence. The way that Koeman abandoned the attractive but successful playing style of the last five years for the ugly sledgehammer of route one football is a dark episode that should never be repeated.
The fans were repaid somewhat Saints bagged their first league win of the season before the international break, looking far more like their old selves as Norwich were swept aside 3-0 at St Mary’s.
Dusan Tadic had criticised the tactics against Midjtylland and needed a huge performance to prove those words had substance against the Canaries just three days later. He delivered a terrific performance, and showed why him and Mane are the real matchwinners in the Saints squad, terrorising Robbie Brady and the dismissed Stephen Whittaker.
Now the window has shut, the Danish debacle long gone, and the first three-pointer claimed. With Wanyama now claiming to give his best for Southampton despite not feeling up to play against Midjtylland and Norwich because of interest from Tottenham, Koeman now only has one real problem to solve – how to win away from home.
It’s a dilemma that the Dutchman has had since February. In the league since Sadio Mane’s last minute winner against QPR on the seventh of that month, Southampton have not picked up a single win away from home.
The problem derailed what was ultimately a great season for the club. Considering the fact that the campaign finished with Saints just four points off of fifth-placed Tottenham, ending the season with no points from their final five games away from home is a real sickener.
Having let in an incredibly measly 33 goals last season, to have conceded a third of those in the final seven away games shows how small the margin for error is for a side like Southampton, but also how much even small improvements can really help in the race for Europe.
Saints haven’t lost away from home in the league so far this season, but showed two contrasting sides; at Newcastle in the 2-2 draw on the opening weekend, they scored two goals away from St Mary’s for the first time since facing the same opponents back in January, yet also showed a leaky defence.
They were much more watertight against Watford with five defenders on the pitch, claiming their first away clean sheet since QPR, but the football in the 0-0 at Vicarage Road was dire. Were it not for Odion Ighalo and Etienne Capoue punishing Saints for sloppy errors like Morten Rasmussen did in Herning, it could have easily been another defeat on the road.
Koeman needs to find that happy medium where his defence doesn’t give the travelling fans nightmares every time they are tested, but we look capable of scoring. The returning Wanyama is key to this; with both the Kenyan and Oriol Romeu in the team, the defence looks much more secure. Adding Virgil van Dijk into the backline should add more steel and strength, too.
But perhaps the biggest change could come upfront. Graziano Pelle has started the season well, netting four goals in his first seven games as well as scoring for his country during the break, but away from home he is a far blunter weapon. The Italian can cut a frustrated figure away from St Mary’s, often left isolated up top and feeding off scraps. Koeman may be wise to change to the more speedy Jay Rodriguez, who is getting closer to full fitness after his cruciate ligament nightmare.
Either way, Koeman has to solve the away game conundrum. The Midjtylland exit was a dark period, but highlighted Saints’ lack of a real plan B away from home. Solve that, and Saints may not need to traverse through the play-off stages the next time the passports are needed.