Southampton, with a new, fresh, inspiring manager at the helm of a squad which always looked significantly better than their struggles under dour regimes suggested, rolled in to Town on a wave of confidence after beating Arsenal last week. It was far from a flawless victory, and there was more than an element of luck about it, but the confidence it has engendered is priceless.
Faced with hosts shorn of aggression, experience and know how in midfield, a shambolic tactical experiment featuring a player yet to convince in a brutally demanding league and a back line which conspired to put in their worst individual and collective display since being brought together, the Saints’ easy win was as depressing as it was predictable.
Pressing from the start, the visitors always looked several streets ahead of a woefully inadequate Town line up who turned in a first half performance which barely rose above desperate. Incoherent through the middle, powder puff up front and vulnerable as babies at the back, Town lacked leadership on and off the pitch and while the injuries to 3 principal characters was always going to be a handicap, Wagner’s choice of the pacy but limited Mbenza and the inexperienced Bacuna for key roles while leaving Durm on the bench was either impressively bold or, you know, the other thing.
Billing, so elegant on the ball at times, simply didn’t handle the responsibility of being the relatively elder statesman in midfield and got away with one piece of negligence when he gave away cheap possession though another lead directly to Southampton winning the penalty which would cap a half of horror for a team which simply couldn’t match the visitors’ energy and confidence.
Alongside Billing, Bacuna was similarly profligate in possession while Pritchard, playing a little deeper but to little positive effect, opened the door for Ings to drive at the home defence, feed Hojbjerg who bypassed a hugely out of sorts Kongolo’s pathetic attempt to cut out his ball through to Redmond (a menace throughout) who easily beat Lössl.
Lacking instinct, composure or confidence, there wasn’t an area of the pitch which wasn’t shambolic and laboured for the Terriers. The two wing backs epitomised the frailty. Hadergjonaj made the most of two innocuous looking knocks but less of the rare crossing opportunities he had though the familiar lack of bodies in the box doesn’t help him in his, so far fruitless, search for last season’s form while Löwe, who has been a very good performer in many games, was hooked at half time after a performance with the highlight being him booked for a pathetic dive. A dive which makes Town the most divey in a league plagued by diving – Löwe was our fifth booking for the offence.
Saints cruised to a 2-0 half time lead, smashing Wagner’s weird game plan in the process. Capitalising regularly on the hesitancy and raw naïveté of their hosts, they were able to play with freedom and confidence with the ball and harass Town in to nervous mistakes and out of possession. There were flurries of attacking play which never managed to end in any activity from the Saints’ keeper and the corners resulting from a couple of blocked shots were pretty woeful (including an attempted short corner which saw Bacuna balloon a cross following a bobble). It rather summed up a first 45 minutes which was capped by the clumsy Zanka challenge which brought down Ings, who rolled the spot kick nonchalantly past Lössl.
A thoroughly miserable half ended with a wild Mounié shot and with a fair few depressed supporters already under the stands or walking away altogether. Patience is wearing thin at systems which don’t deliver goals and when subjected to pressure, crumble away.
The Hogg shaped hole in Wagner’s plans couldn’t have been more apparent. A disastrously weak and inexperienced midfield pushed the defensive shape in to blind confusion and the sight of both Kongolo and Schindler struggling to adapt was worrying and hugely dispiriting, though it seems inconceivable that their manager will inflict yesterday’s line up on them or us any time soon.
For a while in the second half, and after a strong start from their über confident opponents, Town began to introduce a modicum of competence to their performance; undoubtedly attributable to the introduction of Durm and a back four which allowed the team to function. Not particularly well for the most part, and despite a brief period of dominance following Billing’s long distance shot which somehow deceived McCarthy, not enough to rescue a game against superior opposition, but the improvement will surely change Wagner’s thinking for the future. Sadly, that is far from being the extent of his problems.
The brief revival had begun with Town finally forcing McCarthy in to action as he instinctively and impressively turned a close range Zanka header around the post and was then bamboozled by a Billing effort which really should have been a routine save despite the movement the Dane put on the ball.
With crowd and team coming back to life, Southampton were shaken out of their dominant control and their nerves began to jangle a little too much for their new manager’s comfort. Just 2 minutes after the deficit had been halved, Mbenza turned on a Zanka assist but fired his shot too close to McCarthy who pushed the threat away.
A weak Mounié header didn’t trouble him at all from the resultant corner, but the home side knew there was an opportunity they could exploit if they could only keep their discipline, keep patient and not making any rudimentary errors at the back.
Just over 10 minutes after scoring and launching several attacks resulting in rather poor efforts on goal (and conceding a break which saw Obafemi fire wide when well placed to score), Hadergjonaj brought the ball infield and inexplicably passed back to Schindler when a forward pass was far more obvious and safe. The German’s attempt to shield the ball went disastrously wrong, with Redmond robbing him and feeding Obafemi for the youngster’s first Premier League goal. Town’s brief, not entirely convincing, revival was over and a defeat which opened up the gap to Southampton and others felt just as damaging as all the other 6 pointers we have contrived to blow.
As Huddersfield Town fans consoled themselves with pre Christmas drinks, word came through that in South Wales, footballers of considerably higher quality than the ones who had easily beaten their team that afternoon had thrown off the shackles of another washed up manager and battered Cardiff with a free flowing exhibition of football. With Fulham keeping their first clean sheet as a new manager’s influence starts to get through (perhaps), the nights may be getting longer since Friday, but it’s still damned gloomy.
Still, with Kachunga and Quaner ready to come off the bench, what could go wrong?