The spark has been extinguished at Southampton
Background photo: Colin Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0
Southampton jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead against Manchester United on Saturday through fine goals from Stuart Armstrong and Cedric Soares. The Scot found open space on the right edge of United's box. Nathan Redmond took the ball across the top, drawing a knot of United defenders, laid it off to Michael Obafemi, who sent it back outside to an unmarked Armstrong, who calmly drilled a low shot with too much pace for David de Gea to keep out of the far-side netting. Shortly thereafter, United gave away a free kick from just outside the box. Cedric looped over United's sizeable wall and just under the bar in the upper 90. Again, de Gea had no chance.
The visitors roared back to level affairs before halftime and then survived the second half to split the points. There were other positive performances for the Saints. Nathan Redmond was a thorn in United's side throughout. Eighteen-year-old Obafemi played well in his first Premier League start before coming off late with a possible hamstring problem. The positives made no difference to the So'ton board, however. Mark Hughes was sacked as manager less than 48 hours later.
It says something about the state of affairs in Manchester's red half that a relegation-threatened club would fire their coach for dropping two points against the Red Devils. While still a top-ten Premier League side, United admittedly have their problems defending, scoring and bonding as a club. There are supporters in the North West who will suggest the wrong boss was sent packing after the match.
All that isn't to say no one saw this coming. Southampton are winless in their last ten. They've surrendered the fourth-most goals in league play while scoring the third-fewest. Hughes was brought in late last term to stave off relegation. He barely did so. Despite a contract extension rewarding him for keeping the Saints in the top flight, the club are right back where they were when he arrived.
Sparky was unlucky to lose his one on-song striker to injury when four-goal man Danny Ings went down but you're really grasping at straws when you start a wet-behind-the-ears teenager in his place. The Welshman had little choice given he hasn't been able to coax more from the experienced members of his strike force. Manolo Gabbiadini has one goal in 13 appearances this campaign. When you stretch it back to last season, the Italian's contributed six in 46. Shane Long is no better. The Irishman logged two goals and two assists in 35 games during 2017/18. He's yet to make the scoresheet this term in nine outings. Englishman Charlie Austin posted a respectable seven strikes in 26 outings last season but has just one in 11 in the new session. None saw action against United.
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Nathan Redmond, a rising star on the English football scene three seasons and as many managers ago, is in similar straits. In 17 appearances, he's produced a pair of assists. That's why his performance against United was so encouraging and a few dared to hope Hughes might finally be reaching his squad.
Southampton's problems don't all lie in attack, however. Jannik Vestergaard, the 6' 6" Danish defender illustrated how porous the Saints rearguard can be, his mind and feet both too slow to react to Romelu Lukaku's run down the middle that produced United's first goal. The marker broke a long dry spell for the Belgian as well but it was eminently preventable.
The early odds are on Spanish tactician Quique Sanchez Flores to take over. The 53-year-old rejected the opportunity to return to Watford last season when Marco Silva was axed, electing to remain with La Liga side Espanyol. That turned out to be ill-advised. He was sacked in April after the Parakeets dove down the table. Available, he represents a chance for the club to return to the positive style played under Nigel Adkins, Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. That said, Sam Allardyce's name is in the hat, as well.
Whether an enterprising boss or a bus driver is given the keys at Saint Mary's, they face a difficult task to keep the Saints in the Premier League. The squad can neither defend nor score. It's tough for any manager to keep his job in those conditions.