In what was an absolutely crucial game for Southampton, at home to fellow strugglers Sunderland, the home side slumped to a devastating 1-0 defeat, to a Steven Fletcher goal on the stroke of half time. Although the goal itself was slightly fortuitous, Stephane Sessegnon appearing to mishit a pass straight into the path of Fletcher; Southampton ultimately paid the price for what Nigel Adkins rightly described as “uncharacteristically flat” performance.
Southampton were laboured and poor; never seriously threatening the Sunderland defence despite dominating the first half territorially. With skipper Adam Lallana out, Emmanuel Mayuka was given his first league start for the club alongside Rickie Lambert up front, while Gaston Ramirez came in on the left side of midfield.
Right from the start the system of the home side didn’t look right; Mayuka was pushed right up front, with Lambert seemingly asked to sit deeper to bridge the gap between the central midfield of Cork and Schneiderlin, and Mayuka. This created all sorts of problems, as Lambert didn’t look comfortable dropping deep, and naturally drifted back into his up front position, leaving a vast gap between the deep sitting defensive midfielders and the strikers, which meant that Southampton were never able to make the most of their large amount of possession in the first half, and were restricted to long range efforts from Ramirez and Lambert.
In spite of this, I was still confident of getting the win as Sunderland also offered little threat going forward, with the exception of a long range shot from Stephane Sessegnon within the first 30 seconds of the game. It was clear that Sunderland had come to counter-attack the home side, and they sat very deep, comfortably soaking up the pressure that was coming their way, while struggling to create anything decent going forward.
As you can imagine, this led to a very boring first half. Boring, until Sunderland grabbed the lead, pushing forward on the counter before James McClean passed into the box where Sessegnon mishit his shot into Fletcher’s path who rifled it into the net giving Keeper Kelvin Davis no chance. The goal came from nowhere, and instantly changed the complexion of the match. Instead of responding to the disappointment, Southampton came out for the second half looking even more laboured and lacking in ideas than they had in the first half; assuming that was possible, with Sunderland buoyed by the goal, and going forward far more threateningly than before. Changes were a must, and although I was surprised to see Steve De Ridder make his first league appearance of the season, I was optimistic that it could make a difference.
Unfortunately, this is where Adkins made his first major tactical mistake of the afternoon. By moving De Ridder onto the left, he negated the winger’s major attribute - pace. The Dutchman is not the most skilful player, and therefore will mainly rely on beating players with his pace, but by playing him on his unnatural side, he was restricted to cutting inside on his right every time he got the ball, making him unable to show the key asset that could have changed the game. For me, he should have put De Ridder on the right, and tried to test the undeniably impressive Danny Rose, who kept Jason Puncheon, in my opinion Saints’ best player this season, very quiet.
The home side undoubtedly missed captain Adam Lallana’s invention and creativity, but this was possibly because Gaston Ramirez struggled out on the left, a position he plays for Uruguay, and had previously played for Bologna too. Many fans will point to the fact that Ramirez has been very effective in behind Lambert, and should have stayed there rather than filling in for Lallana, and although I agree with this, in principle, I still feel that the Uruguayan should have had a bigger impact on the game.
Quite simply, Southampton were poor. They looked surprisingly laboured for a team that hadn’t played for two weeks, and they played into Sunderland’s hands. The first goal was always going to be crucial, and by not testing a Sunderland defence which has been shown to be fallible in recent weeks, Southampton paid the ultimate price. While not wishing to begrudge Sunderland a hard fought victory, neither side impressed me yesterday, with chances at a premium and the game lacking any real rhythm or consistency.
However, Sunderland came with a plan which they executed well, and when the chance fell to them, clinical striker Fletcher took it well. If Sunderland can make a habit of snatching results like this away from home when they haven’t played particularly well, then they should be fine, assuming they address their poor form at home. However, if both sides play the way they did yesterday, it could be a long season for both teams.