This season, Southampton fans have been asking themselves a question that they haven’t had to worry about for a while. What happens if we go down?
The prospect of relegation, which would likely lead not only to the departure of the manager but also most of the key players in the squad, does not bear thinking about, but it is a real danger.
Having been as high as fifth after the second game of the campaign, the Saints have slid steadily down the table and have not been out of the bottom third in 2018, dropping into the relegation zone by the end of January. A precious point at Burnley took them out of the bottom three on goal difference, but they remain in a vulnerable position.
Of course, as Premier League fans will know, every season seems to produce one relegation-threatened team that suddenly discovers some form and goes on a run of good results, dragging themselves out of trouble. Football punters checking out the Premier League odds at Stakers.com will be studying each of the relegation candidates to see if they fit the bill – so what chance do Southampton have of being that team?
Based on their current form, such a run would seem unlikely. Dependable players appear out of sorts, fans have lost faith with the manager, and there is a distinctly mutinous atmosphere at St Mary’s, where supporters are expressing their frustration.
Goals are a particular problem. With Charlie Austin out, extra pressure has been placed on the club’s record signing, Guido Carrillo, but he has never been a particularly prolific striker, averaging a goal every four games at Monaco and Estudiantes. Manolo Gabbiadini is the sole attacking bright spot in a Saints team that has found the net just nine times in their last eight games, and he has only scored four times this season.
Unlike a number of their relegation rivals, Southampton have stuck with their manager, but Mauricio Pellegrino has not yet shown the same tactical or motivational abilities as the last Argentine to manage the club. His selections and substitutions have left fans and pundits baffled on occasions. He showed too much faith in Fraser Forster and too little in Austin, and he seems unsure of his best team. By January, Southampton had the unwelcome distinction of having made the second most changes to their starting line-up in the Premier League.
This lack of continuity has not done anything to help the players build up any confidence, and particularly at home, they have displayed a nervousness that has caused them to let games slip in the last half hour, costing them valuable points. There is also the suspicion that key players, many of whom have been rewarded with big new contracts in the last few months, are not giving their best for manager or club, which is particularly worrying.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, the Saints have probably the worst run-in to the end of the season of any of the relegation-threatened teams. Their last six games, beginning at the start of April, include ties against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. If they are going to save themselves, they will have to do the bulk of the work in March.
The good news is that the fixture list gives them exactly that opportunity. They have games against Stoke and Newcastle coming up and another winnable match against West Ham, while they also have a rearranged game against Swansea to come. Their strong record against fellow strugglers should give the team confidence ahead of those crucial contests. They’ve only lost two out of nine games so far against teams currently in the bottom seven, and all four of those matches could yield much-needed points.
Despite their poor form, they also have a deeper squad than any of their relegation rivals, which could prove to be a crucial factor, given that they could well be playing in the semi-final of the FA Cup and possibly even the final, during the next few weeks.
There’s no doubt that returning to the Championship would be a disaster for the club, but if the players can put in one last concerted effort during March, there are enough points available and enough talent in the squad to haul the team clear of the relegation struggle. Who knows, they may even replicate the heroes of 1976 and lift the FA Cup – wouldn’t that be a spectacular dramatic twist at the end of a long, hard season?!