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Southampton 4 v 2 Sunderland
SkyBet Championship
Saturday, 9th March 2024 Kick-off 15:00
Southampton V Sunderland The Verdict
Sunday, 10th Mar 2024 09:32

Saints returned to St Mary's after their fire enforced postponement in midweek, but it seems that Russell Martin learned no lessons from the win over Birmingham City the previous weekend.

Russell Martin named an unchanged team from the win over Birmingham 7 days earlier, the reaction from Saints supporters was mixed, few disagreed with the selection, but most were worried about the prospect of Jack Stephens again playing in the centre of defence and Taylor Harwood Bellis being shunted to right back again, the hope was that the manager had learned his lesson and that Jack Stephens would be on the right.

No one was slagging off Jack Stephens here, the criticism from the fans was all about why the partnership in the defence of Jan Bednarek and Taylor Harwood Bellis, the foundation of a 22 match unbeaten run in the Championship had been broken up, seemingly just to shoehorn in Jack Stephens in the centre of defence.

In those 22 games our defence conceded just 16 goals, in the last two games we have let in 5, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Of course the defensive issues of late are not just down to playing Jack Stephens, he didn't feature against Bristol City when we let in 3 goals, it is not Jack himself that is the issue, it is the disruption to what was one of the best central defensive partnerships in the division.

Ahead of the game though there was some good news as pubs full of Saints fans around the City erupted first as Cardiff scored what had looked an unlikely equaliser in the 4th minute of injury time and then 4 minutes later in the time added on for their celebrations scored again.

That meant the mood was upbeat as the fans headed for the stadium, there was ground that could be made up by beating Sunderland, rather than just holding on to shirt tails.

The game started well for Saints, Sunderland were poor, they had little motivation and it was no surprise when Stuart Armstrong opened the scoring on 9 minutes, there was a little wait for the second goal, Ryan manning being cleaned out and Adam Armstrong scoring the resulting penalty.

So at half time all was well, all the talk was of how many Saints would score, but there were warning signs, we were still taking risks with possession football along the back four, no one is complaining that it has not worked for us this season, but the problem is that we don't seem to know that sometimes you have to put your foot through the ball, it is almost as if the manager has told his player they will be fined if they clear it rather than keep passing, but it is putting our own players under needless pressure.

Initially the first half started much in the same way as the first had ended, there was no sign of what was about to happen next, a couple of changes on 58 minutes with Aribo on for Smallbone & Sulemana for Brooks, seemed a little premature, but made sense, however they seemed to give Sunderland hope.

I have said previously that our opponents know Saints are at their most vulnerable at the start of each half, but perhaps Sunderland had also spotted that we make multiple changes and that also sees us need time to adjust.

Withing minutes Sunderland had taken advantage of the change in the centre of midfield and scored what was a fortuitous goal taking a big deflection and leaving Bazunu no chance.

This sparked 15 minutes of madness when we became a disorganised rabble, there was no leadership or organisation and we were a mess, It was no surprise when the visitors equalised, a spectacular strike that again gave the keeper no chance.

Suddenly we were in trouble, but the issue was that we didn't change the way we were playing, we had let Sunderland back into the game because we were playing our own men into trouble by overpassing the ball, we were failing to clear our lines when quite frankly there was no other option to do anything else but clear it long.

In fairness Russell Martin had finally learned his lesson, off went Jack Stephens and on came James Bree two minutes after the equaliser, we shifted THB back into the middle, on came Joe Rothwell for Stuart Armstrong, suddenly we had our shape back.

Within minutes we had taken the lead again and it was Rothwell who converted Adam Armstrong's cross after it had been deflected into his path and he again finished with aplomb after an effort had been cleared off the line.

We had got out of jail and we had done so despite our tactics not because of them.

So 10 minutes to go, surely we would now concentrate on keeping it tight and not doing anything silly, sadly not we still kept putting our own players under pressure, bizarrely we seemed determined to his long hard balls from the keeper to the centre circle, too often it gave Sunderland a 50/50 chance of winning the ball and even if our man won it he was heading back towards his own goal with little options.

With a two goal lead restored it appeared we were going to keep on doing what had given Sunderland a way back into the game, what should have been a final 10 minutes plus 7 of injury time seen out comfortably was time and time again handed back to Sunderland, luckily enough they didn't seem to have another comeback in them.

The problem is there for all to see, we lack leadership on the pitch, Russell martin thinks that leader is Jack Stephens, but there is no real evidence for that, either this season or any seasons before, Jack Stephens has been a loyal servant to Southampton FC, but he is what he is, a good man to have in the squad, but he is no leader and indeed yesterday when we were in disarray he was taken off.

We need a captain who is a defender of central midfielder, someone who is a first choice in the side, if you are taking off your Captain just at the time the team needs leadership, that should be telling the manager something, perhaps Jan Bednarek or Flynn Downes.

Jack has been a big part of this verdict, but it is not about a criticism of his game, he was no better or no worse than those around him, the issue is not of his making, he is having a burden thrust on his shoulders that he really shouldn't have, I would have been perfectly happy to have had him in at right back yesterday, but the whole ground knew that he should not be in the centre unless Jan Bednarek 0r Taylor Harwood-Bellis are unavailable and he probably knows that himself, indeed the whole squad know that, but he is a professional so has to follow instruction.

When we left St Andrews a week earlier there was a feeling of buoyancy in the travelling Saints fans, but leaving St Mary's it was almost as if we had lost, we should have been even more buoyant than the game at Birmingham, after all we had not only clawed back 3 points on Ipswich, but also the news that Leicester had dropped two points at Hull.

It was game on again for Saints in the automatic promotion stakes , but it didn't feel like it.

Going forward we are one of the most potent attacking line ups, we don't rely just on one man, we have goals in the entire team, as was shown again yesterday, but we have to hone that possession football game a little and accept that at times we have to clear the ball instead of putting our own players in trouble.

We now have a 3 week break, hopefully that will enable us to get Kyle Walker Peters and Ryan Fraser fit and then go into the final 10 games of the season focused on what we need to do.

Photo: Action Images

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YosemiteSaint added 09:51 - Mar 10
This is pretty spot on, Nick. We can score bags of goals, but we'll run ourselves into the ground if we don't shore up central defense and holding midfield. For a while I thought we were unlucky to concede so many long-range goals. But it's happening for a reason—we're not shutting down attacks high enough up the pitch in our defending third, and we're not clearing lines that lead to second-chance shots. It's nice to see that we can score goals. But there won't be enough gas in the tank for the season's final push if we don't learn to manage the game better and stop the ball well ahead of our 20-yard box.

mattlegod added 09:52 - Mar 10
I couldn't have put it better Nick. Every issue well addressed.

mgprobert added 10:09 - Mar 10
Spot on there. Jack Stephens oozes competitive spirit and I'm sure he's a top bloke, but I expect the data will show an uncomfortable correlation with him and a leaky defence. Good to get the win but another nail biter.

IanRC added 10:11 - Mar 10
Thought Baznau went long more often this game actually. Agree though that Martin needs to wake up and realise that THB and Jan B are by far the best central partnership and should never voluntarily be split, in that connection good that there were no bookings. Good to see Sulemana get more time, again one of our most incisive players. Need to get the ball to him quicker though if we are to maximise his effectiveness.

It is good that we have scorers all over the place but I hope AA finds his shooting boots soon, although admittedly he is playing out of positions because Che Adams is so good at holding up the ball.

Overall good results for us then though a shame Leeds won on Friday. It is clear that the three games against Ipswich, Leicester and Leeds will make or break our automatic promotion prospects.

JoeEgg added 10:17 - Mar 10
Yes Nick puts it very well - so why cant our manager see sense before its too late?
I have never been a true fan of Russell Martin and I strongly believe that the Championship is his level and no higher.
Every week he tells us individual players were 'brilliant'. Aribo was brilliant last week presumably because he got RM out of jail. So brilliant that there was no place for him Saturday. Rothwell was 'brilliant ' yesterday - another player to save RM from his own mistakes!!
I have criticised time and again the manager's tippy tappy playing it our from the back tactics. We are simply not good enough to continually do this. Even the Premier League sides cause trouble for themselves doing it- and they are far better teams than us. Martin thinks he is clever and has a future alongside the Guardiolas - he hasn't. We are going toi lose out on automatic promotion because of Martin, his over grand ego, and his suicidal tactics.
YosemiteSaint has it spot on - we dont shore up our defence and holding midfield. If we can see that Sauntso not shut down attacks high enough up the pitch - why cant Martin see it! We are throwing games away - the first few minutes of the Second half are always 'hide in the toilet' moments for Saints fans!
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and I respect the views of those that claim that Russell Martin has done a good job. I am just so disappointed that he HAS NOT learnt from recent setbacks, selects the wrong defence and midfield, and persist with tactics that are tippy tappying our team into one unnecessary setback after another.

LordDZLucan added 10:48 - Mar 10
Unfortunately the facts don't back up your assertion that the Bednarek/Harwood Bellis centre back partnership is the answer to all our problems. In the past month we have shipped 3 goals against each of Huddersfield and Bristol City and then 2 goals against Hull with Bednarek and Harwood Bellis at centre back. Admittedly it's been no better with Bednarek and Stephens but it hasn't been any worse either. Therefore I would suggest that the problem lies elsewhere. Whatever centre back partnership we use we don't seem to deal very well with teams pressing us high up the pitch. That is not necessarily the backs problem. If we're not prepared to go long then the onus is on the midfielders to get themselves into positions to receive a pass from the backs. I would suggest that that is not happening which is why we end up putting ourselves under pressure. I would concede that Harwood Bellis is a better centre back than Stephens. But equally Stephens is a better right back than Harwood Bellis so if we're going to play both of them then in my view they should swap positions. Finally, I would suggest that losing Ross Stewart for the season has been a massive loss. In the few minutes that he played you could see that he was very adept at receiving a long out ball and that would have been a very useful option to have at the present time to deal with that high press that teams are using against us.

davidargyll added 10:59 - Mar 10
How many of us were saying after Sunderland’s second went in, “Oh Christ, here we go again…”? And yet , in the last quarter of an hour or so, Sunderland showed exactly what can go wrong when you over-press: they lost the ball and in effect gifted us at least one of our goals.
So not exactly an easy game but again three vital points.

On the subject of Bazunu, I cannot understand this tactic of his holding the ball at his feet to tempt in the oppo’s forwards. He did it at least half a dozen times yesterday and the result is invariably a rush of tippy tappy passing that often ends up with either a rushed kick up field, or worse losing the ball and putting the backs all under pressure. So single-handedly and unnecessarily he turns comfortable possession into danger within the space of a few seconds, when the occasional long kick over the top would be no worse, and sometimes better.

His alternative distribution at the moment is a long kick/roll to a midfielder tracking back who is most of the time going too fast to be able to control the ball and lay it off. As you say, “too often it gave Sunderland a 50/50 chance of winning the ball and even if our man won it he was heading back towards his own goal with little option.”

So yes there is a bit of variety in his distribution, but why not also include a few long kicks - and maybe a long goal kick or two as well? - to confuse the opposition. I am convinced that we get into a mess at the back because our players especially GB have this “possession-at-all-times” mantra fed into them and they just cannot think out of the box (in more ways than one).

PS. Personally I’m not as anti-JS as everybody seems to be. Yes he may not be as skilled as others but he did make a couple of saving tackles yesterday. And in any case everyone cocks it up from time to time, like Brooks and Downes did on a couple of occasions yesterday and no one has taken them to task.

SanMarco added 11:00 - Mar 10
Good analysis from Nick and the above comments. RM is a 'my way or the highway' man and the long unbeaten run (rightly) means it is not the highway. This I fear makes him not learn from what are fairly obvious tactical/team selection mistakes. The truth if we want to be very harsh is that we really ought to be 3rd or 4th this season. It won't be an enormous achievement to come 4th.

I don't like tippy-tappy and the wibbly-wobbly version of it at Anfield annoyed me. The statistic to look at is chances created vs chances gifted to the opposition. To me we are on the wrong side of that particular equation.

A lot of us felt less positive than you would expect after that win. It is the goals conceded and how they are being conceded that caused that I believe. Having said all that it was a far better home performance than the last two. Now we have a ludicrously long break before 10 games in a month. Well done fixture planners!!

Bawdrip added 11:37 - Mar 10
A valuable three points but a stressful afternoon. I'd have started with Aribo and wouldn't have had Harwood-Bellis at fullback but in the middle.

Not sure about the substitutes either. We were in control of the game and disrupted things. Subs should be used to change the game and it didn't need changing. To be fair subs did OK, especially Rothwell, but it certainly unsettled us for a while.
As at Birmingham we never felt in control of the game. First half was OK but you always felt if Sunderland scored the whole game would shift. It certainly did and we lost all shape and composure for 15-20 minutes. Mistakes surfaced and I feared a defeat. The only good thing was Sunderland lost their composure too and got caught out. Two excellent finishes from Rothwell.

An important win, especially with the long break ahead, but we didn't control the game well enough. Exciting to watch again though!

131153 added 12:02 - Mar 10
Another 100 minutes of heart attack football yesterday. Clearly there is no chance of RM changing his philosophy so we might as well accept the situation. The players have been instructed to keep the ball at all costs. The Sunderland second goal illustrates this amply we had a chance to nod the ball out of play but in trying to keep possession a slightly misplaced pass gave Bellingham his chance.

If we get promoted RM will play this without hesitation so hopefully we can find better players to give us a chance of staying up.

PS. As a fan who travels sixty to miles to watch have to comment on the clowns at the council who have started the road works and one way system. Even after stopping in West Quay for a meal expecting to be able to head home at seven o’clock it was a nightmare. It’s strange trying to head towards London and finding the best route is to head towards Bournemouth first. Can only assume it’s the same every night at rush hour. I doubt the council planners have any idea if the plan will help the traffic flow.

saintmark1976 added 12:32 - Mar 10
Bazunu does what the manager tells him. I doubt very much that he looks forward to having the ball passed to him every five seconds when the opposition forwards are rushing toward him. That aspect of our tactics won’t change until Russell Martin changes and it’s pretty evident that he has no intention of doing so.

Yesterday we got lucky with our two second half goals, on another day Armstrong having missed the initial opportunities the ball wouldn’t have rebounded so favourably for Rothwell.

HythePeer added 13:11 - Mar 10
A bit of a harsh Verdict considering they won by 2 goals, and the two Sunderland scored were superb long range efforts. 🤷🏻‍♂️

highfield49 added 13:35 - Mar 10
Like just about everyone I thought we were going to blow it and waste the opportunity afforded by our rivals dropping points. However, Rothwell again demonstrated his finishing ability, which puts some of our strikers efforts to shame, and kept us in the chase. The point is that there are few, if any, teams that can can guarantee control of a game for ninety plus minutes. Even those teams who do have that ability don't always get the ball in the opposition net and, despite their superior quality, drop points.
Whilst selection of the highest rated players, playing with total control, and substitutions having no disruptive effect, that still statistically counts for less than a garbage team winning by a fluke deflection into the opponents net after ninety nine minutes. Some you win and some you lose and we can all identify the manager's errors, often with the benefit of hindsight of course. Thankfully it all turned out right in the end yesterday and we can do it all over again in a few weeks time.
Not so long ago Leicester and Ipswich were cruising to promotion, now they're back in the mix, Leeds are looking quite good and we're ruing dropped points whilst overlooking iffy wins. The joys and despondency of supporting our team I guess.
I'm still thinking we can make that top two, bad results for opponents, injuries to their key players, lucky defections, poor refereeing are all likely to play a part in the weeks to come. In the meantime let's keep the faith, back the players and hope RM always picks the players we prefer and trust and that they all perform above expectation. Flying pigs and unicorns jumping rainbows are just things of dreams after all is said and done.

Centurion added 13:38 - Mar 10
Nick is bang on with his analysis.
I disagree with San Marco. 3rd or 4th finish would be an achievement.
I have always believed that we needed 2 or 3 seasons to rebuild the team and squad.

Jesus_02 added 14:13 - Mar 10
Great game to watch , really exiting 6 goals and some great football Left St Marys buzzing.

Was always going to be difficult to dominate teams without a decent physically dominating striker. Playing a pressing game in the oppositions half if virtually impossible at home, teams will shut up shop and hope to nick a goal.

My only criticism is that there was acres of space and we seem obsessed with working it down the wings. When Sulemana came on his pace and control was frightening. I have no idea why he was back defending at corners when a simple ball over the top to him would have resulted in great chances.

Apart from that I am still confident we will go up , even if its through the playoffs.

halftimeorange added 14:14 - Mar 10
Many salient comments above. Harwood-Bellis looked really uncomfortable at time at RB and, consequently, made uncharacteristic errors. Anybody who thinks Jack Stephens and Ryan Manning are good enough to hold down places in a promotion-chasing team in this division is not watching the same games as me. They're both reasonable at going forwards but, defensively they are poor. I totally agree over the lack of on-field leadership when the chips are down. Jack isn't the man. Jan Bednarek might be. My biggest gripe is with our goalkeeper. I've seen enough this season to convince me that Gavin doesn't make enough saves of shots from outside the box, his catching is iffy and his pauses with the ball at his feet are, frankly unnecessary and nerve-jangling. Maybe time for Joe Lumley to be given a go.

NewburySaint added 16:27 - Mar 10
Facts / the obvious out of the way 1st - we won, which is the most important. But what a stupid performance! We should’ve, could’ve, smashed a very poor Sunderland but invited them back in the game because we have to play the 1 way, and the 1 way only until desperation creeps - our last 2 goals show what we can do if we mix our game up and go back to front a lot quicker.

Also, and I have nowt against the guy, but we have to stop playing Stephens if Jan and Taylor are fit - it ain’t rocket science to play your best players even if it means leaving your captain out of the team, not that he appears that good of an “on field” captain anyway.

bryanK added 21:19 - Mar 10
Like most fans i have come to expect this type of display on offer. I walked home thinking did we win? It didn’t really feel like a win. The tactics we witness week in week out lends its self to mistakes hence most fan’s frustration at the performance. Both Millwall and Sunderland were poor and as we have a strong squad on paper we can only assume the method employed by Russell Martin is working only some of the time. I know he is not going to change and my overall dissatisfaction will continue. I really would like to be more positive but I hope come the end of the season we don’t feel cheated as to what might have been. I sincerely hope I am totally wrong.

Farlow added 21:40 - Mar 10
Unfortunately all the teams above us have superior goalkeepers which when push comes to shove will be key.
Macarthy has never been beaten from outside the box as often as Bazunu is.

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