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Southampton V Stoke City The Verdict
Monday, 29th Apr 2024 10:56

This should have been a celebratory day for Saints fans, there should have been a feeling of positivity, but the truth is that the fight has been knocked out of the supporter base and we go into the play offs with confidence both on and off the pitch at a low ebb.

Stoke arrived at St Mary's needing a draw to ensure they would still be playing Championship football next season, they came up against a Saints side that had a few changes in it.

The selection of Jack Stephens in the centre of the defence was no surprise, it was only a question of who would be stepping down in the back four, would it be a central defender of a full back, Jan Bednarek was the man on the bench, although it turned out he got on at half time with Harwood-Bellis not coming out for the second half, perhaps this was some sort of trial for the pair of them to show who should partner Stephens in the play offs.

The midfield saw Will Smallbone and Shea Charles as expected, but they were joined by David Brooks who was presumably going to be auditioned as Stuart Armstrong's replacement for the final games of the season.

Up front there was no Che Adams, this was strange as he was just about the only player Russell Martin had a good word for after the Leicester debacle, also joining him on the bench was Adam Armstrong, up front it was Mara, Edozie and the Wee Man Ryan Fraser.

So this was a real hybrid side, out of the starting line up you could argue that as few as four of them were true first choice regulars, in my opinion only Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Kyle Walker Peters, Will Smallbone & Ryan Fraser would start a game if a full squad was available out of this XI.

So it was unclear just what Russell Martin's game plan was, was it to wrap a few players in cotton wool, was it to give some of the fringe players a chance and was it to drop some of whom he saw as the main culprits at Leicester.

Probably a bit of all of them, but whatever he was trying to achieve it didn't work, Stoke started well and were pushing us back from the first whistle and should really have gone ahead on a couple of occasions.

From our perspective we got a lot of the ball but we did very little with it, during the entire game we only had 3 attempts on target, the first of which saw Sekou Mara bravely get his head to the ball as the keeper rushed out, but he couldn't get a powerful header away and with the distance from goal a defender got back to clear, the second chance saw a nice pull back from Ryan Fraser find David Brooks, however his effort was tame and straight at the keeper at head height, it needed to be low and hard.

Stoke had a game plan, let us have the ball and then press hard when the chance arose, this they did on 36 minutes when Campbell ran at Harwood Bellis in a way that few of our players could mange and fired past McCarthy.

From then on it would be an uphill struggle with Stoke well disciplined and organised dealing with our attacks with ease.

Strange decision at half time to take TBH off in what was a double substitution with Joe Aribo coming on for Shea Charles, at least that gave us a genuine attacking threat from the midfield, in truth though it was Brooks who should have departed.

That happened on 63 minutes and again a strange change from the manager, Flynn Downes is suffering from injury so what was the point in risking him for half an hour in what was now a game with noting to play for.

Che Adams came on for Mara who was booed off by a section of the crowd, this was harsh, Mara had had perhaps the best attempt on goal of the game and had worked hard, there were others who deserved the wrath of the crowd a lot more.

Adam Armstrong made an appearance with 10 minutes left but that changed little, we limped to our third defeat in a row, knowing that had we won two of those games, against Cardiff and Stoke we would have at least had a chance of shot at automatic promotion in the final week.

But this game was another case of a side lacking leadership, both on and off the pitch, it is not the players fault that none of them are real leaders of men, a savvy manager would have made a true leader a priority back in the summer and if not definitely the transfer window.

The manager has many excuses for our poor showing in the last two months, but ultimately the buck stops at his door, as I have said elsewhere, players bring their talent to the squad or lack of it in some cases, the manager builds the "Togetherness, Character & Fight" that Russell Martin bemoaned the lack of.

As I said at the start next Saturday two of the clubs below us will be celebrating like they have won the League itself as they qualify for the play offs, on Saturday much of the crowd was long gone before the final whistle, as the tannoy system urged the fans to stay in their seats for the lack of appreciation (De- appreciation more like) and the player awards, many of those who did stay for the final whistle joined them.

What should have been a full stadium roaring on the team after a good season where we have reached the play offs was one of under achievement, of seeing a true promotion winning side blow their chances due to constant tinkering with the line up.

Our CEO who divided the fans even further with his plans to move the away section and build a wall of red & white. must surely have come to the reality that you can build what you like, but of the football isn't there, the fans will not just turn up and make noise and the only sea of red & white in the Northam on Saturday aside from 1,700 celebrating Stoke fans was a sea of red & white empty seats.

Now we somehow have to try and rally ourselves, firstly up at Elland Road where Leeds will be playing for Automatic promotion, although with Ipswich still with a game to play it might not be completely in their hands and will be fired up to get their job done.

It was good to see that Adam Armstrong got both fans player of the year and also the award from his team mates, if Russell Martin had spent as much time this season praising Adam for his efforts as he has done Captain Jack and not taken him off the pitch at key moments as we chased games we needed a goal in, this season might have been a lot different.

I don't blame a single player for the fact that we are "only" in the play offs, yes some have been better than others, but I think in the main they have all tried their best and I do include Jack Stephens in this, I don't fault his commitment only the fact that he has been singled out by the manager who has blown automatic promotion by constant chopping and changing and that is not the fault of Jack Stephens, he truly does not deserve that.

But this season is not over, not by a long chalk, now is the time when every Southampton supporter needs to stand up and be counted, we are the only ones that can bring Togetherness, Character & Fight to our squad of players, we need to remember 1994 at Upton Park and the Great Escape season of 1999 when we were dead and buried, but the fans stuck behind the team and instilled the fighting spirit, we need to do that again.

In 1999 it was Dellhurst Park now 25 years later next week the fightback starts with 2,000 Saints fans making it Delland Road

Photo: Action Images

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kingolaf added 11:24 - Apr 29
Mara did not work hard. Absolutely ridiculous statement. He should never play for the club again.

felly1 added 11:26 - Apr 29
Haven't read the verdict yet, just checking, does Stephens get a mention?

Number_58 added 11:33 - Apr 29
Jack must be very confused if he ever reads Nick's match reports. It's clearly his fault, but at the same time he's clearly not to blame.

wessexman added 11:46 - Apr 29
I have little confidence I RM leading us into the play offs. Against Stoke, we could still be playing now and not have scored. The build up on Saturday was one down from pedestrian. Utter lack of urgency, guile and physicality. Unfortunately, with every season we spend in the Championship, we'll find it harder to return to the Prem. Also, once the parachute payments stop, we'll be just another one of the "biggish" clubs marooned in this division. This season has been a huge opportunity squandered. But....we might just be pleasantly surprised?

ItchenNorth added 12:17 - Apr 29
The irony of this website stating the following!

This should have been a celebratory day for Saints fans, there should have been a feeling of positivity, but the truth is that the fight has been knocked out of the supporter base


LordDZLucan added 12:40 - Apr 29
Watching Campbell go past Harwood Bellis for the Stoke goal like Harwood Belis wasn't there reinforced my view that the left-hand side of our defence is the root cause of a lot of our problems. All 3 centre backs in the squad are right footed and prefer to play on the right side and our only fit left-footed left back has been Ryan Manning who, as we know, is better going forward than he is defending. The squad is unbalanced in this respect and other teams play on it. Just look at how many goals are created/scored on that side! Why have we got so many wingers and barely any left-footed defenders? If we had addressed this issue at the start of the season I think we woud have been promoted comfortably.

saintmark1976 added 12:40 - Apr 29
A muddled insipid team selection and display totally in keeping with a manager who in the last couple of months appears to have completely lost the plot.

Alex McCarthy deserves some praise Nick. He made some very good saves which at least kept the score respectable.He may not be able to play tippy tappy very well but he is a far superior actual goalkeeper than Bazunu.


Flamingbankers added 12:58 - Apr 29
ŤSorry, we simply need a new manager. This guy has simply proved he hasn't got what ugly takes at the final hurdle. OK the team were great on their npn losing streak but we're we ever convinced that they were serious contenders. I don't think so. In that period the players has some togetherness, and there was a fairly consistent team. The centre back pairing of HB and Bednarek had a great deal do with this, wholt Stu Armstrong , Adam Armstrong were playing consistently well. That was down to the players not the manager. When it comes to the time when a sensible, clear head is needed, we don't get it. Think of the way McMebemy and Bates operated. Unfortunately Martin couldn't hold a candle to them.

saintmark1976 added 13:08 - Apr 29
LordDZLucan, we have a decent left footed defender who played in The Premiership last season.

For reasons best known only to our owners and management, they thought it a good idea to send him out on loan to a club in France, compounding their misjudgment by replacing him with Manning.

Farlow added 13:23 - Apr 29
Totally agree with SaintMark Macarthy is a superior keeper to Bazuka.We should send Brooks back to Bournemouth and cut short his Holiday.
The only way we ever compete with the big boys is when we bring the lads through.
This was the perfect time to givve 2 or 3 a game,but this coach has no nerve.
He said you have to protect the youngsters,thats tosh theres only one way to find out
if they are good enough and that is on the pitch.
As for booing Mara off that was ridiculous true fans dont behave like that.

Monksway added 13:25 - Apr 29
This time last year Saints were a shambolic embarrassment with a bloated squad full of youngsters and under achievers. An awful lot has been achieved over the year and a fourth place finish is about right for this group of players and the manager. Cardiff knocked the stuffing out of a tired squad and Leicester and Stoke have benefitted. If RM and the players manage to turn this around and get to the play-off final they will deserve real credit for their resilience.

JoeEgg added 13:44 - Apr 29
Well Wussell was right about one thing. Play Captain Jack and we dont lose 0-5. Probably more down to McCarthy than Stephens but nevertheless a fair call!

Surely its best now to wait and see how the last few games play out for Saints ? Nick is calling for supporters to get behind our team and lets still believe in promotion. I presume the other three clubs involved will be thinking along the same lines!
Wussell has two or three times recently called on our players for maximum effort and to show a fighting spirit. Clearly the manager has inspired few to heed his call and bust a gut for their team. Leeds, Ipswich, West Brom and Hull will throw everything at the play-offs if they are involved. I get the impression that several of our players will go through the motions, but couldn't really care - their futures could be elsewhere so they'll soon get over any disappointment!
I'm not sure that we will ever really know just how good our current squad is. They are being asked to play a style of football that they are not good enough collectively to play,, and still after a long season, few players seem to have a clue just what's expected from each of them.
I've seen it written here by some that we should be grateful that we have a team capable of reaching the play-offs, and that Wussell has given us an exciting season to enjoy and should be given more time. The next two or three games could still be interesting and change a few opinions. If the players believe in the manager and that promotion is still a distinct possibility, then hopefully they will give the fan base the performance and effort we can all be proud of. I'm sure the Saints supporters will not let them down!

janecook added 13:49 - Apr 29
What a load of rubbish, out played by a team fighting relegation!! We don't have a hope in the playoffs
We need to get rid of all the deadwood in the summer and start from scratch at building a new team.
We also need a good manager not this clown!

DPeps added 14:28 - Apr 29
If memory serves me correctly plenty of people on here were saying at the start of the season that playoffs would be an achievement. Let's not forget how bad we were last season: no style of play, poor defence, weak attack. Yes, we're in a lower league but it takes time to heal a team that is so used to losing.

RM is a bit green but what are people expecting?

Leicester and Ipswich have consistently been better than every other team in the league. I'm Leicester's case that isn't surprising: look at their squad. Even Leeds are pretty shambolic at times.

It's a shame not to get an automatic place but that would have been some achievement in my view. The focus now has to be on ensuring that the best team is fit for the playoff games. That involves protecting the better players and giving the fringe players a go. People are asking for all of the fringe players to be given a chance all at once - that won't help anyone.

As for the game. Stoke had something to play for, we didn't. So the result shouldn't be surprising.

Let's just focus on doing as well as possible in the playoffs. These are one-off/two-off games. Nothing before them really matters

SaintNick added 14:33 - Apr 29
One thing that the last 4 games have shown is that whoever is in goal it doesn't matter

Bazunu 41 games played 54 goals conceded = 1.32 per game

McCarthy 4 games played and 8 goals conceded = 2 goals per game conceded

If we want to be accurate Bazunu has been far better than McCarthy in this respect

SanMarco added 14:51 - Apr 29
Slightly small sample size for MCCarthy Nick!!

At the start of the season I thought the play-offs would be an achievement but I think that was my usual pessimism. 4th is probably about right, certainly not an over-achievement. I , of course, hope we do go up but would be apprehensive about trying to play like this in the Prem.

Last season the inquests seemed to start in January and went on for months. This season we ought to leave inquests until after our fate is decided. I don't understand the booing of individual players. Paying customers have the right to express displeasure at the product on offer but surely fans cannot think it helps are chances for the vital games to come to abuse players that may be involved in those games.

SaintPaulVW added 15:46 - Apr 29
As I understand it, sides generally do better in the playoffs if their form is poor at the end of the regular season.

Think RM and the squad are doubling down on this.


YosemiteSaint added 16:12 - Apr 29
Some weird results at the top of the Championship this weekend suggest that the top four have run out of gas and are just drowsily jockeying for position. Automatic promotion is still at stake for Leeds and Ipswich; but they seem as spent as we are. Meanwhile, Leicester won the league without even kicking a ball. I hope I'm right in surmising that the real football has yet to begin, and that we're just taking a power nap for the time being. Time will tell. If the trend continues it's obvious that RM has to go. If we gain promotion—_then_ what do we do with him?

davidargyll added 16:20 - Apr 29
Five observations from the Stoke fiasco:
1. The idea of possession-based football is to frustrate your opposition into leaving gaps which you can exploit. The downside is that it ENCOURAGES PLAYERS TO TAKE THE EASY ROUTE, ie PASS SIDEWAYS, AND DON’T GO FORWARD.
2. What THIS LEADS TO NOT ONLY DULL FOOTBALL BUT A GROWING LACK OF BOTTLE (why risk being tackled/hurt when you can avoid it by passing).
3. The backs and midfielders often seem to miss the obvious average longer diagonal pass forward to a player standing in lots of space, because they have been taught that a short pass is less risky.
4. We have bought/loaned several decent players. So how come the likes of Mara, Brooks, Aribo, et al seem to lose it after they been at the club for a couple of months or so? Unless that is they are being forced to play in a way that does not suit their strengths. And whose fault is that?
5. I simply cannot see where RM can take us now: one trick pony or what?! So let’s just pray that Dragan Solak and his SR playmates realised this too as they were witnesses to Saturday’s sh*t show and show him the door.

saintmark1976 added 16:56 - Apr 29
Nick, below is an example of what is possible using selective statistics.

Bazunu was in goal for every game of the four consecutive early season defeats from which we have never successfully recovered.

How many goals did he concede during that four match period ? That’s right, twelve, or three per game ie more than during the four game example you quote for McCarthy.

Having said the above I can’t but agree with you that all season long we have been crying out for a keeper better than either of them.

Farlow added 17:20 - Apr 29
The Coach we need and should never have allowed to go in the first place is Danny Rohl
when he was here before was the last time we played decent football.

Colburn added 17:21 - Apr 29
Those of you moaning about Martin and want him out, when in 4th spot and in the playoffs, you are the problem. This constant negativity is infectious and picked up on by all. If you don’t believe that then you must believe that there is no point in home fans creating an atmosphere.. so those who keep digging at the manager and captain are the problem, the people creating the division and you are a disgrace to the club. Ffs we are in the playoffs after having our squad ravaged and losing 4 on the bounce!! Then came our record unbeaten run and you want the manager out? Take off your big red noses just for a moment.. This achieved in the toughest Championship ever, many high quality teams, new manager and set up for us, best players sold in the summer. The manager has rotated and rested players when he has thought it necessary. Confusing to you maybe, highly logical to many of us. Saturday was a dead rubber, we can’t finish higher or lower, so give some a game and rest others without them becoming rusty. Again all made sense. HB was really poor for the goal and had his worst half so was hooked at ht. No shame, he’s been out best CB for me. Downes hardly kicked a ball for a couple of weeks so he needed a few mins, again highly logical in prep for the playoffs.
Finally the hypocrisy.. how can you call on the fans to get behind the team when you are the most vocal in doing the opposite? When will you realise how classless it is to slag off your manager before the season has ended and we might be going up? When will you ditch your love for Charlie idiot Austin and back the captain of your club now?
Yes I still remember the roots of your dislike for Stephens after the disgraceful behaviour of your mate Austin, so just a reminder to you that these things stay with some readers. That idiot couldn’t even play 90 mins more than once a month if at all.
Oh and by the way, as far as I know we haven’t broken FFP rules so we’ve also had a season competing against cheats.
Edozie should start for me ahead of Fraser. The wee man can’t play 90 mins at full tilt anymore and was so effective for us off the bench. Do you really think it was an audition or was that just another cheap dig? Because in the last couple of must win games, he started with Jack on the bench.. you’re so transparent and the attempts to backtrack are an insult to the reader, as noted by a couple of others on here…
It’s about time you got behind the team Nick, we have as much chance as any and as mentioned above the end of season form doesn’t always historically count for much..
One Jack Stephens! There’s only one Jack Stephens!! One Jack Stephens…. There’s only one Jack Stephens!!

IanRC added 18:13 - Apr 29
Why is the Leicester cheating penalty not applied this year, just another example of the dubious integrity (to be polite) of the football authorities.

ItchenNorth added 18:27 - Apr 29
Spot on Colburn.

davidargyll added 20:27 - Apr 29
Colburn, I think the majority of those reading your piece will think, why does he take god knows how long to make such a minority-view point?! ie we should stick with RM because he’s got us to the playoffs.
I’m not denying your right to make it but my reading of the present situation - and i reckon that of most on TUI - is that we are playing rubbish football instigated by a rubbish manager. And if by some miracle we do go up, we will be the Sheffield Utd of 2024/25 and will get even less points than last time.
And I swear to God that if you cannot see that RM is a one trick pony then you have been watching our season through specs which are rose-tinted in the extreme.
I appreciate RM’s ability to have got the players to play in the style which he likes as a result of which we did well mid-season. But can you not see that this style is a real dead end street? Because if the likes of Stoke can work us out what hope do we have in the play offs let alone the PL?
If we don’t go up I reckon we could be stuck in The Championship for quite a few years unless or until we get a manager with vision and an attacking philosophy.

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