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Saints 23/24 Season Review - The Defence
Monday, 10th Jun 2024 09:45

The second part of our review of the 23/24 Championship season, takes a look at the defence, a department that went from bad to good, back to bad and ended up good again, confused ? well lets take a look.

Southampton started the season with a defence that was almost unrecognisable from the one that had played in the first part of our Premier League season a year earlier,

With both Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens having gone out on loan and Ryan Manning then playing for Swansea, Kyle Walker Peters was the only survivor from the defence that was in place after the 2023 summer transfer window,

These were the four that started the season at Sheffield Wednesday on the opening day of the season.

This would be the quartet who would start the first four League games of the season, we would win three out of those four games and draw the other, but the writing was on the wall.

But in the first 3 games we would concede 6 goals, an average of 2 a game and everyone knew that this would not be good enough.

Whatever your opinion about Russell Martin, he seems to be a lucky manager, over the season there seems to have been a number of events occur beyond his control that have forced his hand into making a change.

The first of these happened in the 4th game of the season when Jack Stephens suffered an injury that would keep him out for 4 months, unlucky for Jack and not something most Saints supporter would have wished for, but it forced the hand of the manager, who had been talking up Stephens in pre season.

Shea Charles stepped in and had a man of the match performance in that game which saw us battle to a 2-1 win, but he was not in the team the following week at Sunderland where our defensive issues got worse, Mason Holgate on loan from Everton came in and suffered a nightmare debut, but it should be noted that he was no worse than anyone around him and the 5-0 defeat would start a run of four defeats.

But it did mean we had to sign someone on loan quickly and on deadline day in came Taylor Harwood- Bellis and suddenly we had a defence that could lead us to the play offs at least.

We went on a 22 game unbeaten run in the League and during that period we were the tightest defence in the division bar none, Mason Holgate came in against West Brom and put in a man of the match performance, yet this would be the last League game he would play for the club.

But in the 15th of these games came the return of Jack Stephens and the dismantling of a successful defence was about to take place.

At this point we were well drilled and everyone knew what they were doing, but things were about to change, ironically at QPR, leading 1-0 and relatively comfortable, on came Jack but where he was playing nobody knew, was he an extra midfielder or an extra defender, we suddenly lost shape and looked disjointed, but once again a spot of luck for Russell Martin when Shea Charles playing in central midfield was sent off, the decision was made for him.

It was no surprise when Stephens came straight into the side against Swansea at St Mary's in the next game, although just what position he was playing was again unsure were we 3 at the back with wingbacks or 4 at the back, who knew.

I will say here that the issue was not Jack Stephens as a player, but the fact that the manager was determined to play him whatever, he now talked about squad rotation and getting minutes, but Mason Holgate who had proved his worth against Preston & West Brom was not given another minute in the league after the latter.

Swansea were awful and despatched 5-0, so the fact that the manager was now tweaking his side went a little under the radar.

But at Norwich came the first sign that Martin wanted Stephens in the side whatever the situation, he came in as we started with three at the back and to be frank we were a shambles, at the time Norwich had not yet started their revival, so what should have been a win was suddenly under threat.

At half time Martin realised his error and reverted to a back four, but it was Jan Bednarek a rock in the defence who went off.

Initially this worked and we scored in the 70th minute, but we failed to see the game out as we had been doing for the best part of what was now an unbeaten 18 game spell.

The 19th game was back to our usual back four and the 19th win, but the damage was done and at all the chopping and changing was disrupting our defending, no one knew who would be playing and where, Swansea City was a real example of this and we really should not have won, only some poor finishing from the Swans saw us hang on for a 3-1 win.

Rotherham was easy, after all they were going down with all hands at this point, the trip to Bristol City, was a shambles, Jack didn't play but our mojo was gone.

West Brom away saw Jack back in the side and he played a decent game in our 2-0 victory, but what would now follow was a run of 13 games where we conceded 24 goals and in the process threw away automatic promotion.

As I mentioned earlier Jack Stephens was the catalyst of this, but it was not his fault, yes he didn't deserve to be in the side at times, especially when we saw the likes of Kyle Walker Peters & Jan Bednarek dropped to accommodate him and Taylor Harowwd-Bellis played as a right back, but I do not blame him, it was the fault of the manager who played favourites and in doing so totally upset the balance of a back four that had once been so tight and had gone from best defence to worst in a matter of weeks.

Russell Martin is a lucky manager though and he had another strike of luck when Gavin Bazunu was injured, he had to abandon his possession football game and finally realise that he needed a settled back four,

After a 1-0 defeat at home to Stoke a game that saw Jan Bednarek on the bench for the first half, a week later at Leeds he found the right balance and it included Jack Stephens, in that game at Elland Road and in the three play off games we again looked solid and were the foundation of our march through the play offs to Wembley glory and Jack Stephens was perhaps in the best form of his career in this run of games.

I have no problem acknowledging this, I want all our players to do well and no one was more pleased that Jack found his form and took us to play off success.

As I said the problem was not Captain Jack, but the manager for his insistence in shoehorning him into the side.

Going forward into next season though we need to make signings, assuming everyone stays and THB signs ok, then in the Premier League Ryan Manning, James Bree & Jack Stephens are squad players, we need to sign a good experienced central defender and again the same at left back.

At Premier League level we are too thin in defensive options, it is crucial we make these signings.

That is not to say that the likes of Bree, Stephens & Manning will not have a part to play, or indeed that one of the youngsters such as Juan Larios or Jayden Meghoma steps up to the plate, but the brutal truth is that as it stands at present, if any of these 5 are our first choice starting the season, then somewhere along the line our recruitment strategy is not working.

Photo: Action Images

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UgandaSaint added 05:20 - Jun 11
I would add that Bednarek is not Premiership standard either, he lacks the pace necessary, as was demonstrated in our relegation season.

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