The problem with playing without a recognised striker is that you have to be practically perfect to score a goal. Against Crystal Palace, Southampton were far from perfect and did not introduce a centre-forward until the 62nd minute; by which point they were a goal down having been the better side in the first half.
Six minutes after the introduction of Paul Onuachu to give Southampton a presence up front, Eberechi Eze rifled home his second goal of the game and the contest was over. In his post-match press conference, Rubén Sellés stated that the outcome of the must-win game would have been no different had Southampton played with a striker. This comment came much to the dismay of the Southampton faithful, as it was abundantly clear in the first half that Saints’ neat build-up play was toothless without a central focal point to provide a presence and threat.
With Che Adams out injured until the end of April and Southampton’s season-long theme of struggling in front of goal continuing, it was felt that Sellés may finally bite the bullet and give January signing Onuachu a chance to show he can provide the goals to help drag the club off the bottom of the table and closer to their relegation rivals. Against a Crystal Palace side that would sit in and allow Southampton plenty of the ball, the onus was always going to be on the Saints to find a way to break Roy Hodgson’s men down.
Predictably, this is exactly how the game played out. Palace lined up in their usual 4-3-3 shape and played a low block, happy to let Southampton have the ball in their half own without much pressure. Southampton lined up in a relatively simple 4-4-2, with Kamaldeen Sulemana on the left, Theo Walcott on the right and Carlos Alcaraz and – surprise inclusion given he hasn’t started a game in 2023 – Joe Aribo operating as a pair of false nines. This attacking quartet were fluid in the sense that they were allowed to interchange position with one another, but the shape remained a 4-4-2 regardless of who filled the roles.
It was clear from observing the game that the plan from Sellés was a fairly simple one, but one that required perfect execution to be successful. Southampton would build through James Ward-Prowse and Roméo Lavia in central midfield but, when the opportunity arose, would also look to play a quick, vertical pass into one of the ‘false’ forwards who would drop deep to receive the ball and link the play. More crucially in this tactic, though, was the disruption of the Palace back four and dragging one of the centre-back pair of Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi out of position. Alcaraz or Aribo would often bounce the ball back to a teammate and Sulemana or Walcott would look to penetrate the gap that had opened up by making a direct run in behind.
It was a plan that caused Palace problems at times in the first half, but one that was far less effective in a dismal Southampton second half showing. Some of the intricate passing that created opportunities for Walcott and Aribo in the first half was replaced by sloppy play and constantly conceding possession in dangerous areas in the second as desperation kicked in. As alluded to, due particularly to the lack of striker, it was a tactic that had to be carried out perfectly to score a goal and that execution was found lacking. Palace, on the other hand, showed the efficiency that saw them score five against Leeds United in their previous game by countering Southampton and picking them off at will. Once they had scored the first, Eze the beneficiary of a Gavin Bazunu parry after Ainsley Maitland-Niles made a limp attempt at stopping a cross from the left, there was only ever going to be one outcome. Sellés’ blinkered focus on how not to lose each game has meant that when they go behind the Southampton players are visibly bereft of ideas on how to change their fortunes – the comeback from 3-1 down against Tottenham Hotspur aside.
Had Sellés sent his Southampton side in a more positive way, they could well have capitalised on their first half dominance. They constantly got into good areas to cross, but had to double back or delay due to the lack of box presence. In fact, the trio of Walcott, Aribo and Sulemana did not make a single pass into the Palace box all game.
It was clear to see that Southampton felt that crossing would not be a fruitful avenue. Palace are very good at defending their box, with Andersen in the top 26% for central defenders in Europe’s top five leagues in terms of aerial duels won (2.45 per 90) and the top 2% for clearances (6.11 per 90). Guehi is not as dominant in this regard, winning just 1.31 aerial duels per 90 minutes (13th percentile) and making 3.83 clearances per game (56th percentile), but Palace also benefitted from having Joel Ward at right-back who is in the top 2% of full-backs for both clearances (3.59 per 90) and aerial duels won (2.35 per 90). With this in mind, it makes sense that Sellés did not feel it would be beneficial to look to cross into the box to create chances. However, when you have a 6 foot 7 striker you would back them to be on the end of a few crosses regardless of the opposition defenders’ ability in the air.
Southampton’s corner routines were also telling in their perceived inferiority in the air. The Saints had six corners in the game to Palace’s two, but only created a real chance from their first corner of the contest. Straight from the training ground, Ward-Prowse passed into Walcott at the near post who laid it off to Aribo. Aribo, with the goal at his mercy, blazed the strike over the bar. It was a glorious routine which should have seen Southampton take the lead. It didn’t and Southampton had used their set-piece trump card.
From two of their other corners, Sulemana stood over the ball with Ward-Prowse offering the short option. The problem being that, everyone in the stadium knew that Ward-Prowse is the set-piece taker and therefore he commanded the attention of a Palace defender. On the first attempt, after much deliberation, Ward-Prowse swapped roles with Sulemana and crossed into the box from the corner, whilst on the second a short corner routine saw Sulemana actually take the corner short to Ward-Prowse who returned the favour allowing Sulemana to drive into the box resulting in another corner. By this point Southampton looked out of ideas and, despite Ward-Prowse’s excellent delivery, corners felt almost pointless.
In truth, a quick look at the heights of both starting elevens could have told you this. Of the Southampton line-up, only three players were over 6 foot. Compare this to the Palace line-up – with six players over 6 foot – and Southampton were always going to struggle in defending and attacking crosses.
Even if not for their heading ability in the box, it seems foolish to suggest Southampton would not have benefited from having a focal point up front to occupy the defenders and bring others into play. The below heat map shows that Southampton effectively had no presence in the centre of the final third all game, with Alcaraz and Aribo constantly vacating this position to try and get involved in the play.
The average positions map of Southampton’s starting 11 highlights this further. Southampton’s lack of presence in this final third is telling, with Sulemana (20) the highest player on average despite his left midfield role. Aribo (7) played far too deep to trouble Palace, with his average position of the halfway line further back than Ward-Prowse (8) in central midfield. This map also shows just how congested the middle of the pitch was, with Alcaraz (26), Lavia (45), Aribo and Ward-Prowse all effectively occupying the same areas.
Onuachu eventually entered the fray with Southampton a goal down and looking flat. He worked harder in pressing than we have seen of him to date and showed some good touches but Southampton again failed to play to his strengths. The St Mary’s side only managed 14 open-play crosses in the entire 90 minutes, none of which were of sufficient quality to give the Nigerian a chance to attack.
It is clear that Sellés does not feel that Onuachu is the answer, but if he wanted a more mobile frontman then Sekou Mara could have been that player. Whilst he only has one more Premier League goal to his name, it did come last week against Manchester City and – despite the fact it was merely a consolation goal – the 20-year-old would surely have gained confidence from this. Mara is a striker that can stretch the opposition by running in behind but is neat and tidy on the ball and can drop deep to link play. With that in mind, it is not difficult to envisage that he could have played a very similar role to Aribo or Alcaraz whilst also providing a greater goal threat and giving Palace’s central defenders far more to think about.
The result against Palace saw Southampton equal their record number of home defeats in a season of ten with three home games left to play. When the teams in touching distance in the relegation battle are relying on their home form to save them, Southampton are incapable of mustering up a performance in front of their own fans.
This was just another in a long list of ‘must-win’ games that Southampton have lost with a whimper this season. The club have underperformed their open-play xG by 6.5 goals which certainly has not helped their cause, but what was most telling at home to Palace was that Saints’ xG was a measly 0.8. They simply did not create the opportunities to win the game.
Southampton have scored the joint fewest goals in the Premier League this season, to think that they will suddenly improve results without a striker on the pitch seems incredibly misguided.