Russell Martin: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

Fraser Spinney –

Southampton were behind after just 21 seconds of the 4-1 home defeat against Leicester City on Friday, following a misplaced pass from Shea Charles in central defence – the second consecutive game in which they conceded in the first minute.

A matter of minutes later, the Saints very nearly conceded a second from taking unnecessary risks in their own defensive third. They were still repeating the same mistakes in the 95th minute; fans watching through their fingers as their players naively fell into the same traps Leicester set for them with astounding frequency.

Manager Russell Martin said in the lead up to the game that whichever side was bravest with the ball would win the game. Leicester were brave, Southampton were stupid. No player was exempt from poor decision making and taking, frankly, completely unnecessary risks in their own defensive third. The fact that the problem was endemic of every individual suggests this comes down to instruction. Admittedly, Martin cannot make the passes for his players – nor the decisions – but it is through his instruction and coached automatisms that his defenders feel obligated to take such risks with concerning frequency. 

Take the Stephy Mavididi chance just a matter of minutes after conceding the first goal as an example. Southampton have a goal-kick. Gavin Bazunu in goal and Taylor Harwood-Bellis are stood parallel, five-yards apart on the edge of the six-yard box. Bazunu plays the ball to the Manchester City loanee, who then has no teammate within 20 yards to receive the ball. Despite this, there is an obvious pass wide to Kyle-Walker Peters in the right-back position. Instead, Harwood-Bellis decides to try and play an eye of the needle reverse pass into his deepest midfielder who has shown for the ball. It is inevitably cut out and Leicester are bearing down on goal again – something that would become a theme of the match. Luckily for Southampton, in this instance, Leicester’s attackers fluffed their lines. Harwood-Bellis and co. had gotten away with it. Did they learn their lesson? The answer to that is a resounding no. 

Harwood-Bellis was an integral part of the Burnley side that swept aside all who got in their way en route to the Championship title last season. He also captained England U21’s to the European Championship this summer without conceding a single goal. He is a very good, young, defender of the modern mould; meaning he is also very capable with the ball at his feet. And yet, here he was playing hospital passes into a central pivot that Leicester were ready to swarm.

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Martin had two weeks to reflect on the 5-0 defeat to Sunderland; the international break his opportunity to perform a post-mortem on that dismal defeat in Wearside. Somehow, the ex-Swansea City manager must have concluded that this was a one-off freak result and that no change in approach was required. The fact that Southampton have equalled the record for goals conceded after six games in the Championship with 16 surely means that alarm bells have started ringing in the ears of the man in charge. It is no secret that promotion at the first attempt is the goal. Last season, Burnley, Sheffield United and Luton Town conceded 35, 39 and 39 goals respectively across 46 league games on their way to being promoted. At their current rate of conceding, Southampton would finish the season having conceded 123 goals. For context, the Blackpool side that conceded the most goals in the second tier last season shipped 72 goals; 51 less than the 123 the Saints are currently projected to concede.

Perhaps in the wake of the Sunderland defeat radical changes weren’t needed – it was the fifth game of the season after all – but it is very troubling that Martin seemed to write this defeat off as an anomaly and appears to have learned nothing from such a humbling loss. It is rare that you have a clear week to prepare for a game in the Championship. With the international break, Martin had two. Admittedly, he did have the obstacle of 17 players being away on international duty and three days before the Leicester game there were only ten players in training, but the fact of the matter is that nothing really changed in those two weeks.

Martin’s whole philosophy is centred around control through possession. Southampton have had more than enough possession this season, averaging 68% – what they have not had is control. Teams have already identified that by surrendering possession against Martin’s Saints, they are not necessarily surrendering control of the game. Southampton are still adapting to this shift in approach after years of being a team focused on counter-pressing and this leaves weaknesses to exploit. Teams can sit in their shape against Southampton and know that if they are patient the St Mary’s side will make mistakes. Southampton are their own worst enemies so far this season, with some of their passing in the defensive third bordering on suicidal. Misplaced passes lead to transitions and transitions are where Southampton are excruciatingly vulnerable. They are simply far too slow to react to changes in possession and get back into their defensive shape and they have been punished time and time again as a result. 

Given that, Southampton’s set-up for attacking corners was also tragedy waiting to happen. Every Southampton player was either in or around the box except Will Smallbone; the sole player left back to cover any counter-attacks. Smallbone is by no means the quickest and it feels like such an unnecessary risk to take to leave him the solitary burden of preventing counter-attacks. All it takes is one lucky clearance and the attacking situation becomes a desperate scramble to get back and stop the counter. Southampton were again the architects of their own downfall for Leicester’s fourth goal in the 67th minute. It did not come directly from the corner but in the immediate aftermath, with Kamaldeen Sulemana needlessly misplacing a pass on the edge of the Leicester box. The turnover saw three Leicester players swarming towards the lone figure of Smallbone on the halfway line. On a yellow card from the first half, the Irish midfielder could not even cynically bring down the onrushing Mavididi. Therefore, what ensued was a weak attempt to challenge the winger on the halfway line. Mavididi bypassed the challenge with ease and had the freedom of the Southampton half to run through and slot home. Had he needed them, he was supported by two teammates waiting for a square pass unchallenged. Southampton have had two games since appointing a new set-piece coach, in both they have conceded directly from a counter-attack following their own attacking corner.

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In his post-match interview, Martin stated that he felt his side had gone toe to toe with Leicester. This is either a desperate attempt to protect his players or total delusion. Southampton may have had more of the ball, but Leicester cut through their opponents at will and, in truth, could have had six or seven. Some will find Martin’s commitment to his philosophy admirable, but the reality is he simply has to find a way to concede less chances and make his team harder to beat. Leicester managed 12 shots from inside Southampton’s box on Friday. This is not a sustainable rate at which to allow shots from such dangerous areas. Leicester are a good side and will be right up there for automatic promotion come the end of the season. Unless Southampton tighten up defensively the Foxes won’t even be able to see them in the horizon. Unfortunately, the problem of conceding too many chances and too many goals has plagued Martin at previous clubs MK Dons and Swansea and he is yet to find a solution to the problem as of yet. This is what will be really worrying for Southampton fans.

Everything in transition is far too chaotic and chaos breeds panic. The midfield is so crucial to how Martin wants to play and they have to have the ability to impose themselves on the game, both with and without the ball. The midfield trio against Leicester was Flynn Downes, Adam Armstrong, and Smallbone. As a midfield unit they did not do anywhere near enough to protect their defence, they are not a trio that make enough tackles or enjoy the physical side of the game. Ironically, given that he is a striker playing a deeper role, Armstrong was the one of the three that did the best work out of possession through his constant harrying and desire to win the ball back. Martin has tried a number of different combinations in midfield and nothing has stuck thus far. Given how key this area of the pitch is for his style, it is time for the ex-Scotland defender to find a midfield that functions well together and that he can rely on moving forward. 

With the squad Martin has at his disposal, it is worth asking if a more simplistic, slightly more risk-averse, tactic would achieve better results. Perhaps to say this is to miss the point of appointing Martin in the first place and this is not conducive with long-term success, but it is also difficult to see the scalability of Martin’s approach as it is now if Southampton are to be promoted in the next couple of seasons. They currently boast a squad that is objectively better player for player than the majority of the Championship and they are struggling to dominate games, albeit with the caveat of it being very early in the season. If Southampton are to return to the Premier League they will be playing superior opposition most weeks and if Vincent Kompany’s Burnley have shown us anything it is that dominating games in the Championship through possession does not necessarily translate to results in the top flight. 

One example of how Martin’s tactics may be overcomplicating matters is his use of Walker-Peters. The full-back is too good for this level and it is a surprise he remains at the club, but his strengths lie in his interplay in wide areas, building a connection with his winger, overlapping and underlapping runs, and progressive carries. The problem is that Martin’s instructions are preventing him from being able to do any of these things with any regularity. Instead, he is being asked to invert into central midfield areas. Through doing this he is unable to dribble with the ball and is instead involved in the short passing centrally that is integral to how Martin likes his team to build up. This completely stifles Walker-Peters as an attacking threat, but worse still means that he is out of position defensively when the ball changes hands. The same happens with Ryan Manning on the other side, although he is better suited to performing this role, and opponents exploiting the space wide that has been vacated by Southampton’s full-backs has already become a worrying pattern.

The point is, given the personnel of the squad and the profile of players available, it is difficult to envisage this side not being a far more functional team if the tactics were more simple. This begs the question: Is the juice of Martin’s footballing philosophy worth the squeeze?

By Fraser Spinney

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