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Southampton Sacks Mark Hughes: Do the Saints Have a Prayer?

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Longtime Premier League veteran player and manager Mark Hughes was brought in last season to save Southampton from relegation. Now it’s time for another skipper to try to repeat that feat.

Mark Hughes - Southampton FC - Premier League
Mark Hughes was unable to restore Southampton to its recent stature. Can a new manager turn the trick?
Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

We are 14 weeks into the season, and amazingly now we have only the 2nd manager fired. Following table-foot Fulham dismissing Slava Jokanovic, 18th place Southampton just pulled the plug on Mark Hughes. Whereas the Cottagers readily filled their position with beloved former title-winning Leicester skipper and miracle-worker Claudio Ranieri, the Saints have yet to announce an official replacement for Hughes. What is the post-mortem of Hughes’ short stay at Southampton? And what is the prognosis for the squad this season, both on the pitch and from a fantasy perspective?

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A Look Back at 2017-18

Claude Puel helped Southampton to an 8th place finish in 2016-17, but he was sacked. He was replaced by Mauricio Pellegrini, who rode the side down to 17th place in his first 30 games of the 2017-18 season, whereupon he was dumped. At the time, the Saints had scored 29 goals (1.0 gpg) and conceded 44 times (1.5 gpg).

The Saints brass chose to go the tried-and-true route with longtime Premier League man Mark Hughes, late of dumpster-fire Stoke (eventually relegated), who led Southampton for the last eight games. Saints treaded water by finishing in 17th place, barely escaping the drop zone. In that time, Southampton won twice, drew once, and lost five times, scoring 8 goals (1.0 gpg) and conceding 12 times (1.5 gpg). Despite basically getting the same results as Pellegrini, Hughes earned another chance this season.

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An Early Post-Mortem in 2018-19

Over the summer, Southampton showed no shortage of ambition, bringing in five players: central defender Jannik Vestergaard (£22.5m from Borussia Monchengladbach), wing midfielder Mohamed Elyounoussi (£16.2m from FC Basel), goalkeeper Angus Gunn (£10.2m from Manchester City), midfielder Stuart Armstrong (£7.2m from Celtic), and forward Danny Ings (loan from Liverpool). Meanwhile, the only player sold was the locus of everything positive in their prior three seasons, wing midfielder Dusan Tadic (£10.3m to Ajax).

The transfer action may have looked good on the balance sheet to the bean counters and fans with rose-colored glasses, but things have obviously not turned out well overall. Vestergaard has played fairly well by some accounts (but who has heard of him?). Armstrong has recently emerged as one the team’s only bright spot. Elyounoussi and Ings have endured injury problems. Gunn is merely the #2 keeper behind Alex McCarthy.

Perhaps most importantly, though, a veteran talent such as Tadic is truly impossible to replace for a team like Southampton. Tadic boasts 7 goals and 4 assists for Ajax this season in the Eredivisie, along with 3 goals and 2 assists in five Champions League group stage affairs.

The Saints have lost 7 times in their 14 games this season, which isn’t anything to brag about, but neither is it beyond saving. The problem? Six draws, and only one win. It has not been just the offense or the defense; both have failed. 12 goals scored (0.9 gpg) and 26 conceded (1.9 gpg) point to problems all over the pitch, although the decline has been more pronounced on the defensive end, despite Hughes’ reputation as a defensive-minded coach — remember Stoke? Only Huddersfield, Newcastle and Crystal Palace have scored fewer times than Southampton, while only Cardiff, Burnley and Fulham have conceded more goals.

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Prognosis for the Near Future and the Rest of the Season

Amazingly, Hughes was sacked after a 2-2 draw against Jose Mourinho’s mighty (or perhaps not so mighty) Manchester United. With four more “Big Six” teams on the ledger in short order, the schedule does not get kinder over the next several weeks: at Tottenham, at Cardiff, v. Arsenal, at Huddersfield, v. West Ham United, v. Manchester City, at Chelsea. The key will be for Southampton to get something from the “relegation six pointers” against 13th place West Ham, 16th place Cardiff, and 17th place Huddersfield.

If the Saints are unable to improve their position from the easier games, and perhaps claw a result or two against one of the bigger side’s B teams, the daunting task of avoiding relegation may have to wait for the fixture list to get kinder, allowing the new manager time to size up the squad and ease into a course of action... easing too long, though, may mean a rebuild year in the Championship.

Right now no Southampton player has been selected by over 5% of fantasy managers in the Official FPL format. No, that is not particularly surprising, given the team’s problems. But Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic (18%) and Burnley’s Joe Hart (9%) are well over that mark for the two teams behind the Saints in the standings, so there is certainly a chance for a push by the team both on the pitch and in fantasy the rest of the way.

Former Liverpool starlet Danny Ings is a talent, with four goals and an assist in his eleven games, but his health will be a vital concern. The other forwards — Charlie Austin, Manolo Gabbiadini, Michael Obafemi, and Shane Long — have combined for just one goal and one assist. That’s it!

Southampton FC v Manchester United - Premier League
Stuart Armstrong and Cedric Soares scored magnificent goals against Manchester United, but they were not enough to save Hughes’ job.
Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Otherwise, Armstrong has been a revelation lately, bursting onto the scene with three goals in the past two games. But he had no goals (or assists) before that, so it remains to be seen how real — or how much of a mirage — this spell is. After all, perhaps he will repeat the fate of fellow midfielder Pierre-Emil Hojbjerg, who scored in both weeks 4 & 5, but has not scored since. Nathan Redmond generally impresses on the pitch, but that activity has not translated into fantasy results at all this season, producing no goals or assists in 1,241 minutes. James Ward-Prowse has often teased with talent, but he has failed to click other than in fits and starts under Hughes.

Southampton’s offensive statistics paint a portrait of ineffectiveness, not lack of effort, offering hope for the future. The team has scored only the 17th most goals, but has amazingly taken the 3rd-most shots and notched the 7th-most shots on target along with the 9th-most big chances missed and 12th most times hitting the woodwork. The endeavor is clearly there, and improvement may very well be possible if only a more surgical end touch can be applied.

In the back, Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand are always tempting as cheap wing backs who can deliver the occasional goal or assist, while Vestergaard, Wesley Hoedt, and Maya Yoshida offer solid choices in central defense for the new manager, but will likely not do anything from a fantasy perspective. McCarthy makes a fair amount of saves in the net, but would have to improve his clean sheet percentage to lure fantasy managers.

The big question remains: Whom will Southampton hire — A defensive tactician? An offensive guru? A young exciting mind? A veteran retread? A proven relegation escape artist? Ultimately, that key decision will likely go a long way in determining if the Saints can stay up this season and whether there can be any fantasy fortune found in players such as Armstrong, Ings, Elyounoussi, Ward-Prowse, Cedric and Bertrand.

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(NOTE: Team and player statistics came via the Official Premier League and Official Premier League Fantasy websites. Transfer information came via www.transfermarkt.com )

In the wake of Mark Hughes’ sacking, do you have your eye on any Southampton players, hoping for an uptick in form under a new manager? Or is there no hope for the Saints as they battle relegation the rest of the way?

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