clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Musical Chairs: Mark Hughes’ Last Ditch Effort to Save Southampton

New, comments

Mauricio Pellegrino failed as an untested, outside-the-box manager hire. Can Premier League veteran Mark Hughes save Southampton’s season and provide fantasy value to any of the Saints players from here on out?

Coventry City v Stoke City - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round
Mark Hughes is surely wondering if there is enough time left
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

The more things change, the more they stay the same

We all are quite familiar with the usual, tired process of managerial musical chairs: A team struggles, the skipper gets fired, and yesterday’s goat, a well-traveled Premier League lifer, gets hired. Maybe the team survives, or perhaps it goes down. Then rinse and repeat, over and over again with the same team or the next.

Southampton made a valiant effort to break the mold when it sacked Claude Puel over the summer of 2017 and brought Mauricio Pellegrino over from little-known Deportivo Alavés of La Liga. But after securing only one win in the past 17 domestic games, the outsider was belatedly let go, providing more ammunition for a return to the recycled Premier League manager approach.

How many EPL teams has Roy Hodgson managed? What about Sam Allardyce? Paul Lambert? Alan Pardew? Or David Moyes? Do you have an abacus handy? Sometimes it feels like the British footballing brass might as well be playing Wheel of Fortune. Is there an English equivalent to Pat Sajak or Vanna White shuffling around Premier League boardrooms, making a spin and waiting to see whose name the monstrously enormous dial lands on?

The Riviera Hotel & Casino On The Las Vegas Strip Closing
Is Southampton’s latest spin going to work out? Who knows, it’s a gamble!
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

And now, Southampton welcomes Mark Hughes. Much like Moyes with West Ham, Hughes signed only for the remainder of this season. Time will tell — very quickly — whether this latest game of musical chairs will spin some melodic tunes or merely make the sound of sad violins as deck chairs are rearranged on the Titanic.

*

What was the State of Affairs Under Pellegrino?

In a word: disastrous. From 2013/14 through 2016/17, Southampton was a very proud franchise, finishing no lower than eighth, and as high as sixth. But now it may finally be paying the price of continually selling off its best players primarily as a feeder team for Liverpool (Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk), but also Manchester United (Morgan Schneiderlin, Luke Shaw) and Tottenham Hotpur (Victor Wanyama). The Saints are in very real danger of relegation, two points back of 17th place West Ham, albeit with a game in hand and a better goal differential.

The defensive-minded Pellegrino skippered a competent back, but the offense turned to absolute rot as only West Brom, Huddersfield, Swansea, Burnley, and Brighton have scored fewer times. What the heck happened? Can it be explained by a change in personnel? No, not really. The team lost Jay Rodriguez to West Brom, but it is not like he has done much of anything for Albion; both Southampton and West Brom have struggled mightily both offensively and languish at or near the bottom of the table.

Southampton ranks #7 in total touches and passes — in both cases behind only the “Big Six” teams — and astoundingly is not far behind at #9 in shots, but that time on the ball has proven pretty useless. The big summer signing, Mario Lemina, has been decent if unspectacular in defensive midfield. The Saints thought they could make do on offense with Charlie Austin, Manolo Gabbiadini, Shane Long, and Dusan Tadic, each of whom can boast productive returns in the past.

However, Austin leads the team with only 14 shots on target (tied for 55th most among EPL players) and six goals (the same number as Chelsea defender Marcos Alonso); perhaps even more sadly, nobody on the Saints has contributed more than three assists. The currently-injured Austin has been limited to only 17 games, while Long has posed as the poster boy for the team’s horrid season, scoring only once in his 22 appearances.

*

What Does Mark Hughes Bring to the Table?

In a phrase that could fairly sum it up, the Mark Hughes style is rough and tumble. In spite of a prolific career as a goal scoring midfielder featuring stints at Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers, Southampton and Everton, Hughes’ teams rather are known for a defensive focus where his players battle up to and sometimes beyond the line separating pluck and spirited grit from dirty play.

While Hughes won as a manager more times than he lost at his first three clubs (Blackburn, Manchester City and Fulham), the reverse has been true at his past pair of stops (Queens Park Rangers and Stoke). Lasting less than a calendar year at QPR, Hughes was sacked in November 2012 with the club sitting in last place; thereafter, even Redknapp could not save the squad from its doom. From 2013/14 to 2015/16 under Hughes, Stoke finished in 9th place every year, before slipping to 13th in 2016/17. When Stoke dropped the axe in January 2018, the Potters were in 18th place; under Lambert, they have since actually slipped slightly to 19th.

Despite Hughes’ hard-nosed, defense-first reputation as a manager, Stoke’s back was an absolute dumpster fire at the time of his departure, having allowed a league-high 47 goals in only 22 games, including a 5-0 thrashing courtesy of Chelsea, a 5-1 shellacking from Tottenham, and a 7-2 capitulation to Manchester City.

It’s not as if Hughes has had no eye for offensive talent, as he has brought in the likes of Roque Santa Cruz to Blackburn, Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez to Manchester City, along with Xherdan Shaqiri, Joe Allen and Marko Arnautović to Stoke. However, the misses have far outweighed the hits in that department, as only one of his Premier League teams has ever scored more than 52 goals in a full season, and one managed just 32.

So where does that leave us, exactly? We’ve got a manager who:

  • has flamed out at his past two spots,
  • boasts a defensive reputation but ultimately couldn’t keep a tight ship at Stoke,
  • can spot some offensive talent but could never really get things going on that end,
  • now inherits a team stuck in 18th place with only eight games to play

Cobble that all together and you’ve got something pretty gosh darn hopeless, unless you’re sporting an awful lot of faith.

*

How Have Things Begun for Hughes with Southampton?

Wigan’s 2012-13 campaign remains the epitome of Pyrrhic victory, winning the F.A. Cup whilst being relegated from the Premier League. Sure, the fans are privileged to gaze upon shiny hardware in the trophy case, but have suffered from the stands as the team plied its trade in the Championship before being relegated further down to League One.

Through that lens, Southampton may be better off getting knocked out of this season’s F.A. Cup and focusing all of its energy on the fight for Premier League survival. However, Southampton is looking for a spark... anything... for someone with a Premier League pedigree to work a little magic or instill some spirit. Saints need a leader to shake things up a bit, to get the fans behind the lads. It’s desperate, but as any male character from a spring break comedy will tell you, desperation can work sometimes. Like a college co-ed in Fort Lauderdale, Hughes had to go for it on Sunday in the F.A. Cup quarterfinals against, interestingly enough, Wigan.

This season, Pellegrino most often deployed a 4-2-3-1 line-up. The big winter signing, forward Guido Carrillo from Monaco, had failed to score in his six league games (five starts) under Pellegrino. Meanwhile, last January’s prized newcomer, Manolo Gabbiadini (four goals in 11 games in 2016/17), languished on the bench. James Ward-Prowse seemed to be coming into his own with a rich vein of form from mid-January to mid-February as highlighted in Santiago’s recent spotlight article, but the promising Englishman has since returned to inconsistency.

Offering hints of what we can expect when the Premier League schedule returns following the international break, Hughes changed formation and personnel. Adopting a more attack-minded 4-4-2, Hughes paired Carillo with Gabbiadini up top. In addition, he moved Tadic from the center to the right wing and inserted Sofiane Boufal opposite on the left, benching Nathan Redmond and JWP. The rest of the line-up remained the same, with Lemina and Pierre-Emile Højberg in central midfield, the quartet of Ryan Bertrand, Wesley Hoedt, Jack Stephens, and Cedric Soares in defense, plus Alex McCarthy in net.

The result? A 2-0 away win featuring second half goals from Højberg (assisted by Tadic) and Soares (unassisted). Perhaps most notably, not only did the Saints outshoot Wigan 15-13, but crucially the squad dominated the SOT department 6-2. If you are tempted to discount the win due to Wigan’s standing, you would be wise to recall that Tottenham drew at both Newport and Rochdale in F.A. Cup action in recent months. No matter the level of competition, away wins are simply not always easy to come by.

*

Which Players Might Be Worth Dropping or Adding?

First off, if you own James Ward-Prowse or Nathan Redmond, get rid of them. For now, they look like personae non gratae.

Carrillo managed one shot on target, failing to get the goal-scoring spark he so desperately needs. But that was nothing compared to Gabbiadini, who had an absolutely atrocious game, first failing to score on a gifted back pass from a defender which put him one-on-one with the keeper, then seeing a penalty saved (to his credit, he drew the foul). It’s exciting to see the duo playing up top together, but it looks far from dynamic as yet. One of them may certainly emerge as a worthwhile fantasy option, but it’s not exactly clear who would. If Gabbiadini retains PK duty, that would give him the edge; however, missing against Wigan means that he could easily lose that honor, and in the worst case scenario perhaps even be sent back to the bench.

The players who looked best against Wigan were Hojbjerg and Tadic, who paired together beautifully twice in succession on corner kicks. Hojbjerg overall notched three shots (two SOT including the goal). Tadic, whose playmaking has nearly disappeared this season, would love to return to form and build on the assist. In his 37 career Premier League games, Hojbjerg has taken 38 shots (8 SOT) but has no goals or assists, leaving Tadic as a safer, more proven bet in midfield; after all, it was as recently as 2015/16 that Tadic exploded for 7 goals and 12 assists.

Tadic leads the team in Official FPL scoring (84 points) and is priced at an affordable £6.2. In Fantrax, the Serbian international is just $5.80 in and averages 4.8 points, but in the prior three seasons has averaged 7.7, 8.1 and 6.6 points, so the talent is there if he can get back in the swing of things. In Togga, Tadic has been a complete afterthought for quite some time; after hitting double digit points six times in the first 16 games (including four 15+ efforts and two at 20+), he has managed 10+ only twice in the past 14 weeks.

Bertrand and Soares always offer potential on the offensive end, but of course fantasy managers will be attracted more by the chance at clean sheets for defenders. While Southampton kept Wigan off the scoreboard, in truth the Saints were quite fortunate to do so. Under Pellegrino, Southampton kept only six clean sheets this season, ahead of only Bournemouth and — you guessed it — Stoke. Unless Hughes can shake off the stench of his finish with the Potters and whip things into form quickly with the extra practice time afforded by the international week, a string of clean sheets seems unlikely.

*

What are Southampton’s Remaining Fixtures?

Aside from the F.A. Cup semifinal at Chelsea, Southampton has eight games remaining, which offers value compared to the octet of squads who played in GW31 and have only seven league contests left. Five of those games, unfortunately, come away from St. Mary’s. Overall, it’s quite a varied mix:

HOME: Chelsea, Bournemouth, Manchester City

AWAY: West Ham, Arsenal, Leicester, Everton, Swansea

Having three games against Big Six competition does not sound ideal, but Chelsea is the only one that needs to fight to get into Champion’s League. Bournemouth, Leicester and Everton are mid-table, and as such can play fairly freely, which could be dangerous but also may be tempting if they are not focused. The West Ham and Swansea games will be six pointers full of desperation.

Lacking a swath of appetizing home games, it is difficult to envision a run of clean sheets for Southampton, so I’d be more inclined to go the offensive route. The fantasy value of Southampton’s players can’t go anywhere but up. Even so, it would be dizzy to imagine any need to make a mad rush. I’d recommend a wait-and-see approach, watching for something tangible from Tadic, Hojbjerg, Carrillo or Gabbiadini (also, wait and see if Austin returns in April). Hughes would love nothing better than to be hailed as a magician, and if that happens, we can hope to see some fantasy benefit manifest out of thin air from a David Copperfield-esque trick or two.

(Note: Statistics, formations and transfer information used in this article came via www.premierleague.com and www.transfermarkt.com )

How do you feel about Mark Hughes’ prospects for keeping Southampton up in the Premier League? Are you considering any Saints players for your fantasy teams as we round into the home stretch of the season? Let us know in the comments!