SOUTHAMPTON host Watford on Saturday for in a crunch bottom half clash in the Premier League. Jack Lambden (@_JackL_) analyses the encounter.
Southampton v Watford | Saturday 30th November 2019, 17:30 | Sky Sports
The Premier League’s bottom two sides Southampton and Watford face-off in Saturday’s tea-time kick-off at a rather wet St Mary’s, the forecasted weather perhaps typifying the gloom over both team’s season.
Southampton sit 19th following a truly dismal start to a season that promised some hope following a six-month renaissance under Ralph Hassenhuttl in the second half of 2018/19. The mess at the club is not just exclusive to on-field matters as is often the case in football, with owner Gao Jisheng not investing a single penny in the club since he purchased a majority stake with borrowed money in August 2017, instead asking the club to reinvest any money collected from transfer or TV revenue into the playing budget. T
hat certainly hasn’t helped Hassenhuttl who has only been able to do so much with a disjointed squad often low on confidence from three years of struggle.
The incoming players that have arrived have been few and far between in terms of being the required standard for the team to push on to mid-table security, with only Danny Ings, Moussa Djenepo and Nathan Redmond of the 17 signings and £225.9m outlay appearing good enough to be part of a team aiming for those heights with one or two others, including Dane Pierre Hojbjerg, yet to prove consistent enough.
The now infamous 9-0 defeat to Leicester was one of the darkest days in the club’s history but was the culmination of the aforementioned reasons as well as Hassenhuttl losing the support of his assistant manager Danny Rohl who left for a role at Bayern Munich, the director of football Les Reed (admittedly this wasn’t a big loss) and head of recruitment Ross Wilson who left for Rangers.
The strain of taking on extra responsibilities left vacant by these roles not being filled is visible all over the face of the Austrian manager who is now working around the clock to try and rescue the season before the sinking feeling amongst the fans and resignation that relegation is inevitable turns into a rather bleak reality.
The manager does have to take some of the blame however, experimenting far too much with formations and putting square pegs in round holes to try and plug the alarming gap that still exists in the Saints defence. This tinkering has left the team exposed, particularly at full-back, where injuries and suspensions to first-choice pairing Ryan Bertrand and Cedric, as well as Yann Valery losing his form from last season has seen the likes of James Ward-Prowse, Hojbjerg and even Moussa Djenepo deputise at wing-back.
Saints have conceded several goals from wide areas as a result and changing centre-back partnership too many times can be attributed to this also.
Recent performances at Manchester City in both league and cup, as well as last weekend’s 2-2 draw at Arsenal, showed signs of encouragement but Saints will be kicking themselves to have not come out of at least one of those games with three points having played so well.
The team had a number of chances to kill the Arsenal game off but failed to get a third goal and were ultimately punished in the 6th minute of stoppage time. The Expected Goals For (xGF) of 2.6 in the match was impressive and demonstrates a dominant performance which pinned Arsenal back, the return of Bertrand at left-back and the aggressive pressing which caused so many problems from December to May a sign of character at last.
Hassenhuttl may well stick with the 4-2-2-2/4-4-2 that started that match with Michael Obafemi’s pace up front complimenting Danny Ings well. However, Stuart Armstrong will miss the game through injury so Oriol Romeu is likely to return to the starting XI.
Home is not where the Saints' heart is
Although the Saints away following have been treated to more substance from the squad of players, the same can certainly not be said for those that only follow the team at St Mary’s. The home form is very much on the slide again with Saints losing five out of six games on their home patch this season and conceding 21 goals in the process.
Since Ronald Koeman’s departure on the back of a sixth-place finish, the team have won just 15 of 63 home games which is nothing short of abysmal (speaking as a season ticket holder who has bared witness to all but two of those games!).
The televised record of the team doesn’t read much better, without a win in front of the cameras in the Premier League for over 11 months since Hassenhuttl’s first home game in charge saw a 3-2 victory over Arsenal, a run of nine games.
Watford not pulling up trees
Although Saints are without a win in their last eight, Watford are hardly pulling up trees themselves – sitting rock bottom following that single win over Norwich. The run to last season’s FA Cup final must seem an all too distant memory for Hornets fans who have seen their team score just eight times in their 13 matches (two of which were penalties).
Although Watford have become known for their faltering end of season form once they reach the 40-point mark, it hasn’t tended to effect the team much come the start of a new campaign. That is until this season where the negative momentum carried into August and ultimately cost Javi Gracia his job.
The Spanish coach was not helped by the crippling injuries within his squad and being without captain and main goalscorer Troy Deeney but the Premier League is brutal and a run of a poor results can very quickly see a manager’s demise.
Quique Sánchez Flores’s return was immediate and his coaching on the training field improvement the defensive performances during games up until the 3-0 defeat to Burnley – the team being brutally dispatched following their failure to get their noses in front in a first half that they controlled.
That game and result really encapsulated Watford’s season to date with yet more injuries in the form of Craig Dawson being forced off and the only bright point being the return from of Deeney who came off the bench to make his first appearance since the end of August after knee surgery. The team will certainly need to show some of the ‘cohones’ he has previously talked about if they are to get out of the trouble they currently find themselves in.
This Watford side are certainly capable, their best performance of the season coming against Arsenal where they registered over 30 shots in a second half onslaught and arguably deserved to win the game but despite a very good midfield trio of Capoue, Doucoure and Hughes (who are now all fully fit), supported by the creative talent of Deulofeu in attack, they have been unable to replicate that level of performance across the season often enough to win more points.
Deulofeu alone has been responsible for half of Watford’s goals (two goals and two assists) and should he keep up his average of laying on 1.8 key passes per game for his teammates (a higher figure than the likes of Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling and Mo Salah), that number of assists will surely improve if Deeney can find his lethal touch again quickly.
Kiko to see a card
An angle I like is Kiko Femenia to pick up a card at 4/1 with Unibet.
The Watford right-back has become a regular since Daryl Janmaat’s injury but he doesn’t look very assured at all. Watford are quite a physical side, picking up more yellows than 18 of their fellow Premier League sides (28) and with 41% of Saints’ play coming down the left flank (which will only increase now Bertrand is back), I think they will look to target the Spaniard.
He has received three yellow cards this season and is the third-highest tackler in the Watford squad so whichever combination of the prolific dribblers Nathan Redmond or Moussa Djenepo plays, Femenia will be in for a tough 90 minutes. The players I mentioned are three of the four most fouled in the Saints team and with this being such a big game, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Michael Oliver reach for a card a fair few times.
Goals expected at St Mary's
The last three Premier League head-to-heads between these teams have all ended in a score draw (1-1, 1-1 and 2-2) and with Saints seeing Over 2.5 Goals in their last five matches, it’s hard to look past goals again here.
Both Teams To Score and Over 2.5 Goals is 64/50 with Marathon which I am going to back with the outrights so hard to call and both sets of defence unstable.
Ings can notch
Given the goals angle, Danny Ings to bag anytime at 7/4 with Bet365 looks attractive. The local lad’s double at the Fratton End in September’s South Coast Derby has given him cult hero status and including that match he is now on a run of eight goals in nine games.
Scoring 46% of Southampton’s Premier League goals this season, a higher percentage than any of the top 10 league goalscorers and with a better xG return per 90 minutes than the likes of Harry Kane and Raul Jimenez, a confident Ings will fancy his chances of bagging again if he’s given the required service.
After a full pre-season, Ings has featured much more on the pitch and he is now showing his quality in terms of goalscoring and link up play which is the only glue holding this Saints team together at the moment.
Ings is an almost certain starter but it's always worth utilising Bet365's ‘void if player does not start' option just in case something untoward occurs.
A huge week for both teams with nine points on offer but it’s hard to define this first game with anything other than the ‘six-pointer’ and ‘must win’ labels.