Football Features

Southampton show the steel and spirit that could be their salvation

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 19:54, 30 November 2019 | Updated: 14:13, 12 February 2020

In a thrilling night of football, Southampton came from one goal down to beat Watford 2-1 at St. Mary’s.

The match was hardly a classic, in fact for the most part it was a compendium of why both sides were bottom of the Premier League table and why they are two of the favourite sides to get relegated come the season’s end. There was shoddy defending, wayward passing and some hysterically bad decisions made in the final third.

But at the end we saw something else from the home side. Something positive. Southampton ended up winning but before they equalised they could have been three or four down as Watford spurned countless chances on the break. The Hornets have only scored nine goals so far this season and even with the magical movement of Ismaila Sarr, you can see why.

Saints, meanwhile, rode the line between bravery and stupidity like a clown going over a high-wire on a unicycle. They got where they needed to in the end but the entire journey had you gnashing your teeth and clenching your fists so hard your knuckles turned white.

Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s men just do not care. They will play his way even in situations where they probably shouldn’t because they don’t really have the players. Passing out of the back is one of the finest things a team can do but Saints lack a cohensive plan to do it, yet do it anyway.

Repeatedly Watford almost caught them out for their aggressive style, for their high-line. They should have caught them out, really, but they simply didn’t take their chances. Yet Saints never stopped doing things their way.

That bloody-minded commitment ended up really starting to pay dividends when Hasenhuttl made his changes. On came Sofiane Boufhal, the man who completed more dribbles than Leo Messi when on loan in Spain last season. Shane Long hit the ground running, stretching Watford and giving Saints real vertical threat. And finally Yann Valery replaced Cedric at right-back.

Having Boufhal on the field dramatically improved Southampton’s ability to beat any Watford press and advance the ball – despite only being on the field for 33 minutes he had more completed dribbles than all but Moussa Djenepo’s 7. In fact Boufhal’s 5 dribbles was just one fewer than the whole Watford side put together.

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Once those changes had been made, Watford had just one further shot and that was Andre Gray’s in stoppage time. Meanwhile Southampton had six efforts on goal in the same period. The dominance was building and it was telling how both of their goals came about.

First, Moussa Djenepo danced his way into the box, skipping by his marker with a delightful bit of skill before prodding a cross to Danny Ings who bundled it home. That persistence and reliance on skill rather than just simply hoiking crosses into the box shows why one can make a big case for Southampton finally getting things “right.” But they’re perfectly capable of being ferocious if they need to, Danny Ings didn’t connect with Djenepo’s cross at first but kept moving forward and just stabbed it home.

Their second goal was a stunning free-kick from James Ward-Prowse, but the free-kick was won because Saints intercepted a Watford outlet pass in the left half-space and instantly advanced the ball with a driving run. That again showed not only the individual quality but the tactical coherence and true persistence of a much better side than one who sit 18th with 12 points.

But that 18th place is a huge improvement because they were 19th with 9 points, just one ahead of Watford. They’re now just two points behind Everton and Aston Villa (albeit having played a game more) but most importantly they’ve finally won. Their first victory since the middle of September, just their third win overall and their first at home all season.

If the draw against Arsenal represented progress being stalled, tonight was progress made flesh. Made real. Tonight was vindication for Ralph Hasenhuttl for coaching Saints his way. They didn’t play well, sure, but they knew what they were doing in that last 30 minutes and how they were going to drag it back. Tonight’s win was Southampton showing the spirit and steel that could well secure their salvation.

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