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Southampton FC: The Highs and (Mostly) Lows of 2020-21

Unfortunately for Saints fans, the early season success appears to have been a mirage.

Sunset at St. Marys by Mike Beales is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Southampton FC: The Highs and (Mostly) Lows of 2020-21

Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Full disclosure: I’ve been a supporter of Southampton FC for only a year now. A blink of an eye to many other soccer fans out there. I haphazardly found my way to them as I began my journey into EPL fandom a naïve American back in 2020. But I think I can speak for Saints followers across the board when I say that this season is one to forget.

Southampton looks poised to limp across the finish line after a shockingly torrid pace to begin the campaign. They sit 15th place in the table with 36 points (10-6-16) and have amassed a rather ugly -18 goal differential thus far. In terms of points earned, they are the top-flight’s worst team this calendar year, having clinched only 11 of a possible 45 since January began. Add in a slew of injuries with more than a few brutal losses, and the end result is a disappointing bottom-third finish for a team that looked sharp as a tack for the latter portion of 2020.

So as it draws to a close, let’s recap some of the high points and low points from a roller coaster of a season. And for the sake of morale, I think it’s best to remind ourselves of the positives before dwelling on the setbacks.

The Highs

A night atop the table – With a 2-0 win over Newcastle, the Saints found themselves at the top of the table for the first time since 1988. Victories over Everton and Aston Villa and a draw with Chelsea helped Southampton earn 16 of the first 24 points up for grabs. Man, does that feel like a lifetime ago.

James Ward-Prowse set-pieces – He’s the best in the business and there’s nothing else to say. Instead, just watch.

The 3-2 comeback win against Burnley – This victory a few weeks back may have been the most resilient this Southampton squad have looked all season (and perhaps, the only time). After conceding the first 2 goals, the Saints answered right back to tie it up before half with goals from Stuart Armstrong and Danny Ings. Nathan Redmond would bury the winner in the 66th minute of play. It’s too bad this type of resiliency was more the exception than the rule for Southampton this season. Typically, once the wheels fell off in a match, they stayed off for good.

Honorable mentions – In my book, a few players are worth mentioning here for their consistently strong play in a season that ultimately lacked results. The name at the top of such a list is Stuart Armstrong. The midfielder has shown absolutely relentless energy each match, regardless of the score, and developed a bit of creativity to his game as well. He has found the scoresheet more than some might have expected, with 4 goals and 4 assists in a season in only 27 matches due to injuries. There’s a good chance his goal involvement this season reaches a career high in his time in the EPL. But his presence alone, slicing and dicing straight up the center of the pitch on the attack, has led to many more chances than just these.

A close second on this list is Jannik Vestergaard. He saw a demotion to the bench last season following the 9-0 destruction against Leicester, and made only 17 starts by season’s end. This season, he has already managed 23 starts despite fitness issues, and has overall looked rock steady at center back with partner Jan Bednarek. He’s also turned himself into a scoring threat on set pieces and crosses, scoring 3 goals through 2020-21 (having only scored 1 in all previous EPL matches played prior).

You know what? One more quick name, while I’m here. Fraser Forster. He’s allowed 8 goals in 6 starts since taking over starting duties from embattled Alex McCarthy. He’s looked solid at a time when the team in front of him was playing at their worst.

The Lows

It felt like there could be a lot more to say here, but I tried to keep it narrowed down to the things that stuck out to me the most.

Another 9-0 – I had decided early in the season that the over/under timestamp for when the broadcast team would bring up the 9-0 Leicester debacle was by the 35th minute of each match. Luckily, the Saints gave us something that put a lid on that overused talking point. Unfortunately, it was another 9-0 debacle. This time, at the hands of Manchester United. Red cards, own goals, and an onslaught of attack from United left us dealing with a second 9-goal loss in as many seasons.

Dishonorable mentions – While the 9-0 loss may stick out as this season’s biggest disaster, the 3-2 loss to Newcastle and 3-0 stomping at the hands of West Brom may have been even more frustrating to watch. The former, because the Saints failed to even tie the game, let alone win it, while having the other-worldly opportunity to play against a side with 9 men for a good 20 minutes. The latter, because Southampton got dominated from the opening whistle against a team that is destined for relegation, and at a time when Southampton was poised to stop the rot after the Burnley win.

The 2021 run of form – Three wins since 2021 began. Not good. But what has made it worse is the games inevitably deteriorate. No team this season has lost more points from winning positions in matches than the Saints. Perhaps they take an early lead (as they did twice against Tottenham), but the wheels fall off, no halftime adjustments are made, and things just fall apart. And the more it happened, the more the eye test has revealed a tangible lack of confidence. Southampton, through this point, has not been able to close out matches. And it’s what they will need to do, at least once more, to guarantee safety from relegation prior to season’s end.

Injuries – This is a big piece of context when discussing Southampton’s performance this season. Certainly not excuse-worthy by any means, but an unfortunate component to the narrative. Danny Ings has missed 7 matches (and boy, have they missed his finishing touch). He, Vestergaard, and Kyle-Walker Peters have missed 8 each, Nathan Redmond has missed 9, and youngster Will Smallbone has missed the entirety of this season after making 2 starts. In fact, only Ward-Prowse and Bednarek have appeared in every match for the Saints, as most of their roster has dealt with fitness issues in some form. It’s not hard to believe that the team’s inconsistent play stems from, in part, inconsistent lineups.

Rounding it Out

While probably safe, the Saints are not mathematically “out of the woods” just yet, and likely need another victory or a couple draws to ensure safety from relegation. And the fact that it’s come to this following a season in which Southampton took the PL by storm in the final few months only emphasizes how disappointing of a run this campaign has been. It’s a season that has begged more questions than answers, primarily around Manager Ralph Hasenhüttl’s in-game adjustments, their depth on the bench, and the team’s ability to find and maintain a lead against quality opposition. Perhaps the home stretch of the season can begin to shed some light here, as Southampton still has a chance to finish this season as they started: with strength.

No matter how it goes down, I’ll be here watching these South Coast boys from across the pond. I love this team. And we march on.

Ryan Kelly lives in Cambridge, MA, a stone's throw away from his beloved Boston teams. When he is not working as an editorial assistant, he is providing commentary on the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins for The Turf.

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