Southampton’s 1-0 defeat by Manchester United extended the club’s unwanted winless run at St. Mary’s Stadium in 2022-23.
Going back to last season, the Saints’ run at home reads six defeats and a draw in their last eight on home turf, a solitary win against Arsenal in mid-April bookended by three losses on either side.
A wretched home form has followed what was an impressive 10-game unbeaten run on the South Coast before Newcastle United’s 2-1 win in March and it will be easy to fret on the back of the ongoing run without success.
Indeed, the glass is half-empty if results are the only metric considered when gauging Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men.
On the other hand, the Saints have shown signs of life in their last two games in front of their fans, rallying from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against Leeds United and Saturday’s commendable showing in defeat by Manchester United.
It is only four Premier League games in but the Austrian tactician has already changed the team’s shape multiple times.
Southampton began the campaign with a back three that was turned to in pre-season to theoretically foster improved defensive displays as an upshot of the team’s leaky rearguard at the backend of 2021-22.
That has now been abolished with a return to several variations of a back four with different midfield configurations.
There is a feeling that a 4-2-2-2 is Southampton’s calling card under Hasenhuttl but the tactician has looked reluctant to revert to that approach permanently in 2022-23, seemingly intent on establishing confidence in another approach.
Indeed, this decision has its merits, especially as it reduces the Saints’ predictability and gives the South Coast outfit another means of winning games. Yet, there is a risk of players getting lost amid a muddled modus operandi in which they operate differently game by game.
Joe Aribo’s versatility is arguably his greatest characteristic, but it has hitherto proven a slight hindrance in the opening weeks of the season.
The fledgling campaign means it may be too early to make grand claims and conclusions, but the utilisation of the Nigeria international across multiple roles may be worrisome going forward if Hasenhuttl will intermittently alter his team’s strategy this season.
This Premier League campaign is barely a month old but the erstwhile Rangers man has played in a front two in a 3-5-2, briefly as one of the number 10s in a 4-2-2-2, a 4-3-2-1 and 3-4-2-1 and in the hole in a 4-2-3-1.
Aribo’s introduction on the hour & Hasenhuttl reverting to type during the water break set in motion Southampton’s fightback vs Leeds.— Seye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) August 17, 2022
Will the Saints boss draw lessons from that half-hour showing with Leicester to come on Saturday? #LEISOU @GOALAfricahttps://t.co/393xcWkTY7
Aribo was utilised in the latter against Manchester United at the weekend and was, at times, Southampton’s most advanced player. This saw the home side sporadically morph into a front two with the Nigerian playing in tandem with Che Adams up front, a situation that appears to be a strange usage of the summer acquisition.
“[Hasenhuttl] asked me where I prefer to play most. I told him just behind the striker in a right-forward position,” Aribo stated after his switch. “He said it’s really good that I said that to him and not another position, so we’ve had a lot of chats about it. It’s a nice feeling to know that the manager has high hopes for you.”
While Aribo nearly pulling the Saints level on Saturday may have garnered lots of praise, with outcome bias altering the assessment of the 26-year-old’s general performance, it would have been ill-informed.
The player and coach had conversations before his transfer regarding how to get the best out of him, yet Hasenhuttl praising the midfielder’s flexibility last month is hitherto looking to be a deterrent rather than a blessing.
“Joe is a player with many qualities to his game,” Hasenhuttl remarked in July. “Feeling comfortable in so many different positions is very helpful for a manager and shows he has a high level of football intelligence, with the ability to take on new information quickly.”
The aforementioned suggests the Nigerian could well have to fulfil a plethora of roles until Southampton find the right balance between attack and defence in their search for the right formation, likely to cause fluctuations in performance.
Chelsea visit St Mary’s on Tuesday looking to repeat last season’s 6-0 thrashing of Hasenhuttl’s men, but the Blues’ struggles of their own and Saints’ improvement suggest another annihilation on their turf is unlikely.
Aribo’s deployment in several roles should ideally bring about concern but the caveat of the campaign’s infancy means observers should let things play out before raising alarm or questioning Hasenhuttl.
Nonetheless, the Austrian boss ought to settle on how he intends to effectively utilise the Nigeria star, and the next few months should paint a clearer picture as to the Southampton tactician’s inclination.