On the face of things, Southampton enjoyed a good year last year.
They finished eighth in the Premier League, ending the year in the top-half for the fifth consecutive campaign since earning promotion to the top-flight, and they reached the EFL Cup final at Wembley.
Despite only being denied by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last-gasp antics on that occasion, Claude Puel’s short but sweet reign at St Mary’s came to a rather abrupt ending when he was sacked in early June.
It was a decision based around the lack of ebb and flow in Southampton’s play, often criticised for being too defensive and tepid, and in came ex-Alaves manager Mauricio Pellegrino to mix things up.
However, it has not proven to be a worthwhile appointment after seven games of the new season, and the Saints have work to do if they have ambitions of improving on their eighth-place finish last time out.
The Boot Room assesses why Southampton’s season hasn’t quite clicked into gear so far.
Where have the goals gone?
The main source of frustration around the south coast at present is the lack of potency in front of goal, and Southampton are in the midst of a barren spell that they desperately need to break soon.
The Saints have scored just five goals in their opening seven matches, failing to find the net in four of these, and to put their troubles into perspective there are currently four top-flight forwards that have scored more (6) by themselves (Romelu Lukaku, Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Morata and Harry Kane).
It is a problem that dates back for a far while though – much to the rising concern of Southampton supporters – with the Saints having more goalless draws (seven) than any other side last season.
Taking the end of last year into account they’ve scored just seven goals in 12 league games since the end of April, and the atmosphere at St Mary’s all of a sudden has an air of little expectation about it.
There is no denying that Pellegrino made a huge oversight over the summer by not investing in his striking options, particularly considering that he allowed Jay Rodriguez to leave for Premier League rivals West Brom, and his inability to put this money straight back into the attack has proven costly.
It says everything that, of Southampton’s five goals this year, two have come from the penalty spot and two have come from corners, and it’s becoming increasingly pertinent that they find answers very soon.
It is worrying times. Nonetheless, with a favourable run of fixtures to come against Newcastle, West Brom, Brighton and Burnley, there’s no better time for their strikers to find a bit of form and try to turn fortunes around.
Virgil Van Dijk continues to be a thorn in Mauricio Pellegrino’s side
Just when you thought it was all over.
The summer transfer window – now known as the ‘Virgil van Dijk window’ – somehow saw the Saints keep hold of the Dutch defender for a little while longer at least despite his open pleas to let him leave with Chelsea, Manchester City and over-riding favourites Liverpool interested in him.
Since then he’d returned to full first-team training, made his first full appearance of the season at Stoke City and it seemed like his frayed relationship with Pellegrino might have a shot at salvation.
However, Van Dijk has had other ideas over the international break, with BBC Sport reporting comments made from him that hint that he could make another drastic attempt to leave the Saints when January comes.
It once again leaves the Argentinian boss with a dilemma over whether to freeze him out again or keep playing him – and it’s one he could certainly do without considering Southampton’s lacklustre start.
Individual performances haven’t been up to scratch
There is no denying that with the likes of Dusan Tadic, Nathan Redmond, Sofiane Boufal and Gabbiadini at their disposal, Southampton possess some technically gifted individual players.
However, it seems that none of them have turned up so far this season, and the lack of an individual figure standing up to be counted and lifting the side when they need a boost has perhaps been a main reason as to why the Saints are struggling to kick-start their campaign and looking a little uninspired.
You could go through almost every Premier League side and identify their main man but, with Southampton, it’s hard to say who’s indispensable in their squad and who they couldn’t be without.
For a team that are striving for the top-half, and looking to fight for the European spot that comes with finishing seventh, it’s simply not good enough after nearly ten games of the 2017-18 campaign.
Strength in depth runs thin to the ground
The worrying thing about the absence of sparkling individual displays means that the Saints’ threadbare squad is exposed too easily, with Pellegrino’s side not having the best strength in depth.
Their options in the centre of defence and the centre of the midfield are relatively strong but, with regards to players that can be introduced and influence the course of matches, they are lacking quality.
Boufal, Tadic and Redmond are their primary attacking outlets, with James Ward-Prowse a more traditional midfield option, whilst it’s Charlie Austin and Shane Long who are frequently rotated alongside Gabbiadini in a forward position – but that’s pretty much the extent of the Saints’ squad.
It once again all comes back to a wasteful summer transfer window, where new manager Pellegrino simply didn’t recruit in the right places, and it could be a long wait now for January to come around.
Missed opportunity to make statement of intent
All of the above has contributed to Southampton missing a massive chance to make a statement of intent of their top-eight credentials, playing just one so-called ‘big team’ in their first seven matches.
It was arguably against Manchester United where they put in their best performance of the year to date, being unlucky to not find a way through after they completely dominated proceedings in the second-half and had Jose Mourinho’s side on the ropes, but they’ve slipped up in their other, winnable games.
Failures to beat Swansea City, newly-promoted Huddersfield Town, Watford and Stoke City could prove costly when May comes around and Pellegrino should reflect on these games as ten points dropped.
The tests of Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and United (again) all come in the space of 40 days over Christmas, and the Saints need to be careful not to lose sight of that top-half.