Considering his press conferences are so calm and uncontroversial, it is rather shocking to see how agitated Claude Puel can get on the touch line during games.
The Southampton boss was again visibly frustrated against Stoke on Wednesday night, but the reasons are rather less of a surprise. Despite a man advantage over their hosts at the BET365 for more than an hour, the final score ended in a bore-draw.
For Puel and the hardcore bunch who travelled up to the cliched “tricky away trip”, it all had a sense of déjà vu. Like so many games this season, the Saints team dominated the ball and the chances; but when it came down to the nitty-gritty of making it count on the score line, they failed to do so.
Southampton are 16th in the Premier League’s Goals Scored column, only one goal above Middlesbrough and Burnley. Whilst the Teesiders and Clarets will be fairly content as their defence will keep them up, their primary objective, Puel’s men and the supporters will be more aggrieved. Their European detour has left them wanting more.
But, again, goals are the problem. An unbeaten record at home would have left them in good stead for getting out of Group K, but their wretched away form meant the side didn’t even have an away goal to show for their 7,000 mile round tour of Israel, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Despite much of their success the past two seasons under Ronald Koeman stemming from their tight defensive structure, the trio of Sadio Mané, Graziano Pellè and Shane Long all scoring 10+ goals rocketed them into sixth and into the Europa League group stage for this season.
But with the former pair leaving for pastures new, like so many of Southampton’s key men over the past few summers, and Shane Long in a 20-game goal drought, the goal-scoring issue is becoming a real crisis.
It is clear where the problem lies. With the defence one of the strongest in the league, and a midfield with real options, the attack lacks real quality. The aforementioned Long, Jay Rodriguez and Charlie Austin all have real concerns against their name.
Austin is the only goalscorer in the Saints squad, but he is a double-edged sword. He scores the scrappy chances, but it comes at the price of the frontline becoming very disjointed. His fitness is a concern too, but the fact he’s out for four months with a dislocated shoulder is a real loss all the same.
Arguably of the three, it is Rodriguez who is the best striker on paper. But after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament injury in April 2014 he hasn’t looked the same player, no longer the pacy forward that can leave defenders in his wake. He may have scored twice against rivals Bournemouth on Sunday, but questions regarding his ability to show this form consistently, still remain,
While hardly being the great entertainers under Koeman before he moved to Everton, the sale of Mané and Pellè seems to have done much more damage than most of the exits before them, and the fans are frustrated at how blunt the side look going forward.
But it is not because of a lack of service. Southampton are one of the top chance creators in the league, with Dušan Tadic pivotal to that, but the fact the Serbian playmaker has not registered a single assist yet despite being near the top of the league for key passes tells its own story.
The midfield need to start scoring for starters. Of the centre-midfielders only James Ward-Prowse has registered a league goal, and that was in the Saints’ only away win this campaign at a struggling West Ham, whilst Tadic netted his only goal in that game too.
But the club need to be bold in January. The winter transfer window is a seller’s market, where struggling sides will pay over the odds in desperation, but there are bargains to be found; after all, Austin was recruited at a cut price £4 million this time last season with his contract running out.
A move for West Brom’s Saido Berahino, who is in a similar situation after his well-documented fall out at the Hawthorns, may well be an astute signing and a good move for all parties. There was interest in the England u21 international last season, and the Baggies may feel that some extra funds from an unused striker could come in handy, in order to strengthen for an unlikely European push.
It could be the best thing for the player considering how things have gone sour in the pat few seasons, and Puel has experience of getting the best of players who are considered difficult characters; just look at Hatem Ben Arfa’s for the Frenchman’s previous club Nice.
The Saints would get a striker that when on form and in full confidence can score goals aplenty. Whether or not Berahino is the man is not really important, but Southampton need to recruit a solution to their goalscoring problems. If not, their manager and supporters frustrations may well continue.
There is no danger as of yet of the club being relegated; but as Puel would have seen on Wednesday, it could be pretty grim viewing all the same.