Mark Hughes was announced as Southampton’s new manager last week. The 54-year-old hit the ground running with a 2-0 FA Cup quarterfinal win over Wigan. The Saints are into the semi-finals for the first time since 2003.
Ironically, Wigan won the FA Cup under Roberto Martinez in 2013 before being relegated. Sparky was not hired to repeat that bittersweet achievement. With two months remaining and an ongoing relegation battle in full swing, here’s a look at three key areas that Hughes must address to keep Southampton in the Premier League.
Choose his strongest XI quickly
Crystal Palace won in the Premier League while So’ton were concerned with the FA Cup. Roy Hodgson’s Eagles moved up to 16th, dropping the Saints into 18th, with 28 points over 30 matches played. The game in hand is a blessing but more pressing is the March 31st clash with West Ham. David Moyes side are 17th, two points to the good and on the same number of matches played. Coming away from the London Olympic with three points will make Hughes’ task much easier.
The Southampton board may have waited too long to sack Mauricio Pellegrino although they did choose the optimal moment when they finally acted. Arriving when he did Hughes was able to assess the squad in a competitive match with no bearing on their league status. Thanks to the international break he also has time to work with most of the squad before getting down to the real business. From daily training observations he should have already formed an opinion on who his better players are and where they’re best suited to play in his tactical setup.
During their 2-0 victory over Wigan, Sparky opted for a basic 4-4-2 formation, not the 4-2-3-1 he had preferred with Stoke. If the Welshman intends to stick with that shape, it will help the team settle. Southampton’s poor form this season cannot have been helped by Pellegrino’s constant tinkering with both shape and personnel. Hughes has only eight league games in which to work. He must choose soon and well to allow the team to gather any momentum they can.
Get the best from Gabbiadini or drop him
Given the circumstances there’s no time for patience. Manolo Gabbiadini took Southampton to the League Cup final last season and netted four Premier League goals in quick succession following his £15 million January switch from Napoli. He has talent. It just disappears for long stretches. This term he’s made 25 league appearances but struggled for goals and confidence in the final third. His 90th-minute equaliser against Burnley on February 24 was his first league strike since mid-October. The Saints desperately need a consistent scorer.
Charlie Austin picked up the slack at first, pumping in six goals in just under 600 minutes, but injuries have since limited his involvement.
Austin last featured during the Saints’ one-goal draw with Huddersfield in late December. He scored. After drawing a ban for violent conduct and then sustaining a hamstring tear, the 29-year-old is returning to full fitness. Hughes has said the former QPR standout will contend for the West Ham match if he responds well to more intensive training next week.
It’s clear that Austin excels when given an opportunity. The Hungerford native has proven he can lead the line alone. Should Gabbiadini continue to struggle, Hughes must place his faith in the Englishman’s recovery.
Shore up the back
It’s imperative Southampton be more resilient as a collective unit. Conceding needless goals on a regular basis has put the Saints in their predicament. They have kept just one clean sheet in 2018, ironically against Stoke.
Virgil van Dijk’s £75 million move to Liverpool left a hole in central defence. Mauricio Pellegrino wasn’t able to fill it in the January window. With little depth at centre-half Hughes’ only option may be to coach the existing defenders. Sometimes the manager’s faith can work wonders.
Tough row to hoe
Southampton have tricky fixtures in abundance between now and the season’s end. Beyond their six-pointer with West Ham games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester and Everton await. They will all be difficult. Then there is the South Coast derby against Bournemouth. That one is always intriguing.
The final two matches aren’t any easier. Swansea have been a different beast under Carlos Carvahal in recent months. Then it’s Pep Guardiola and Manchester City on the campaign’s final day. If the Sky Blues are still in the Champions League Hughes might catch a break with the Catalan rotating out his starters. He can’t rely on that happening however. The pressure is on the new boss to pick up results immediately.