Southampton’s latest loss felt familiar – and significant. It is hard to see a way out

Each of Southampton’s recent meetings with Brentford has felt meaningful.

They came at critical times in the season. In hindsight, every game, in one way or another, tipped the scales and heightened the emotions.

The first Premier League game was played at St Mary’s in January last year. Well oiled and at their best, Southampton won 4-1. More importantly, it was the first home game before ownership group Sport Republic.

Quite predictably, however, the second leg in May showed how quickly Southampton can go from relative stability to implosion. After a win in 10 league games, tensions had developed. In a 0:3 defeat, the first sounds of anger against Ralph Hasenhüttl could be heard.

The last meeting before Wednesday’s clash was another 3-0 away defeat. The game itself was one-sided, but the biggest impacts came after full-time. What was shocking was Nathan Jones’ bizarre eight-minute press conference, in which he completely broke up. Jones spoke of “compromising” his values, and in a thinly veiled message to the board, he said “certain people in the village” would undermine him.

It’s not hard to see that the farewell shot, it turned out, was aimed at Rasmus Ankersen and the man who replaced him. By this time Ruben Selles had been increasingly marginalized by Jones, particularly in the post-Brentford days. In the last week of training before his sacking, the sessions were run entirely by Jones and his Luton Town coaching cohort, with Selles’ remaining influence dissipating.

“I don’t want to go there, sorry,” Selles replied when the athlete asked him to compare the principles of the game then with those of today. It was one of those rare instances where what the manager didn’t say felt the most telling than what he did.

Southampton have lost six of their last seven home Premier League games and have suffered more home defeats (eight) than any other team this season (Picture: Dan Mullan/Getty Images).

Building togetherness and trust has been the message since Selles took full control. A squad that splintered under Hasenhuttl and continued to drift under Jones had to be electrified. To do this, Selles had to introduce techniques that aided belief.

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A big part of Selles’ approach is to use muscle memory. In the back winter, he didn’t have time to overload players with new information, especially when confidence was so low.

Instead, Selles set about rebuilding Southampton’s strong pressing strengths, which he hoped would be emboldened by renewed courage. If it could make players believe in the work and reassure them that they are more than capable of surviving in the Premier League despite the turmoil, such a framework could bring short-term gains.

After a deserved draw at Manchester United, a return to St Mary’s against the same side that had inflicted lasting damage just 39 days earlier seemed the perfect yardstick for measuring progress.

Brentford presented a different challenge than Old Trafford. They are the Premier League team most comfortable going wide from goal kicks. For Southampton, a team that derives much of its success from heavy turnover, Brentford is a style clash. After all, just over a month ago they had been stung by their directness when all three goals came from crosses.

The significant impact of the previous three games against Brentford is clear and Wednesday’s latest meeting could prove equally significant. The 2-0 defeat might have tipped the scales. Despite the impetus that Selles brought, naivety remains.

Selles made two changes ahead of the game. Substituting for Romeo Lavia and Theo Walcott were Ibrahima Diallo and Mohamed Elyounoussi, both of whom were frequently reviled and regularly left out. The staff didn’t want to risk starting three games in a week given their injury history.

Ultimately, however, the two inclusions symbolized how Southampton took one step forward but two back. Elyounoussi didn’t offer the pace of Walcott, while Diallo struggled in a position that requires guts and technical ability to receive from his keeper. He quickly drew the ire of the followers. Southampton’s emotional leader Jan Bednarek asked for silence in the stands as Diallo played another pass from the back, but by that point team-mates were already in a state of uneasiness.

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If they needed to be reminded at all, Southampton had been warned within the first quarter of an hour that Brentford posed a threat from flanks. Ivan Toney was left at the back post before Gavin Bazunu had to save with his legs from Bryan Mbeumo after the first header. When Toney finally bundled a corner drill over the line, it came as no surprise to anyone.

Southampton were a pace and unable to build game patterns. Selles had returned to 4-2-2-2, with Elyounoussi and Kamaldeen Sulemana drifting in with the width of the full-backs. It made Southampton vulnerable to the transition and especially to the speed of Kevin Schade.

Southampton players are hard workers, but they don’t always have the ingenuity to do it. When the 6ft 7in (201cm) tall Paul Onuachu was introduced in the 66th minute, the teammates opted for a cross…all the time.

A total of 32 shipments were sent to the box – three times more than Brentford’s tally – and none found their intended destination. Southampton’s goal-shooting problem has existed for seasons but has never been felt as severely as it is now. Only two players, James Ward-Prowse and Charly Alcaraz, have scored since the World Cup.

Southampton went from attempting precision in the first half to playing percentages in the second. The habits Selles was trying to instill were lost in the panic.

Brentford was more on the road. They wasted time and provoked Southampton into unnecessary, time-wasting scuffles. Don’t underestimate the difference between a battle-hardened outfit and a naive one.

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Every Southampton player knew the ramifications of defeat. It made her push desperately, only to leave her unprotected for Brentford’s second. The players gazed up at the rainy sky as St. Mary’s gave way to rows of empty red seats.

That final showdown with Brentford felt familiar: it was painful and momentous. They leave Southampton bottom of the Premier League and there is little sign that that is likely to change any time soon.

(Top Photo: Robin Jones/Getty Images)


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