When Southampton unceremoniously sacked Nigel Adkins and replaced him with Mauricio Pochettino back in January, they did so without remorse and for the good of the club moving forwards. Now, following a 1-0 defeat by Norwich City on Saturday afternoon, the Argentine coach may have to do something similar with regards to his striking options if the Saints are to continue on their apparent upward curve.
The signing of Italian international striker Pablo Osvaldo has rightly been seen as something of a coup for the South Coast club. Intelligent, powerful and technically adept, the £13.2million signing from AS Roma arrived at St. Mary's Stadium following a team-leading 16 goals in 29 Serie A appearances in 2012-13.
Additionally, Osvaldo's arrival has seen him become the highest paid player in the club's history and the 27-year-old is very much Pochettino's man, the two having worked together at Espanyol previously. Handed his full debut at Carrow Road, Osvaldo lined up in partnership alongside Rickie Lambert, the striker who has been a constant in the Saints XI during their rise from League One and whose goalscoring prowess has recently led to his international bow, in the Southampton attack.
However, having tinkered with his usual formation to utilise both target men and tricky playmaker Adam Lallana, Pochettino will have been left somewhat perturbed as both men failed to live up to their respective billings and struggled against Norwich's no-nonsense defensive pairing of Michael Turner and Sebastian Bassong.
Certainly the Saints enjoyed the majority of possession, and while Lallana, operating in the hole in a 4-3-1-2 formation, was the games outstanding player (until surprisingly being substituted midway through the second half), chances for their new look strike duo were few and far between. One turn and shot from Osvaldo during the second period hinted at his quality, whilst Lambert thundered a shot directly at Ruddy, but that was largely the extent of their combined efforts.
There were occasions when the two did link up—the aforementioned Lambert effort came from an Osvaldo flick—events at Carrow Road suggest that theirs is not a natural partnership.
All too often they both looked to drop into similar positions. Unlike those fabled big-man, little-man partnerships of yesteryear, or those like Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, it appeared a little forced and rather like both knew they had to tailor their game to the other. In the end, it suited neither, just as the end result didn't suit their side.
Not only that however, the ramifications of the two playing together could be felt throughout the Saints performance. Despite all the decent passing exchanges in midfield by Pochettino's men, having two strikers with similar traits occupying a similar area on the field (witness the FourFourTwo statszone "Player Influence" map and the closeness of Lambert and Osvaldo) meant that the Saints lacked the same speed and directness when transitioning from defence to attack and also made them somewhat more narrow.
Southampton have lost their usual fluency by trying to smoosh Lambert and Osvaldo into the same team.— Bethnal Y and G (@BethnalYG) August 31, 2013
Southampton's penchant for counter attacking at pace was something which startled opponents last season and led to some of their more eye-catching results following his January arrival. It also brought the best out of Jay Rodriguez, whose key offerings of pace and verticality added an extra dimension to the side.
Rodriguez, however, was left on the bench with Osvaldo preferred, and neither of the three central midfielders starting against Norwich—Victor Wanyama, Morgan Schneiderlin and James Ward-Prowse—nor Lallana offer the same kind of directness. Lallana is a tricky player, adept at finding space in between the lines, but is more of a 10-yard dribbler than a 50-yard runner. Moreover, the others in that midfield area are either passers (Ward-Prowse), destroyers (Wanyama) or a mixture of the two (Schneiderlin).
As such, having moved away from their customary 4-2-3-1 formation, the Saints were somewhat narrow, and though both full-backs, Daniel Fox and Calum Chambers, looked to get forward, they had little directly in front of them to work with.
All too often they resorted to crossing from deep(er) positions than their front two—both excellent aerially—would have liked and, according to FourFourTwo statszone, no Saints player actually crossed from the byline at any point during the match. As with the new-look strike duo, efforts in wide areas didn't flow naturally and again felt rather forced.
By no means was it the worst performance that you'll see from a Premier League side this season. But having spent so heavily during the transfer window and having presented themselves to the world this summer as a club, who are actively looking to be increasingly upwardly mobile, this was a performance where Pochettino's men disappointed.
It was a far cry from some of Pochettino's best performances since his arrival and wasn't a patch on the opening day win at West Brom, where, despite only winning 1-0, they offered and created plenty.
Thus, the Argentine coach may now have to make a decision as cold and calculating as that which saw him handed his job in the first place. Certainly, he'll look again after the international break at Lambert-Osvaldo partnership and the other connotations that it has for his side, such as the formation and stylistic changes.
But, after a disappointing unveiling, if the 4-3-1-2 formation and the new-look strike force doesn't click into gear in their next game against West Ham United on September 15, then change could well be afoot.
And with Pochettino having spent big to prize Osvaldo from the Eternal City, then if change is forthcoming, Rickie Lambert's status in the Southampton starting lineup could be severely under threat.
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