April 13, 2024

Southampton host Preston North End to St Mary’s on Wednesday night in another must-win game as they attempt to build momentum heading into the last ten games of the season.

Russell Martin has his job cut out in the promotion fight, with his Southampton side now fourth in the Championship and their form deteriorating at a critical point in the season.

After going 25 games unbeaten in all competitions from the end of September to the beginning of February, they have already lost four of their past six. The Saints’ main problem is their defense, which has conceded 13 goals in six games following Saturday’s 4-3 victory over ten-man Birmingham City.

Preston travel to St Mary’s in strong form, having picked up ten points from the last 12 available and lying just three points out of the playoffs. If Southampton are to win consecutive games, they will need to be significantly more resolute defensively than they have been in previous games, and Martin must make one critical personnel move to help them do so.

Why James Bree must start against Preston

With Southampton’s finest player this season, Kyle Walker-Peters, sidelined with an injury incurred against Liverpool in the FA Cup, Martin chose to start Taylor Harwood-Bellis at right-back against Birmingham, with Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens at centre-back and Ryan Manning on the left.

Many fans believe Martin’s attempts to integrate captain Stephens into a squad that was defending so effectively during the unbeaten streak, when the skipper was usually missing, are harming the team in order to accommodate one guy. Southampton conceded only 17 goals in 25 games in all competitions, thanks to a stable back four, with Harwood-Bellis and Bednarek developing a particularly strong partnership throughout that time.

In his pre-Preston press conference, Martin effectively confirmed that he has made changes to the side to try to shoehorn Stephens in, saying: “I think we’re blessed with the centre-halves we have so it’s up to us to find the best solution to try and get them all on the pitch”.

Given how effectively Southampton had performed with a more conventional back four – two natural full-backs and two central defenders – changing that at such a critical time of the season is misguided. With James Bree returning from an injury that has kept him out since before Christmas in the FA Cup defeat to Liverpool, Martin should start the 26-year-old at right-back against Preston in midweek.

Bree made his first league start of the season against Preston in late October, with Manning sidelined, and his strong performance in an unnatural left-back role earned him a starting spot in the four subsequent games.

The game in late October was memorable for a last-minute equaliser from a Gavin Bazunu header from a corner kick; however, the goal was later ruled an own goal. However, it is also the night that Bree relaunched his Southampton career after struggling since signing in January to rejoin with his Luton Town manager Nathan Jones, who left just weeks later.

Bree is a great defensive alternative, and his right-back experience will give the team a much more balanced feel than playing a central defender in the role with Walker-Peters absent. He also provides a greater option in possession since, despite being more conservative than Walker-Peters, he does attempt to get into ideal crossing positions and use his cultured right foot to deliver.

What has Russell Martin said about Bree?

Bree ruled out of festive fixtures as he prepares for second injury scan -  Yahoo Sport

 

Martin is a fan of Bree, and the full-back’s time in the side in October and November demonstrates that if you impress when you arrive, you will hold your position under the Southampton manager.

Southampton have certainly missed having Bree as an option at the start of 2024, with his ability to play at either right or left-back providing Martin with a good rotation option and allowing him to approach more difficult games with slightly more practicality due to his superior defensive instincts when compared to Manning.

Speaking in early October, a few weeks before the Preston game that resurrected his Saints career, Martin praised a guy who has had to wait his turn at the club.

Martin stated, “The way he has trained, the way he is as a professional, the way he is as a character–he is one of the nicest, greatest teammates you can find. He is quite humble and works extremely hard. “He has genuine quality.”

“He is quite resilient. His professional history demonstrates this. He had an early move that did not go as planned. Then he moved out on loan and found a house that was perfect for him in Luton.”

“He recovered and got a job here, but then he went through another bad time. He is a better player than he thinks. It’s up to us to get that out of him.”

While starting Bree against Preston will present Martin with a difficult option amongst his three center defenders, it appears that he must make this decision in order to give Southampton the best chance of winning another big game.

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