April 24, 2024

To enhance their chances of promotion, Southampton must go back to basics.

Russell Martin is a manager that adheres strictly to his principles, with some applauding his dedication to his values while others may criticize his approach as inflexible.

Southampton made it two victories in a row with a 4-2 triumph over struggling Sunderland on Saturday, after losing three in a row before a 4-3 win over Birmingham City the previous week.

Scoring four goals in a row is excellent and a positive sign for the promotion push; however, the Saints cannot continue to concede goals at their current pace since they will not be able to score as freely every game, which will cost them.

Southampton’s recent leaky defence has coincided with a recent tactical shift from Martin, with captain Jack Stephens being shoehorned into what was once an established defence after missing the majority of the first half of the season due to injury.

Russell Martin must stop Jack Stephens experiment

The fact that Martin gave Stephens the captain’s armband at the start of the season puts the Southampton manager in a tricky situation.

Stephens started the first four league games of the season before being injured against QPR, which sidelined him until mid-December. In his absence, Southampton eventually settled on Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Jan Bednarek as their central defensive pairing, and the two formed an outstanding relationship that saw Southampton play 25 games unbeaten in all competitions while conceding only 16 league goals.

Martin has been eager to find a way to incorporate Stephens back into the team since his comeback. Stephens has played both right and left back in recent months, but it appears like Martin has decided to put Stephens centrally and Harwood-Bellis at right back.

The absence of star player Kyle Walker-Peters due to injury has contributed to this current lineup, but there is a growing sense that Martin’s desire to squeeze square pegs into round holes to appease his captain is harming the team.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s postponed game against Preston, Martin said: “I think we’re blessed with the centre-halves we have, so it’s up to us to find the best solution to get them all on the pitch.”

Given Southampton’s success this season has been built on playing with a traditional back four, with forward-thinking full-backs in Walker-Peters and Ryan Manning, it is difficult to argue that the recent change has been unsettling, as evidenced by Southampton conceding 18 goals in the last eight games.

Taylor Harwood-Bellis must play centrally over Stephens

Manchester City's Taylor Harwood-Bellis makes £20m Southampton transfer  admission - HampshireLive

 

Martin has praised Stephens as a ‘great leader,’ but that alone is not enough to justify inserting the 30-year-old into the team.

With Walker-Peters expected to return for Southampton’s next home game against Middlesborough, Martin must return to the back four that has impressed for the bulk of the season.

Stephens will slip to the bench, with Harwood-Bellis and Jan Bednarek resuming their combination with Walker-Peters and Manning on either side.

Stephens struggled in his preferred position during the win over Sunderland and was eventually sacrificed following Sunderland’s comeback. James Bree came on at right-back, and Harwood-Bellis returned to the middle, giving the Saints a much more balanced look.

Martin’s decision to replace Stephens may indicate that he realizes the problem caused by the tactical change, and it also implies that Harwood-Bellis is still seen as the superior player by his manager.

It is impossible to argue that Stephens did not deserve to be replaced, given that he only won a fourth of his duels, committed two fouls, was dribbled past once, and lost possession seven times in his 73 minutes.

Martin must now return to the back four that propelled Southampton to second place just a few weeks ago if the club is to continue its campaign for automatic promotion.

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