Southampton are finding that Ward-Prowse alone can’t stave off relegation
Nottingham Forest kept giving Southampton ways back into this crucial Premier League match, but Saints couldn’t take them and relegation now seems likely.
Well, it’s not mathematical yet, but as the weeks go by and Southampton continue to resolutely refuse to pick up any wins, to say this aloud starts to feel more like something of a comfort blanket than a cold, hard statement of fact.
It does remain possible that the Saints could win all their last three games of the season, while three of Nottingham Forest, Everton, Leicester City and Leeds United lose all of theirs, but possibility isn’t the same as plausibility and with each passing game the thought that continues to fill the mind is, ‘well, three of them have to fall at some point, and why shouldn’t one of them be Southampton?’
The likelihood of that three not containing the Saints is reducing to a singularity. Pretty soon it will be mathematical, and the opportunities to make this not so are already considerably diminished. Defeat at The City Ground would leave Southampton requiring permutations, and their only hope going into this game was Nottingham Forest’s form, their recent win against Brighton & Hove Albion being the only bright spot amid a run of defeats which has left them in a situation which is fairly perilous in its own right.
As Southampton slide from view, their shortcomings have become all the more apparent. They explode from the stalls in this match, pressing and hassling, penning Forest back in their third of the field, but to practically no material effect whatsoever. And then a long ball releases Brennan Johnson, he passes inside for Taiwo Awoniyi, and Forest have the lead. Four minutes later it’s 2-0, Awoniyi again, with the marking being at best… vague. But Southampton aren’t a bad team. There are no bad teams at this level of professional football anymore. And three minutes later they pull one back. A lifeline, a route back into the match.
Two minutes from half-time, they concede a penalty kick. 3-1. Gibbs-White.
Early in the second half, Southampton see the whites of Nottingham Forest eyes. Five minutes in, James Ward-Prowse clips the ball over and Vojnovic Lyanco heads in. The boot is now on the other foot. A feint strain of “When The Saints Go Marching In” can be heard drifting across The City Ground amid the crackling nervous tension. Ward-Prowse has found his aim. Further free-kicks cause momentary flapping in the Forest defence. Southampton are now dominating possession, every delivery into the Forest penalty area causing a collective inhalation of breath among the 30,000 home supporters.
By the midway point in the second half, the match essentially feels like a cup tie. Every refereeing decision is met with howling derision from somewhere, every misplaced pass with a collective groan. Southampton are pressing and pressing. And then they concede again. Forest break and the soft-centred Southampton defence opens up in front of them. A ball in from the right is deliciously teed up by Gibbs-White for Danilo to sweep the ball past McCarthy and in to extend Forest’s lead again.
And this time it is too much. The fourth goal has acted like taking the lift off a pressure cooker, the nervous energy vanishing to be replaced by joyous singing. The Forest players respond, pushing forward to try and kill Southampton off altogether, but eventually the atmosphere settles again. Well, as close as it’s going to at The City Ground. Nottingham Forest have been here before. They’ve seen their team drop more points from winning positions at home than any other in the Premier League this season. They’re nervously running down the clock.
And when push comes to shove, you just can’t really see how this Southampton team is going to find two – ideally three – goals in a handful of minutes, even against a Nottingham Forest defence which is perfectly capable of momentary lapses of reason itself. But there’s still time for more drama. As the clock ticks over ninety minutes a free-kick is flicked in by Augusto Felipe, a most unlikely source, only for the beady eye to step in and give a narrow offside.
Within a couple of minutes the ball is up the other end, with an almost absurdly clumsy challenge by Sam Sturridge on Romeo Lavia handing Southampton a surprise penalty. Ward-Prowse, the set-piece specialist, steps up and thumps the ball down the middle with meaning to reduce Forest’s lead to 4-3, with as much as five or six minutes still to play. But this time, there isn’t enough and at the final whistle they celebrate as though they’ve won a cup match. In a sense, they have.
These tropes are common among teams near the bottom of the Premier League this season. Southampton can control possession for periods of games, but this control often doesn’t lead to anything and they can be tripped up quite easily on the break. That double pivot of looking vulnerable defensively and being ineffective throughout long periods of possession is what ultimately does for them. Southampton supporters surely know that “it’s not mathematical” only really presents itself as an argument when there’s nothing else left to say. James Ward-Prowse being outstanding on set-pieces is not going to keep a club in the Premier League by itself.
Nottingham Forest mis-fired at points throughout this match. It wasn’t difficult to see why they started the evening just one place above Southampton in the table. But it also wasn’t difficult to see the reason why the gap between them was six and now nine points. Southampton have James Ward-Prowse, little else, and all the desperate scrambling through lengthy stoppage-time periods in the world in search of an equaliser can’t mask that.
It’s also worth pointing out that this is not a failure of this one match, any specific player or the manager. Southampton have been in decline for a while. Root and branch reform is required. At least, they may console themselves, they were entertaining with it, on this occasion.
It’s not mathematical, but that point may now only be one game away.
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