Shambolic Southampton hurtling towards relegation

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For so long they’ve been the poster boys of how to run a Premier League club.

An academy envied around the globe. A sell high, buy low player recruitment policy which has worked superbly. Overachieving season after season. Plucking managerial gems from overseas to work wonders. Europa League campaigns. Cup runs. Everything they’ve done has gone smoothly with four-straight top eight finishes in the PL table.

Until now. With just one win in their last 18 Premier League games, Southampton are staring relegation in the face in one of the biggest surprises of the current Premier League campaign.

But when you look at Southampton right now, should we be this surprised?

The South Coast club are hurtling towards relegation as their increasingly shambolic season hit a new low on Saturday in the 3-0 defeat at West Ham with players not only looking out of their depth but also showing a distinct lack of desire in a pivotal moment.

With seven games to go Saints occupy the final relegation place and despite everything they’re just two points from safety. They may still get out of this but it will likely be down to the poor form of Crystal Palace, Huddersfield and Swansea rather than their own good form in the final months of the season as they face five of the current top nine in their remaining games.

In his first Premier League game in charge of Southampton, Mark Hughes saw his team roll over early on and lose 3-0. It was the second game in a row Southampton had lost 3-0 to direct relegation rivals and they are running out of chances to save themselves from being relegated from the Premier League for just the second time in club history.

On the face of it, their squad has the talent to easily be sitting in midtable but with 13 draws (the most in the PL this season) they’ve often seemed scared to be positive and take the game to their opponents. On paper they should be battling Leicester, Everton and Watford to finish in seventh or eighth place. But something isn’t right. They are a nice team to watch, at times, with plenty of possession and sideways passes but there is not cutting edge, no drive and no real purpose to their play.

Too often it appears that their players are drifting, going through the motions and living off the success of the past few seasons when everyone exclaimed: “What a wonderful season from Southampton. How do they carry on doing this?”

This squad, which has been so hungry for success over the past six years since Saints were promoted back to the Premier League, seem to have suddenly lost their appetite. With long-term contracts dished out to Fraser Forster, Jack Stephens, Ryan Bertrand, Cedric Soares, Oriol Romeu and others, it appears this Saints team are in cruise control as huge deals were handed out mostly as a reward for performances in the past few seasons. The players must take most of the blame.

But the fans and board also have to take their share of their blame. Claude Puel was fired last season amid plenty of fan unrest for finishing in eighth place and reaching a cup final because his team were “too boring” to watch. How costly could that unrest prove?

Nothing changed under Puel’s replacement, Mauricio Pellegrino, who was fired at the start of this month after just five wins in 30 PL games. And nothing appears to be changing quickly under Hughes. You can question the desire of this group, but maybe they aren’t as good as we think. The sacking of two managers on the spin by the board in the expectation that some kind of miracle turnaround will occur must also be questioned.

Quite simply the culture of endlessly selling on their best players for huge profits, then replacing them with young, hungry players from elsewhere in Europe, has come back to bite them. Hard.

Nathan Redmond was supposed to be the direct replacement for Sadio Mane. He hasn’t been anywhere near Mane’s level. Wesley Hoedt came in as Virgil Van Dijk‘s replacement and has since lost his place in the Dutch squad for his shaky displays. Charlie Austin replaced Graziano Pelle but has been injured most of his time at Saints. Victor Wanyama was replaced by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Mario Lemina who were both at fault for the first two goals at West Ham.

When you start to add all of that up, it starts to make sense why Southampton are in the position they’re in. They no longer have a clear playing identity. Their recruitment team have stopped unearthing gems for relative peanuts. Their academy has stopped churning out ready-made internationals a la Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana.

Austin, Saints’ top scorer this season with six goals, returned from a three-month injury layoff on Saturday and looked stunned when speaking to the media after the defeat at West Ham.

“It just wasn’t good enough and we got what we deserved,” Austin said. “Seven games left, we’ve got to get out of this hole. We’ve given ourselves a massive mountain to climb now. We’ve got the players to do it but off that performance, we need to improve fast. We need to win and we need to win fast. That is it.”

Austin sounded hollow when he said he believed in this current set of players and the new management team to turn this around.

Saints have Arsenal away, Chelsea at home and Leicester away in their next three Premier League games, with the distraction of an FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea at Wembley on Apr. 22 also looming.

They simply have to cause upsets, just like they used to in the past at their tight, atmospheric home at the Dell. During the 1990s they pulled off great escape after great escape as one of the smallest clubs in the Premier League. Their current manager Hughes was part of some of those Saints teams and he needs to instill some kind of spirit, some kind of togetherness in a squad of international caliber players who seem to think they are too good to be playing in a team battling against relegation.

For Hughes, his first 45 minutes in charge of Saints in the Premier League was a horror show as he admitted the performance “surprised him greatly” given what he had seen in training since he took over.

“It maybe emphasized some of the problems the team has had of late in this season. We’re going to have to turn it around very quickly,” Hughes said. “We are running out of games. There has to be an understanding that we are in trouble here and we need to turn it around quickly.”

Among the players there doesn’t seem to be an understanding, or a realization, of the deep trouble they are in. Only games against Bournemouth and Swansea in their final seven outings represent realistic chances to gain points to save themselves.

The last time Southampton were relegated from the Premier League, in 2005, they spiraled into financial meltdown and almost went bust as they ended up at the bottom of the third tier on -10 points and were saved by a Swiss billionaire at the last moment. Their fall won’t be as dramatic this time around but these players don’t seem to have grasped the severity of the situation they’re in.

Under Chinese ownership since the start of this season, the Gao Family will not have expected to have bought 80 percent of Southampton for $294 million and see them struggling in the relegation zone.

Nobody did. And especially not the players. Not even now.

That is the biggest problem of them all and one that you can’t see Saints solving in the next seven games.

Southampton’s shambolic season has reached the pivotal juncture. It is now sink or swim time.

Right now you’d bet your mortgage on Saints sinking like a stone towards the second tier.

Benfica loanee Parks readies for playoffs with NYCFC

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Keaton Parks plays the kind of hard-to-quantify midfield role that sends both stat nerds and eye test takers to a very good place.

Barely 22, the New York City FC midfielder doesn’t stand out in any one particular area. Since arriving on loan from Benfica, the American shuttler (of sorts) ranks near the top of the club rankings in pass percentage and aerials won while chipping in tackles and successful dribbles.

[ MORE: PST talks public pitches, youth development with NYCFC director Reyna ]

He’s averaging near one key pass per game but has just a goal and an assist, due more to his responsibility in Dome Torrent’s system than a particular skill set (He has eight goals and seven assists across two-plus seasons between Varzim and Benfica B).

“In the midfield it really helps to play both sides of the ball,” Parks told ProSoccerTalk. “I take pride in doing that, and I love to make a tackle as much as getting in the attack and assisting or scoring goals. It doesn’t bother me that I’m not scoring or making all of the assists. I like to be the solid player who keeps the balance on the team.”

(Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images)

Parks has been an enigma to American soccer fans for some time in that he’s been in a celebrated club in Benfica but playing in a developmental role that’s near impossible to track without single-minded dedication to Portuguese football (Dramatic? Sure, but you try to catch every Liga Pro game).

But in moving to New York City FC to play under Dome Torrent, he’s had an easier transition than most due to his upbringing with Benfica, which annually ranks amongst the top possession teams in Portugal. Torrent, of course, left his last managerial gig at Girona in Spain to spent a decade-plus on Pep Guardiola‘s staff at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City.

“Dome likes to play a possession style, a confident style,” Parks said. “I still have to fight for my spot on the team but the playing style I was used to right away.

“You can see the experience Dome has, and he mirrors a little bit of what Pep does, so it’s been amazing to be able to learn from him and see the experiences of the players he’s been able to coach in his career.”

NYCFC begins its playoff run on Wednesday against Toronto FC at Citi Field in Queens, and Parks says he’s feeling better after missing three matches with injury.

And while he’s focused on the playoffs — “We want to win the Cup and be at the top” — there is a question of what’s next for him, still on the books at a perennial UEFA Champions League club but very important with a CONCACAF Champions League club.

[ MORE: MLS Playoffs preview/predictions ]

“I’m just going to be looking forward to whatever club I’m at next, whether here or back at Benfica or wherever I am and also with the U-23s going into Tokyo next summer.”

He’ll, in theory, be an imperative part to Jason Kreis, ironically a former NYCFC man himself, and the Yanks bid for a first Olympic run in three cycles. The team should be powerful, and Parks is happy.

“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “We have so much talent on the team with guys playing first division all over the world. I believe we can make a run all the way to these Olympics.”
NYCFC and Toronto FC kick off 7 p.m. ET Wednesday at Citi Field.

MLS conference semifinal preview and predictions

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We’re not sure we should be allowed to make Major League Soccer playoff predictions after getting two upset bids wrong in the first round, but we go again anyway.

No, DC United did not outlast Toronto FC at BMO Field nor were the Portland Timbers able to get a win over Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto but… we got the other four right?

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

It gets trickier at midweek for the conference semifinals, as two of those six victors from the weekend face well-rested one seeds (We suppose they could be rusty, not just well-rested).

NYCFC v. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
TFC 4-0 NYCFC (April 29)
NYCFC 1-1 TFC (Sept. 11)

Toronto hasn’t lost since Aug. 3 (5W-6D) and is well-equipped to deal NYCFC’s possession system on a postage stamp pitch. NYC’s only loss in its last 11 was a throwaway loss to a desperate Revolution side in New England. TFC has a lot of experience in spots like this, but Dome Torrent’s done an incredible job with City. It’s a coin toss, but ultimately it feels like that coin lands TFC side up. 2-1 aet.

Seattle v. Real Salt Lake  — 10 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
Seattle 1-0 RSL (April 6)
RSL 3-0 Seattle (Aug. 14)

This one’s also close, as RSL has a number of players who won’t be bothered by the pressure but man is this home field advantage a real one. The Sounders only lost two home matches this season, and haven’t lost a home playoff match under Brian Schmetzer. Call it 2-0 for Seattle.

Atlanta United v. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
ATL 1-1 Philly (March 17)
Philly 3-1 ATL (Aug. 31)

The Union are resilient, and Jim Curtin seeing success is an absolute joy. So deserved, but Frank De Boer is showing his mettle in making the tough decisions and Ezequiel Barco looks a terror. A side that is able to bring Tito Villalba and Pity Martinez off the bench is unfair. Atlanta, 3-1.

LAFC v. LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
Galaxy 3-2 LAFC (July 19)
LAFC 3-3 Galaxy (Aug. 25)

Can hardly wait for this one. Bob Bradley and Carlos Vela look to send Zlatan Ibrahimovic packing after a riotous summer competition. LAFC is so, so good, and the lack of rest for the Galaxy is a problem. Still, betting against Zlatan seems borderline insane, and Jonathan dos Santos has big game mettle of his own. We’ll call it 2-2 and a place in penalty kicks, where David Bingham’s the difference for the Galaxy in a history-writing upset that takes El Trafico to the next level. Yes, we are predicting for storylines now.

Champions League preview: Chelsea, Liverpool hit the road

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Frank Lampard has a selection headache amongst his wingers as he tries to figure out Chelsea’s best avenue to break down Ajax on Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League.

Youngsters Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic starred in the Blues’ weekend win, and Lampard also has Pedro and Willian available at Johan Cruyff Arena before a weekend visit to Burnley.

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

From ChelseaFC.com:

“Callum gave me that in his display from the start and Christian gave me that in his display coming on, and in terms of the wingers I have, Willian gave me that, Pedro gives me that so I have good selection problems when people come on and make a difference. That is what we are all about.

“The extra level that is the Champions League, the detail, the focus, concentration for 90 minutes, making the most of tiny moments, will be a test for all the young players, not just Callum.”

The good news for Pulisic in his bid to match wits with fellow USMNT (for now) player Sergino Dest is that he’s had experience on the UCL stage with Borussia Dortmund.

The other PL side in action is Liverpool, and the Reds will be expecting to get all three points in Belgium against Genk.

But Genk drew Napoli 0-0 at home on the second match day and the Reds will be wary of a slip-up.

“It’s a really good football-playing team,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “They are organized and brave in their positioning. They don’t play with the pressing line too much but go for second balls, have speed and good midfielders and very active full-backs.”

Klopp will not have Trent Alexander-Arnold (illness) and Joel Matip (knee).

Other highlights…

— American manager Jesse Marsch hopes to lead Red Bull Salzburg to a home win over Napoli when he matches wits with Carlo Ancelotti.

Antonio Conte‘s Inter Milan could really use a result against tricky Borussia Dortmund in Italy.

UEFA Champions League Wednesday schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Ajax v. Chelsea
RB Leipzig v. Zenit Saint-Petersburg

3 p.m. ET
Slavia Prague v. Barcelona
Red Bull Salzburg v. Napoli
Genk v. Liverpool
Inter Milan v. Borussia Dortmund
Lille v. Valencia
Benfica v. Lyon

Man City’s Guardiola issues Rodri update; Zinchenko also injured

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Man City boss Pep Guardiola expects to be without Rodri for at least a couple of matches after his heavily relied-on midfielder hurt his hamstring on Tuesday.

Rodri was removed from the match after 40 minutes, having partnered with Fernandinho at center back for the second-straight match.

[ MORE: Man City 5-1 Atalanta ]

A center mid and a fine one by trade, Rodri’s absence coupled with the still-hurt Aymeric Laporte leaves City significantly weaker in its heart.

“I think tomorrow we will know and hopefully it will be between 10 days if it is not broken,” Guardiola said. “If it is broken, it will be three weeks or one month.”

The club also announced before the match that Oleksandr Zinchenko had suffered a knee injury and will undergo tests.

City visits Aston Villa this weekend and then hosts Southampton in the League Cup and the Premier League before a visit to Atalanta in the Champions League.

That’s when Liverpool at Anfield arrives on the schedule, and the absence of Rodri would take some of the luster off of it for sure.