Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Southampton infected by losing habit
Richard Jolly, Elland Road
Nigel Adkins has recited Dale Wimbrow's poetry in a press conference and quoted Abraham Lincoln's words in his programme notes in the last week. He has gone from physio to Premier League manager in the space of a few years. He has used ten players in the widest wall ever constructed to defend a free kick.
But one of football's more unorthodox characters is also one of its more unsuccessful managers at the moment. After four promotions in six seasons, he has four points from nine games. Elimination from the Capital One Cup after making 11 changes may be the least of his worries, but Southampton's insipid ineptitude compounded Adkins' problems. If his ever-demanding chairman, Nicola Cortese, is making plans for Nigel, it isn't good news for the ever optimistic Merseysider. That rarest of creatures, he can be both beleaguered and upbeat at the same time.
Adkins' ability to overcome Championship opposition propelled Southampton to a second successive promotion in April. Even that deserted him at Elland Road, scene of one of Saints' most significant victories last season. That, admittedly, was a far stronger team than the second-string group who allowed Leeds to advance to the the last eight, but Southampton had a winning habit then. Losing threatens to be contagious now.
This was a thrashing, one that cannot just be explained by the fact Saints played on Sunday and which Adkins felt compelled him to omit all those who started against Tottenham. The scoreline would have been a more accurate reflection of the game but for the generosity of one ex-Portsmouth player, Luke Varney, who could have had a hat-trick but ended with a candidate for miss of the season. Another with a past at Fratton Park was left utterly unoccupied. Indeed, Saints did not muster a shot on Jamie Ashdown's goal until the 70th minute, and even then Emmanuel Mayuka hooked his effort well wide.
"We performed nowhere near what is expected for Southampton Football Club," Adkins admitted. "I made the changes, I take responsibility. We were poor."
They were diabolical. The common denominator between the first XI and the reserves is dreadful defending. Putting every outfield player in the wall was one novel approach, but they still cannot keep clean sheets. At their current rate of progress, Saints are on course to concede 110 league goals this season. The understudies to the under fire indicated they are even worse than the possible centurions.
In particular, Dan Seaborne was shocking. His evening included a woefully under-hit back pass that should have presented Varney with a goal - the striker struck wood instead - and a despairing tug at Michael Tonge to gift substitute Luciano Becchio the injury-time penalty that completed the scoring.
The surprise was that the margin between the teams was as narrow as it was for as long. "We should have scored more goals," Neil Warnock said. The culprits were his strikers. The unmarked El-Hadji Diouf headed wide from six yards after Varney missed an open goal from four. "Miss of the century," added Warnock. "But I thought he was man of the match." It took a midfielder to supply the required composure, Tonge sweeping his shot in after Varney, a threat with his direct running if not his wayward finishing, had darted to the byline.
Leeds' tally was belatedly doubled when the excellent Rodolph Austin burst forward from midfield and, after his shot was parried by the overworked Kelvin Davis, Diouf was left with an open goal. Unlike Varney, he did not miss. "I love goals like Dioufy's: tap ins," said Warnock, who has a renewed fondness for the Capital One Cup.
"I haven't really tried for the cup for a few years," he said. "I'd like to win it, but I don't know how far we'll go." Leeds are in the quarter-finals for the first time in 17 years, striding forward at a time when vanquished Southampton threaten to take a step back into the Championship.
Rather predictably, the Leeds fans launched into a chorus of: "Premier League, you're having a laugh". But Southampton, a club who may have come too far, too fast for their own good, really aren't.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Tonge. Warnock has the ability to get the best from the midfielder and Tonge is flourishing after his signing on loan from Stoke. A decade ago, he scored twice in a League Cup semi-final for Warnock's Sheffield United against Liverpool. Now he is in the same sort of form.
LEEDS VERDICT: Utterly dominant. While Southampton made a full complement of changes, it is worth remembering that Warnock also rotated. His squad players did him proud. The manager rested Becchio, his top scorer, and opted for Varney's ability to run the channels. A more leftfield move was considered with Warnock's coaching staff talking him out of a plan to play right-back Sam Byram in attack.
SOUTHAMPTON VERDICT: Awful. It was a day to show their lack of strength in depth but the manner of their capitulation was the most damning element. The one starter who deserves to be exempt from criticism is Davis: outstanding at Elland Road in March, he made several fine saves. Given Artur Borac's behaviour, the veteran may be required in the first team again.