Another away-day, another disaster.
City’s season on the road reached a new low this afternoon with a late flurry doing nothing to disguise 85 of the most woeful minutes. In a nutshell, one team played with purpose, vision, tempo and verve, and passed the ball with fluency and precision. The other was Norwich City.
Trailing 3-0 with little over five minutes remaining, City did – through Johan Elmander and Robert Snodgrass – give the Saints a late fright but, in keeping with the whole afternoon, any chance of a late equaliser was scuppered by yet more slapdash defending in the final seconds.
Alas it was an all too familiar story with Saints keeper, Artur Boruc – until that crazy ending – having little to do except shout at his defenders and kick the ball into touch.
And to think it all began with such hope…
Chris Hughton made five changes to the side that laboured to last week’s 1-1 draw with Stoke City; Steven Whittaker and Ryan Bennett earning recalls to the back line in place of Russell Martin and Seb Bassong respectively.
In midfield Anthony Pilkington was handed the wide-left berth ahead of Nathan Redmond and, in a move guaranteed to divide opinion, Wes Hoolahan was dropped to the bench at the expense of Jonny Howson; the first start for the ex-Leeds man since returning from his back injury.
Up front the lone striker role was handed to Gary Hooper; Ricky van Wolfswinkel dropping back to the substitutes bench.
In the absence of Martin and Bassong, City were led out by John Ruddy; a sun-bathed St Mary’s and a 2,000+ strong Yellow Army providing an ideal platform for City’s latest quest for away-day points.
Alas the first-half was to prove all too familiar for the travelling faithful with the cacophony of boos that greeted Kevin Friend’s half-time whistle telling the story. The Yellow Army had been typically magnificent throughout the opening forty-five but few could blame them for venting their spleen having witnessed probably for poorest half of a season that has been littered with them.
The ease with which Morgan Schneiderlin gave Saints their fifth minute lead was a sign of things to come, with the home side breathing new life into the ‘hot knife through butter’ cliche. The one-touch passing that led to the goal was Arsenal-like in its simplicity and execution but was done under little pressure. Too easy.
What followed was total footballing domination. City struggled in possession. Saints knocked it around at ease. City looked slow and ponderous. Saints played with zip and pace.
Every time Southampton pushed numbers forward City’s defence and midfield creaked and, even more alarmingly, Saints were sharper, faster and more determined in the tackle. A midfield that includes Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey is designed to be be strong, to not take a backward step and to win the 50/50s. It was was therefore more than a little worrying that it failed on every count.
The quality of passing from central midfield has long been questioned. Today’s first-half did nothing to allay those fears. Simply not good enough.
Hooper and Pilkington were both – from sporadic City attacks – to see the whites of Boruc’s eyes but neither able to test him. The last few minutes of the half were City’s but having witnessed the thirty-five that had gone before it offered only the slightest sliver of hope.
If there were one positive to be gleamed it was that City went in at the interval only one goal in arrears, but any hope of a second-half improvement was to soon prove unfounded.
On 56 minutes Adam Lallana was replaced by Ricky Lambert and it took the England international precisely one minute to make his mark on the game. Again the defending was of the flimsy variety with Joseph Yobo and Ryan Bennett both despatched with far too much ease before the ball was calmly slotted past a hopelessly exposed Ruddy.
Hughton’s triple substitution on 64 minutes – Johnson, Pilkington and Hooper off, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Nathan Redmond and Johan Elmander on – was clearly designed to add some attacking thrust but initially had little effect.
Instead it was Saints who prospered when, on 72 minutes, they breezed into a 3-0 lead. And again City’s defenders were left red-faced. Despite a fine close-range block by Ruddy the ball was kept alive and worked to Jay Rodriguez, who calmly picked his spot under no pressure.
It nearly got even worse. Rodriguez was to go just the width of a crossbar away from making it 4-0 before City’s attempted late late show.
Elmander – the subject of derision from much of the travelling support – was to make his point with an 85th minutes effort; his toe poke under the body of Boruc coming after he had pounced on some overly casual Saints defending.
A minute later it was 3-2, Elmander again involved. More careless Saints passing was seized upon by the Swede who cleverly fed van Wolfswinkel in the inside left channel. While his well-struck effort was initially saved by Boruc the rebound was hammered in – right-footed – by Snodgrass.
City proceeded to huff and puff and, thanks mainly to the long throws of Bennett, did ask one or two questions of the home defence late on but it was the home side who typically – and appropriately – had the final say.
A mistake by Alex Tettey – with City pushing numbers forward in search of a leveller – gave possession to Southampton. Two passes later and the ball was worked to Sam Gallagher who bundled the ball past Ruddy. Game over.
A 4-2 scoreline may look almost respectable but it shouldn’t disguise another dismal away-day. And there have been far too many of those.