Southampton have defied critics as the season’s surprise package until now but following back-to-back defeats, it is tempting to argue that the heightened expectation and on the south coast is starting to weigh heavily on Ronald Koeman’s side.
Still riding high in third, despite losses to Manchester City and Arsenal in recent days, the congested Christmas calendar will now surely test the Saints’ resolve. Koeman lamented the need to withdraw Toby Alderweireld through injury with the game drifting towards a stalemate in North London.
“Eleven against 11 against Arsenal is difficult. But 11 against 10 is more difficult,” said the Dutchman, rueful of having already made three substitutes. “A lot of players have hamstring problems because that’s about the number of games that they have to play.
“Southampton, or even other teams, we don’t have the number of players that Arsenal have. If you see what they have, we don’t have it. And that’s the problem for the little bit lower teams with this schedule of games in December.”
Two of Wednesday night’s replacements had been enforced, with the departures of Jack Cork and Dusan Tadic disrupting the visitors’ rhythm before the game entered its critical stage at the Emirates. The sight of Alderweireld limping off proved an invitation the irrepressible Alexis Sanchez seldom needs.
Two defeats against two of the traditional top four sides does not denote the wheels coming off, but having also experienced shortcomings at Tottenham and Liverpool, the argument that Southampton will fall short of breaking into the top four has never looked so convincing.
Finishing in a Champions League berth would replicate the feat of Everton in 2005, when another mitigating circumstance opened the door to an unfancied underdog. Big sides in bad moments of their cycles resembles Liverpool’s Istanbul destiny of 2015.
While Saints fans will keep the faith, unlike many of the dissenting voices draped in red and white scarves across the divide who left long before Sanchez pounced on Wednesday, the last four days have seen the power shift back towards the so-called elite.
In that time, only Everton of last season’s top seven have failed to pick up at least a victory, with Manchester United, City, Liverpool and Arsenal claiming maximum points. Southampton, through to the Capital One Cup quarter-finals, now face the daunting prospect of eight matches in 25 days (a game every three days) leading into the New Year.
A consistent line-up has formed the blueprint to Chelsea’s imperious form this campaign, winning games inside an hour before applying the handbrake. But the rigours of a season that has transformed Southampton into a scalp is now beginning to show.
Former head of recruitment Paul Mitchell worked so impressively in masterminding a solution to the summer exodus that it in turn earned him a reunion with Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. But, with the Saints now being forced to make changes, it is perhaps the less documented departures that will now test the cards Koeman has been dealt.
Both Gaston Ramirez and Dani Osvaldo were allowed to seek regular first-team football through loan deals as the transfer window drew to a close last September, and the depth of a small squad may now be expsoed by those fringe players left behind.
The recent spate of injuries is all the more ill-timed given striker Graziano Pelle’s apparent loss of form. Without a goal in six games, the speculation linking Burnley’s Danny Ings to the club, coupled with the imminent return of Jay Rodriguez, should spur the Italian to rediscover his mojo in front of goal.
A fortnight ago, the visit of United to fortress St Mary’s would have represented another opportunity to demonstrate the long road ahead for Luis van Gaal at Old Trafford. But buoyed by four successive league victories for the first time in a year, it is they who arguably enter Monday night’s fixture at the right time.
The seasoned Premier League followers among us nodded knowingly, erring on the side of caution when discussing Southampton’s autumn march up the league table. A Gael and a Chilean have brought winter’s bite, tempering their progress. How the Saints respond during this overdue run of difficult fixtures will go a long way to defining their season.