In the week when Reading dispensed with the manager who won them promotion less a year ago it is perhaps time, ahead of their crunch match with Liverpool at St Mary’s, to assess the impact of Southampton’s decision to do likewise two months ago.
Because if the Royals’ sacking of Brian McDermott seemed harsh and untimely, it was nothing compared to Saints’ treatment of Nigel Adkins. Successive promotions and lifting the team to lower mid-table after a testing start was not enough to save the former Scunthorpe man, and it was a decision that was met with universal disdain. Not that Southampton’s eccentric chairman Nicola Cortese cared one jot.
But he might care a bit more if Adkins’ replacement doesn’t pick up the required points to stave off an immediate return to the Championship. Argentine Mauricio Pochettino was a leftfield choice to take over at St Mary’s, and it was always going to be a risk to employ a man who has no grasp of the language – let alone any previous experience of English football – at such a vital stage of the season.
And it is fair to say the jury is still out on Pochettino. Southampton have taken just six points from the seven games he has been in charge and are just three points above third-bottom Wigan having played a game more. It is an all too precarious position with just ten games left, and it is unlikely to be a comfortable final few weeks.
And yet, I would argue Saints have played better under the former Espanyol boss than that points tally suggests and I think they will eventually be alright. But as he changes the style of play, the teething problems are costing them points and I think the same thing will happen when Liverpool go to St Mary’s this weekend.
Southampton are 3/1, with the draw at 23/10 and even though Liverpool are odds-on at 83/100, I think Brendan Rodgers’ in-form side can pick up a fifth straight win in all competitions.
I am still wary about backing Liverpool at short odds – they have thrown in too many memorable stinkers for you not to be – but there is a sense things are coming right at Anfield and the Reds are in as good a place as they have been all season. Four wins on the trot, three of which have come in the Premier League, is their best run under Rodgers and they have the beating of Southampton.
Since losing in abject fashion at Stoke on Boxing Day, Liverpool have lost just two of their ten league games, one of which came at Old Trafford, winning six and picking up away draws at Arsenal and Manchester City along the way. It is a prolonged piece of very good form during which 27 goals have been scored, and there is no knowing how big the positive effect from last Sunday will be, when they picked up their first win against a top six side with a gutsy 3-2 win over Tottenham.
But if Liverpool have struggled against the top teams, they have had little trouble against the division’s strugglers, boasting a 9-3-2 record against teams in the bottom half, scoring 32 goals in those games.
By contrast, Southampton have lost eight of their 15 games against the top half sides, winning just once and conceding 30 goals. Only Wigan have a worse record.
So I fancy Liverpool, but to get more value on an odds-on away (never my favourite thing to bet on) I’ll take the 9/5 on a Liverpool halftime/fulltime double result. It seems to be all or nothing with Rodgers’ side, where they need a good start in order to get anything from the match.
In 13 of the Reds’ 18 wins in all competitions this season they have been leading at half time, while Southampton are the exact opposite: Saints have been behind at the break in 13 league matches this season, with only Reading losing after 45 minutes as often.
If Liverpool can bypass Southampton’s high pressing midfield, then Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and the like can have a field day in the space between the lines on the counter, and it could be a tough afternoon for Saints, making the 9/5 a good bet.