|Is Adkins about to fall victim to his own success? Opposition profile|
Fri 16th Nov 2012 01:15 by Clive Whittingham
Despite achieving consecutive promotions, Southampton manager Nigel Adkins is under increasing pressure after a summer of big spending on the wrong areas of his team.
What makes this Saturday's game at Loftus Road even more crucial than the twelfth game for a team on an eleven match winless run would be usually is that QPR's opponents Southampton are in an equally dire situation. Rangers manufactured a situation for themselves last season where they needed to beat Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Swansea and Stoke to stay in the Premier League by losing crucial games against the likes of Blackburn, Bolton and Wolves who were around them at the bottom of the league. This year they're creating a situation where teams are already pulling away to an irretrievable level before the winter has even set in – QPR need wins fast, but what they don't need is to hand points to the few teams they still have within striking distance.
That the Saints are struggling on their first top flight appearance in seven years should not come as any great surprise. They were a League One team the season before last and have flown through the leagues under the always ultra-positive influence of former Scunthorpe manager Nigel Adkins. Back when football was an altogether more likeable sport the expectations on Adkins and the Saints for this season would have been close to zero – well done for getting this far so quickly, give it your best shot, if we go down we'll be well placed to come back stronger next time. Two consecutive promotions after several years of mismanagement both on the field and in the boardroom should have provided Adkins with enough credit to survive a relegation back to the second tier and even a poor start to the following campaign before anybody even thought of calling for him to be sacked.
But while Mark Hughes could well be facing his final game as QPR manager this Saturday if the result goes against him, Adkins too could well find himself looking for another job if Rangers do finally get that elusive victory against his side just 12 league games since he secured promotion into this division in the first place. He might well be wishing he hadn't bothered.
Adkins has three key problems that threaten his position. The first of which is the serious backing he had in the transfer market during the summer. While there is some debate about just how many of Saints' signings were Adkins' choices, the club spent big money to bring in Uruguayan midfielder Gaston Ramirez from Bologna (£12m) and young striker Jay Rodriguez from Burnley (£7m) among others. Not only did both these players look overpriced – Ramirez's talent is undoubted but two Premier League quality players at half the price or even four decent pros at a quarter may have been more sensible, while Rodriguez isn't even a regular in the England Under 21 squad and cost at least double what he should have done – but they also play in the wrong position.
Scoring goals has not been a problem for Southampton in recent times and Rickie Lambert – frequently benched this season for reasons best known to the manager – has shown already that he could easily be this season's Grant Holt given regular opportunities. However, keeping them out has proved challenging and although Maya Yoshida and Nathaniel Clyne were signed, the defence looked weak at the start of the season and has proved to be just that; Southampton have conceded 29 in 11 league games so far. They're already onto their third goalkeeper with veteran Kelvin Davis struggling badly in the early games, his hastily arranged replacement Artur Boric suspect in the fitness and temperament stakes, and now Paulo Gazzaniga stepping into the breach when, at 20 and having just arrived from Gillingham, he was surely bought with seasons way off in the future in mind.
Money was spent in entirely the wrong part of the team but it was spent all the same, and whether Adkins was responsible for the players purchased or not he is under pressure to turn that big investment into results.
Ordinarily that would still be fine; mistakes happen, spend some of the credit accumulated by two consecutive promotions, nothing was expected of you anyway, try and get a defender in this January if you can but if not let’s make sure we're well set for next season. But backing in the transfer market isn't the only thing applying pressure to Adkins – another problem he has is the success of Norwich City since their promotion 12 months previously.
The Canaries, like Southampton , came up from League One to the Premier League after an absence of several years through consecutive promotions. Despite the rapid rise they have made a very decent fist of things, surviving with plenty to spare last season and starting this campaign reasonably well despite losing the influential manager who brought them this far to Aston Villa in the summer. When Norwich came up 18 months ago people said they'd gone too high too soon, scoffed at their budget signings from the Championship that even their own fans dubbed "Premier League-lite" and laughed off any suggestion that Grant Holt – formerly with Rochdale, Barrow and Shrewsbury Town – could make any impact at all in the "best league in the world" (copyright Richard Keys).
Norwich showed what could be achieved, on a modest budget, by keeping faith with players who got them there in the first place and relying on sound management and team spirit. They're now a case study used to hang managers like Mark Hughes and Nigel Adkins – particularly, in the latter case, because he has a very similar striker to Holt in Rickie Lambert who has already scored four Premier League goals in a struggling side this season but for some reason struggles to get a starting place. Norwich have shown that consecutive promotions can turn into consolidated Premier League status and mean that expectations on Southampton are higher than they really should be.
And of course the third issue is one of money. Earlier this year BT made a sudden, unexpected attack on the rights to live Premier League football. Going into the final round of negotiations they were actually the top bidder for all seven packages of top flight matches from next season and as Sky's business in this country is almost entirely based around exclusive rights to Premier League matches they were forced to cough up big time. It means a deal that was worth just over £1.25bn when it was signed three years ago has rocketed to £3bn for the next three campaigns and it's a pattern that is being repeated around the world. NBC recently nabbed the US rights from Fox and ESPN by offering more than double the previous price and across the globe broadcasters are paying double and triple what they paid previously. QPR made £43m from TV rights and prize money for finishing fourth bottom last season and next season the seventeenth placed team will make at least double that. The gap between the quality of the newly minted Premier League teams, and the Championship ones which are now tightly regulated and can only be built on a percentage of turnover, is set to grow. This is not the time to be relegated – whether you've come too high too soon or not.
Another thing Adkins has going for him over Mark Hughes, in addition to previous success he's brought to his club, is that Southampton have walked the path of salvation with Harry Redknapp once before, and found only relegation lurking at the other end. While 'Arry hangs over Hughes like an omnipresent vulture waiting to pick over his carcass when the inevitable death finally arrives, it's safe to say that Southampton would think more than twice about jumping back into bed with the man who oversaw their last demotion. Other obvious replacements are few and far between. What he doesn't have going for him is that while Hughes has a publicly supportive chairman who has done everything he can to make his manager feel secure in the job, Adkins has Nicola Cortese who is, well, a bit unpredictable and weird.
It looks and feels like a do or die day for both bosses.
We're in the welcome and unusual position this week of having a website that covers our opposition on the same network as us. We welcome Nick, editor of our sister site The Ugly Inside, to give his opinions on the game this weekend. We've also put the same questions to Saints fans on their message board – which you can use and post on with your LFW log in details – so click here for further thoughts from the south coast.
What do you put Southampton 's poor start to the season down to? Especially considering how well Norwich did the previous year after two consecutive promotions.
Saints poor start can be put down almost entirely to our poor performance in the summer transfer window. Most supporters agreed that we needed some premier experience in the side and that as a minimum we needed a new goalkeeper, two central defenders and a couple of pacy widemen, those five key signings would have added exactly what was needed to the squad.
What we ended up with was a plethora of players in areas that we were already strong i.e. centre of midfield and up front. In the key areas we only signed an inexperienced 20 year old keeper from Gillingham and on deadline day a Japanese centre half who had been playing in Holland . Indeed of all the summer signings only Steve Davis from Rangers had Premier League experience and that was five years ago. In short we spent £33 million on the wrong players in the wrong positions.
Norwich built their success on buying wisely and not changing a winning formula. We not only bought poorly but the manager has had a new playing style forced upon him, with the club deciding that all teams from kids upwards should play a 4-5-1 system instead of the managers preferred 4-4-2. This, along with the weakness in key areas in central defence and out wide, has led to chaotic performances.
What is the feeling around the position of Nigel Adkins as manager? Are the fans still behind him? Are the board? How long has he got?
The fans are staunchly behind the manager. There is a feeling that having taken us to two successive promotions he deserves the chance to see this season through. Many fans consider that he hasn't been able to buy the players he wanted - certainly early in the summer he alluded to needing to bring in central defenders and wide men and this didn't materialise despite at least one key signing, Alexander Buttner, announcing on Twitter that he was joining Saints and the transfer not happening. Buttner is now at Man Utd.
Whether the chairman is behind him is a different matter. The feeling is that he isn't and that Adkins would have perhaps gone already if they had a replacement lined up. Adkins himself has even alluded to the fact his position is far from secure. If Saints lose at QPR the coffin lid will be on, although it might be a couple of weeks before the nails are driven in.
Southampton spent some very big transfer fees on a couple of players in the summer - how have the new arrivals settled in? Are they viewed as good signings? How are they playing?
As mentioned before the new arrivals were in positions we had strength in. At the back Yoshida isn't Premier quality at present and is sometimes naive in his defending. Davis in midfield cant seem to command a regular place and is no better or worse than what we already had at the club. Up front we signed two despite the fact that we were reverting to only one up fron - this left us with five expensive forwards to pick from before Billy Sharp was loaned to Forest . Jay Rodriguez is a direct replacement for Lambert and suffers from that, costing £7 million there is the need to play him but usually it's out of position in midfield. Mayuka has barely played since arriving from Young Boys of Berne, being restricted to cameo's off the bench, most of which he hasn't really impressed in apart from the odd burst of speed.
Ramirez is seen as an ego signing for someone in the club, possibly not the manager. He is going to be a truly great player, but most fans would concur we would have been better spending £15 million on two good wingers and a centre half than what is effectively a luxury player. Ramirez will win us a few games that is for sure, but the weakness in those key areas will lose us a lot more as has been proven already.
Having had basically the same number one for years, Southampton seem to be going through goalkeepers at a rate of one a month at the moment. What's going on there?
Kelvin Davis has given good service but was clearly not going to be up to it in the Premier League. We were linked with many keepers but we initially ended up with only one: Paulo Gazzaniga a youngster with 20 games for Gillingham to his name. Davis leaked goals like a sieve at the start of the season so Gazzaniga got his chance and impressed. Then former Celtic keeper Artur Boruc suddenly arrived and having been a free agent since being released by Fiorentina in May was short of fitness. He was thrown into the side while clearly unfit and it showed. After two games - and under the pretence of an incident he apparently had had with the crowd - he was dropped again and Gazzaniga, who had surprisingly been dropped to third choice, leapfrogged Davis back to the number one spot. Confused? We all are and its anybody's guess, including probably Nigel Adkins, who will play in goal at Loftus Road .
Is the club's financial situation secure if they are relegated?
We are backed by the Liebherr family and technically could be called one of the richest clubs in England, however we were very much the hobby of the now deceased and much loved Markus Liebherr. His family seem to be disinterested, however if we went down we could probably sell off a few expensive players and the bulk of the squad is what we had in the Championship.
Who are the weak links and the best players in the team at the moment? What changes would you like to see made to the team?
I have covered much of this in previous questions. The weak links are the central defenders and the fact that our wide men can't track back. Worryingly we have no one in these positions who is up to the job and the players in these positions change weekly and all seem to do as badly as one another. Hopefully in January we can make the key signings we should have made in the summer and still be within catching distance of fourth from bottom.
Up front we are still strong Rickie Lambert is stepping up to the plate and both scoring and creating. Ramirez is quality but has missed more games through injury than he has played, but could make the difference in enough games to keep our heads if not above water bubbling just under the surface.
Southampton could be absolutely perfect for Mark Hughes and QPR this weekend – just what we need, as Neil Warnock used to say. We have a team here that has lost five out of five away from home, and won just one of 11 matches in total so far in the league. Essentially, Southampton are just as bad as QPR; lacking confidence and belief at a new higher level after two consecutive promotions and struggling on all fronts.
Southampton are also a team with a clear and obvious weakness that QPR should have pinpointed weeks ago and already be well versed in exploiting given Mark Hughes’ continued assertion that his coaching staff prepares the team “meticulously” for each game. If Bobby Zamora could bear to tear himself away from whatever vitally important other business he has to attend to and actually watch his future opponents play from time to time he’d have seen, as I have, a Southampton team so soft at the heart of their defence that they barely exist at all.
And yet, I’m concerned. What I’ve seen in the Southampton games I’ve watched so far this season is a team pathetically weak in areas QPR are not equipped to exploit, and strong in other facets of the game in which Rangers are lacking. I mean Reading have been to Loftus Road twice this season with a defence just as weak as Southampton’s – no wins from ten games, 18 goals conceded in the league, another 11 in the League Cup – and have won one and drawn one. Southampton are undoubtedly weak at the heart of their defence, as are Reading, but QPR have shown on several occasions that they’re not well set up to take advantage of that.
The Saints have chopped and changed goalkeepers this season, moving through Kelvin Davis and Artur Boruc to young Paulo Gazzaniga – but do you remember QPR peppering any goalkeeper with shots this season? They’re weak in the wide defensive areas, particularly at left back where Danny Fox, despite his nice set piece delivery, is repeatedly isolated and then shown up by Premier League wingers. But three weeks ago QPR went to Arsenal and played against another poor left back out of form – Andre Santos – and did absolutely nothing to him all afternoon, fielding Shaun Wright-Phillips to no effect whatsoever as part of their “meticulous” preparations.
When in possession Southampton spread very, very wide. When I saw them against West Brom this left them horribly vulnerable to swift counter attacks through the spaces left in the middle. But QPR’s counter attacks are arthritic – I’m more concerned about the damage they’ll do to the under-committed Bosingwa and the terminally unfit Traore in those wide areas initially than anything QPR might be able to do on the counter in return.
At The Hawthorns Yoshida looked nervous under any sort of direct bombardment and Odemwingie had a field day feeding on the second ball. QPR must worry that Southampton central defensive area, and then aim to get people like Taarabt and/or Hoilett on the ball when the second ball breaks. In order to win that second ball, and for other reasons besides, I’d be tempted to start with Jamie Mackie.
But, like I say, I watch Southampton and worry. They’re not afraid to commit men to the attack – I regularly saw six red shirts piling forward against the Baggies and it was a revelation to me as I’m used to watching QPR struggle to get two men in the penalty box when constructing and attack these days. Lallana, Rodriguez and others were really good at getting around Rickie Lambert and feeding on whatever sort of second ball drops from him. This sort of tactic – committing men forward to counter attacks, flooding danger areas around a central striker – is dangerous to a team with a poor attitude and/or a poor defence and has already been plenty good enough for West Ham and Stoke to take maximum points from Rangers this season.
On the face of it Southampton should be absolutely ideal opponents for a must win home match, but when you actually watch them play they’re well set up to make QPR look very stupid indeed.
Pictures – Action Images