Southampton have not kept a single clean sheet since Maya Yoshida exited the starting line-up after the 0-0 draw at Chelsea on January 2.
The experienced centre-back jetted off to captain the Japanese national team in the Asian Cup and played a part in their run to the final, where they fell short against Qatar.
In his absence, the Saints haven’t been especially poor, but their defensive displays have been less than convincing, and in recent times, valuable points eluded them.
Jack Stephens has taken the place of Yoshida in the starting line-up, operating as the middle centre-back in a defensive trio, sandwiched between the ever-developing Jan Bednarek and the reinvigorated Jannik Vestergaard.
He has not been a notable weak link but in the past two fixtures, he has struggled to convince, and in critical moments of matches, the 24-year-old has been at fault.
Stephens gave away a last-minute penalty in the 1-1 draw away at Burnley at the start of February, costing Southampton two vital points. Peter Crouch perhaps could have been punished for grabbing his shirt, but the Saints defender’s weaknesses in the air prevailed, and his arms were in a more than unnatural position.
The centre-back’s lapses in concentration have been made all the more frustrating as a consequence of his visible capabilities on the ball. Stephens has proven to be a liability defensively but a more than adept dribbler and passer, helping him become a useful player for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s stylistic demands.
However, once again, the negatives outweighed the positives for the player in Southampton’s 2-1 defeat against Cardiff City on Saturday. The failure to clear a simple ball upfield in the dying moments saw his equaliser just minutes before count for nothing, as the team once again dropped points in a crucial match.
Stephens had a golden opportunity to stake his claim and nail a place in the starting line-up, with Yoshida unavailable. For all his technical qualities, he has only proven further that he is not yet dependable at the back.
Southampton have found their way back into the bottom three of the Premier League. After appearing to have turned a corner under Hasenhuttl, they are without a win in three games and face a daunting fixture list.
The Saints will be the underdogs in upcoming clashes with Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, but will also know the significance of their home match against Fulham at the end of this month.
Hasenhuttl needs players who he can trust in this period of the season. Southampton must pick points up from somewhere, and it is likely that results will need to be ground out, with backs-to-the-wall performances potentially necessary.
Yoshida, albeit a somewhat limited player, has proven over time that he is reliable and adaptable, both in a back four and a back five. His return from international duty should come as a huge, timely boost for the club.
Changes must take place in Southampton’s starting line-up, and the first surely must be the reintroduction of Yoshida for the Arsenal match.