As the rain crashed onto the Turf Moor grass, Ralph Hasenhuttl made his way back across the pitch and to the tunnel. He was left only with yet more questions rather than any answers.
Three goals inside 12 minutes undid Southampton. Hitherto, it had been an evenly-contested match; a gritty, unattractive scrap in testing conditions. Simply, a climate that has become so synonymous with a glum trip to Burnley.
Southampton had arguably enjoyed the better share of chances. Che Adams should have put the visitors ahead in the opening stages of the match, and Nathan Redmond stung the hands of Nick Pope with a rasping effort just before the half-time whistle blew.
However, as the game progressively appeared to be heading for an understated and reluctantly acceptable stalemate, the inevitable happened. Burnley did what they do best, and Saints did what they do worst, yet with unrelenting consistency.
The Clarets won’t have an easier 3-0 win all season – in fact, if any other defence is haphazard enough to afford them three clearer sightings of goal, it would be a shock. All Sean Dyche’s men needed to do was employ the same tactics they have many years now: fire long, high balls into space behind the opposition defence and allow a robust, hard-working forward to latch onto what comes his way.
It was all too easy for Burnley; their tactics were straightforward but effective. This is not a sleight on Hasenhuttl, however – not by any means. The manager is unable to legislate for when a defender at this level makes as glaring an error in judgement and anticipation as Jannik Vestergaard did on two occasions.
For the opening goal of the game, Ashley Barnes could not believe his luck, as the tallest outfield player in the Premier League flailed to the deck after a fatally mistimed attempt to head the ball clear. For his second, Barnes finished with great aplomb but consummate ease once more, as he ghosted behind Vestergaard again to thump home, unmarked, with a volley past Angus Gunn.
The third came courtesy of Johann Berg Gudmundsson, whose challenge was simply stronger than that of Ryan Bertrand, as he proceeded to race clear and finish astutely beyond the reach of a hapless Gunn, unfazed by the unfathomably casual, uninterested pressure from Vestergaard once more.
In a flash, Southampton’s pre-season balloon of optimism and excitement was popped by a spirited, if unspectacular, Burnley side. It hardly gets any easier for Saints this coming weekend, though, as the European champions come to St Mary’s Stadium. It’s safe to say that changes will be necessary if Saints are to avoid embarrassment against Liverpool, let alone pull off an upset and take anything away from the game.
Making drastic alterations to the team sheet, and perhaps even the formation, after the first game of the season was something that Mark Hughes came in for criticism for at the start of last term. However, Hasenhuttl has portrayed tactical flexibility that his predecessor has perennially failed to, and returning to a back four against the Reds may be a smart choice.
Should a 4-2-2-2 system, and in turn, a more narrow shape be employed, Southampton’s back-line will be provided greater protection. The likes of Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse were all too easily bypassed and outnumbered against Burnley, but ultimately, it was individual errors and lapses in concentration at the back which harmed the team.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is widely expected to return, and this will come as a big boost. He distributes the ball quickly, provides physical edge in midfield and is a hugely intelligent footballer. Behind him, however, is where the real selection dilemma lies.
Kevin Danso’s arrival presents Hasenhuttl with a predicament. The loanee defender has the qualities to make him a shoo-in; his recovery pace, stature and anticipation position him well to go toe to toe with the dynamic flair of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. However, integrating a 20-year-old defender against the champions of Europe for his debut would certainly be a baptism of fire.
And yet, persisting with the likes of Stephens and Vestergaard presents an even greater risk than taking a gamble on Danso, who has barely got his feet under the table just yet. These defensive deficiencies have hindered Southampton for all too long now, and change is necessary.
Whether a back four is selected or a defensive block of five is retained, Bednarek should be the only centre-back who remains in the starting line-up. Not because he stood out at Turf Moor, but because he has proven to be less unreliable than the aforementioned duo.
Maya Yoshida’s return to the team would not provide supporters with a sense of security by any means, but the Japan international is more adept at dealing with balls in behind and nifty attackers than Vestergaard. The arguments for integrating Danso ahead of Stephens, meanwhile, are clear. If Hasenhuttl neglects to explore the possible remedy to Saints’ seemingly-unshakeable defensive virus and continues to place his trust in an error-prone, substandard centre-back, the same issues of the past two seasons will continue to plague the team.
Ultimately, the manager will pick the two – or possibly three – central defenders against Liverpool who have merely been the best of a bad bunch in the lead-up to the fixture. Getting a result against the Reds is almost unthinkable at the moment, but if we are to have any chance, Hasenhuttl simply must instigate a defensive shake-up.