A consequence of Southampton’s newly-discovered strength in depth is the shortage of opportunity for a number of players; just ask the likes of Shane Long and Stuart Armstrong.
For the former, it has been a difficult – and potentially confusing – start to the new season. In the final seven games of 2018/19, Long found the back of the net on five separate occasions. It looked as though he would feature with regularity in Ralph Hasenhuttl’s first full campaign on English soil.
Fast forward just over three months, however, and the 31-year-old has found himself out in the cold. Saints have no known injury concerns, and yet Long has not appeared in an 18-man matchday squad in the opening stages of the Premier League season, with young Michael Obafemi preferred on the bench.
Armstrong has faced a similar situation, albeit in less surprising circumstances. He was sporadically utilised under Mark Hughes and Hasenhuttl last season following a £7 million move from Celtic, and his involvement in the 18-man group for top-flight fixtures was relentlessly uncertain.
The same tale appeared to present itself for the 2019/20 campaign on the opening weekend of the season; Hasenhuttl selected his team, named his substitutes, and there was no sign of Armstrong. Even in pre-season, he was scarcely involved, perhaps because of reported illness.
Saturday’s fixture against Liverpool hardly promised the appearance of the Scotland international after his total exclusion from Hasenhuttl’s plans at Burnley. However, his name was spotted on the list of substitutes for the clash at St Mary’s Stadium; he was preferred to Long and, more pertinently, Sofiane Boufal.
If Armstrong’s inclusion in the 18-man squad came as a minor shock to the supporters, his introduction just after the hour mark for Oriol Romeu came as even more of an eyebrow-raiser, with Moussa Djenepo, Danny Ings and Obafemi all also waiting in the wings.
Nevertheless, he burst onto the scene and attempted to provide the missing link between midfield and attack, offering support to Che Adams up front and enabling Nathan Redmond to drift into more familiar areas on the flanks.
Armstrong’s arrival coincided with a change in approach from Hasenhuttl. Sacrificing Romeu who, despite being on a yellow card, had been Southampton’s most effective performer against Liverpool, was a big risk. Saints moved from an orthodox 5-3-2 shape to a more forward-thinking 3-4-3, with wing-backs pushed higher up the pitch and Armstrong drifting out to the right-hand side.
The midfielder – most commonly utilised as a number 10 – often received the ball with his back to goal and was tasked with driving the team forward and playing incisive passes to the likes of Adams and Redmond. He worked in the right half-space throughout his cameo and contributed with delicate touches and moments of flair that had been scarcely seen in a previously cagey fixture.
Armstrong’s final ball was not necessarily perfect – few facets of his game are, for that matter – but he provided Southampton with the fresh legs and energy required to put Liverpool under the cosh in the closing stages of the match. Jurgen Klopp’s men had grown comfortable in their 2-0 lead and were dominating the ball, but the 27-year-old’s introduction added a touch more fluidity and cohesiveness to Saints’ attacks.
It was a performance that went somewhat under the radar, with Southampton’s defensive deficiencies and lack of ruthlessness in front of goal once again emerging as the main talking points. But Armstrong’s performance against Liverpool presents a long-standing, if hardly-discussed, topic: what kind of role does he really have at St Mary’s?
Hasenhuttl does not appear to be especially keen on handing the Scotsman a starting role, with Redmond preferred as a 10 when a 3-5-2 shape is employed, and natural wide players favoured when a 3-4-3 system is chosen to begin with. He has started only 12 Premier League matches under the Austrian’s management, and it would appear as though he is not especially suited to the starting systems that his boss leans towards.
However, what has been noticeable since Armstrong’s cut-price transfer from Celtic to the Premier League is his ability to bring something different to the table. He is not one to make headlines, nor is he the Steven Davis-style player who many thought Southampton were recruiting.
Armstrong does possess the necessary tools to add a different dimension to Saints’ attack, though. Tactically astute, comfortable on the half-turn and energetic in his pressing, he is a good option to have. While the confines of a bit-part role may not be of particular enjoyment for the midfielder in the midst of his prime years as a footballer, he could still have his say in the fortunes of Southampton ahead of another testing Premier League campaign.