What was the situation like when the league was suspended? A superb six-game unbeaten run over the Christmas period helped take the heat off Southampton following a grim autumn (aside from an enjoyable 4-0 win over Portsmouth at Fratton Park) but four defeats from their past five league games means they are still peering over their shoulders, despite what, on the face of it, is a healthy seven-point buffer above the relegation zone. As Ralph Hasenhüttl has said, they cannot afford to get complacent and he lambasted his team’s defending at West Ham as “an absolute joke” the week before coming unstuck at home to Newcastle last time out, a game in which Moussa Djenepo was sent off. The winger has a three-match ban to serve.
Even before their form nosedived, Danny Ings was prolific in front of goal and the striker was on the brink of an England call-up in March before the season ground to a halt. Jamie Vardy is the only Englishman to have scored more top-flight goals this season and, as much as Ings’s main asset is his predatory instincts going forward, his work-rate is commendable across the pitch. Alex McCarthy has been impressive since ousting Angus Gunn as Hasenhüttl’s first-choice goalkeeper, while the versatile James Ward-Prowse has been dependable both at right-back and in central midfield.
What about now? Southampton resume the season at Norwich on Friday evening, when victory would go a long way to securing their top-flight status. They head into the game with a fully-fit squad – Nathan Redmond is raring to go after a muscle injury – and a spring in their step after a flurry of contract extensions, most notably Hasenhüttl pledging his future to the club until 2024. If the Austrian stays for the duration of his contract, he will become the club’s longest-serving manager since Chris Nicholl in 1991. Shane Long has also extended his stay, while Will Smallbone, the 20-year-old midfielder who shone on his league debut in February, has agreed a four-year extension. But mounting speculation surrounding the captain, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who has 12 months to run on his contract, is unhelpful. Hasenhüttl has said he will take the captaincy away if the midfielder does not commit beyond next season.
What needs to be done to have a successful end to the season? Get more points on the board at St Mary’s. Southampton showed enormous steel and character to recover from the infamous 9-0 defeat to Leicester in October but they have the worst home record in the division having won only four league matches in front of their own fans all season. It is not all bad – they boast the sixth-best away record – but Saints have struggled on home soil since 2016-17, winning only 20 of their past 72 league matches at St Mary’s, and Hasenhüttl has acknowledged they have struggled to make the most of home territory. “In away games no one expects anything from us,” the Austrian said. “Maybe that’s the reason we perform better in away games.”
Have players and staff behaved during lockdown? There were no indiscretions. Hasenhüttl spent much of lockdown in Munich with his family and some players returned to their home countries, with Stuart Armstrong heading to Edinburgh and Højbjerg to Denmark, but now Southampton are firmly focused on finishing a topsy-turvy season on a high.
Any unsung/community heroes? Djenepo donated more than £7,000 to the health ministry and local authorities in Mopti in his native Mali to help pay for hand sanitiser and key equipment such as face masks. Meanwhile the former defender and club ambassador Franny Benali raised almost £15,000 by running a treadmill marathon in support of the NHS having previously raised more than £1m for Cancer Research UK through a series of gruelling ultra-endurance challenges in recent years. Matt Le Tissier – virtually – joined him for a five-mile stint. Several former players, including Le Tissier, James Beattie and Brian Howard, have been on hand to help the club, in conjunction with FareShare, provide 12,000 meals for some of the most vulnerable in the city. Others have helped pick up prescriptions and contact elderly supporters.
Key player in the run-in? Ings – the goals were beginning to dry up before the season was paused but the talisman has been revitalised and leads from the front. His goals will probably determine how well Saints finish. Carefully managed by Hasenhüttl, he has enjoyed an injury-free campaign and, though he trails Vardy by four goals, it is not inconceivable he could end up with the golden boot.
End-of-season-prediction 13th. They do not have the worst run-in and, providing they take points off those below them, a top-half finish is not impossible. At the same time, if they carry on where they left off Southampton could be in for a sticky finish.
Remaining fixtures (all times BST): Fri 19 June Norwich (a) – 6pm, Sky Sports Thurs 25 June Arsenal (h) – 6pm, Sky Sports Sun 28 June Watford (a) – 4.30pm, Sky Sports TBC Manchester City (h), Everton (a), Manchester United (a), Brighton (h), Bournemouth (a), Sheffield United (h)