Verdict: Saints 0 Barnsley 0

Last updated : 21 September 2008 By Saint Bobby

A soulless and goalless match at St. Mary's yesterday points to a long, tough season for Southampton, with the maximum plausible aspiration to be to retain Championship status. My fear was that Saints were determined to prove how "competitive" the second tier is by showing they can lose to teams at both ends of the table.

Changes at the back

Injuries and a suspension forced a number of changes to the starting XI, but Poortvielt stuck religiously to the 4-2-1-2-1 formula. Kelvin Davis now seems to be an ever-present between the sticks, but the backline altered markedly.

Jack Cork replaced the injured Lloyd James at right back, with skipper Paul Wotton dropping back to partner Chris Perry in the centre of defence. Joseph Mills got a first team start because an injury to Schneiderlin in training required Drew Surman to be pushed up to work alongside Simon Gillett as a holding midfielder.

Lallana was used in the hole behind lone striker Peckhart. McGoldrick was deployed as a right-winger, with Bradley Wright-Phillips on the left.

First half - bright, but ineffective

Saints started brightly, as seems to be the way this season, but lacked the guile to confound Barnsley's rudimentary but well-organised back line. The final ball was always disappointing - particularly in the 16th minute when an impressive move by McGoldrick led to a cross that zipped across the six yard box, with no Southampton player close to making contact.

Attempted through balls to break the visitors' backline with pace were woefully misplaced, with the usually tidy Lallana at fault on two glaring occasions. As against Ipswich in mid-week, off the ball movement was practically non-existent, meaning that a short-passing game often resembled Italian catenaccio rather than Dutch total football.

By the twentieth minute, Kelvin Davis had reverted to long, speculative goal kicks. Southampton's lack of height across the pitch ensured this was a swift way of gifting possession to a grateful but wholly uninspired visiting team.

There seems to be a tendency for the two wingers to switch flanks after about twenty five minutes. It's impossible to discern any specific tactical thinking behind this approach, other than attempting to "mix things up".

Barnsley may be one of the weakest teams in the division, but they are not so dense as to resort to a man-marking approach when simple zonal positioning is enough to blunt the overwhelming majority of Southampton's attacks.

At least Saints' back four were generally composed and controlled, with Perry often acting as a powerful last line of defence when Barnsley mounted the occasional - but dangerous - counter-attack. Muted applause greeted the half-time whistle.

Half-time: Saints 0 Barnsley 0

Second half - failure to breakthrough

The home side continued to look the more likely after the interval, with Lallana increasingly involved in some promising moves. He was unfortunate that an imaginative overhead kick fell straight into the arms of Heinz Muller.

But whilst Southampton continued to press, nothing left the head or foot of a Saints player that looked destined to ripple the net. The official statistics will show that the Barnsley keeper had to deal with eight shots on target, but none of them tested him severely.

Jake Thomson replaced the tiring Bradley-Wright Phillips on the hour mark, a bewildering decision given that the more experienced and lethal Nathan Dyer was still warming the bench.

The direction of traffic was generally towards the Barnsley penalty area, but an inability to establish a lead nearly proved fatal with six minutes to go, when Ian Hume broke through into the Saints' penalty area and rounded Kelvin Davis only to generously slide the ball into the side-netting. The visitors deserved nothing from this contest, but had still managed to create the best single chance of the game.

Poortvielt responded to the scare with a last-gasp bid to snatch the points. Stern John replaced Joseph Mills and dropped in just behind Tomas Peckhart. Surman switched to left-back and Lallana retreated to partner Gillett in front of the backline.

As the minutes ticked away, Saints did twitch into some sort of life, and finally managed to pour more bodies into their opponents' penalty area. But even a generous five minutes of stoppage time was not enough to secure all three points.

A further hour or two of play would have been more likely to have borne witness to the crowd falling asleep in the soothing south coast sun than to have produced a winner.

Full time: Saints 0 Barnsley 0

Verdict - tough times ahead

The 4-2-1-2-1 formation might work brilliantly with a team possessing Brazilian levels of imagination or Johan Cruyff's off-the-ball movement. But if this newly fashioned Saints team are playing at anything below their best, it looks stolid, predictable and simple to repel.

Matters are not helped when players start to make the completion of a simple six yard pass look like it requires the skill of Pele and the effort of Hercules.

The main problem is the burden it places on the lone striker. With Lallana acting as a midfield creator and two other strikers detailed to stick to the flanks, Southampton's ability to get bodies into the box is severely compromised.

Although the impression generated is that Saints don't get the rub of the green, the truth is that we are not positioned to pounce on lose balls or stray passes - both of which are common place in the lower reaches of the Championship.

So many matches these days are described as great advertisements for Championship football. But I would rather sit through a hundred replays of a Churchill insurance commercial than be subjected to this dross again. Truly, it was less entertaining than staring at a test card.

Unless Saints can start to create more than a series of snatched half-chances or find a player who goes on a long scoring streak, then a drawn-out, bleak and tortuous battle against relegation beckons. On this evidence, such a struggle could well be a futile one too.

Man of the match: Chris Perry