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Have Saints enough depth to cope?
Mauricio Pochettino is facing some tough dilemmas.
After experiencing the highs of football with a flying start to the season, the Saints boss is now trying to navigate his way through the opposite end of the game’s fortunes.
Three defeats on the bounce is tough enough, without looking at the fixtures on the horizon.
Immediately there is the visit of Manchester City, and things don’t get much easier over the festive period with a trip to Newcastle, a home game against Tottenham, back-to-back matches at Cardiff and Everton before a New Year’s Day visit from Chelsea.
Not long ago it didn’t feel as though the bubble would burst. Now Pochettino is desperate to inject some momentum back into his side.
There have been two major reasons for these problems.
The first is obviously the fixture list. Few teams are going to get much from games at Arsenal and Chelsea. Saints didn’t, and at least emerged from both with a bit of credit.
The other problem has been one that arguably contributed to their downfall against Aston Villa – injury problems.
There has been a debate rumbling on in the background as to whether Saints’ squad lacks the necessary strength in depth to sustain a top four challenge.
Pochettino has stated his faith in the players at his disposal, but it will be interesting to see whether the January transfer window backs that up now he is seeing how the fringe players actually fare when called upon.
There is little he can realistically do about the goalkeeping situation. To lose two experienced first team keepers at the same time is just rotten luck.
They do at least have Paulo Gazzaniga still and so Pochettino probably has to just accept a tricky situation for what it is in that department.
The bigger questions are being asked in the outfield areas.
It’s not that Saints don’t have bodies to call upon.
But are there enough of them and, even more crucially, is there enough quality?
That is a question open to debate.
There probably are roughly enough numbers, but the difficulty with the quality issue is just how fast Saints are moving forward.
They have a squad with requisite depth for a mid-table Premier League finish.
That is a testament to how quickly they have moved forward as a club under Nicola Cortese, but also as a squad of players.
Many of the more fringe players have been with Saints for at least one promotion and have adapted to the rigours of the top flight. They have become good enough to be considered mid-table Premier League footballers.
That is a fantastic achievement, and one for which they should be congratulated.
However, Saints are now setting their sights higher than being a mid-table Premier League club.
They are ultimately aiming to challenge for a top four spot as soon as possible.
The club have made no secret of their desire to try and bag a Champions League spot as soon as this season.
What we saw in the opening ten or so games was a team that seemed to have a chance of making that a reality.
The same handful of players were being used each and every week and were performing at a terrifically high level.
But since injuries have bitten, we are seeing what lies beneath that in terms of the depth of the squad.
It is a mid-table Premier League team, not a top four team.
When you look at the strength in depth of the regular top four clubs it is a frightening prospect. And, with all due respect, a world away from what Saints can boast.
However, those sides have had the riches and attraction of the Champions League to provide that.
It’s going to be hard to match initially, but what they must do is ensure they have a squad as strong as those others who are pretenders to the top crown.
We are therefore talking about the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton. That is where Saints need to get to in the first place.
Surely that will mean some strengthening is required.
Saints do have a hefty injury list ahead of tomorrow’s game against Manchester City.
You are suddenly looking at playing a youngster or a player that hasn’t previously been fancied when everybody else is fit. That often means they lack a bit of match sharpness due to a lack of game time – certainly in these days where there is no regular reserve league.
These tough times may not be ideal in the context of a top four charge this season, but they could be invaluable insights for Pochettino.
He probably would have preferred to keep using the same small group of players during the entire campaign, and you can well imagine the success they could have.
But to be forced to confront the reality of your squad when your long term aim is so impressive is no bad thing.
It’s easy to think you have everything at your disposal, but the proof will ultimately be seen on the pitch if this injury run continues.
Saints have come so far so fast it is naturally impossible for everything to keep up.
That is a credit to the club, to Pochettino and the squad, including those fringe players.
Believe it or not, after three back-to-back defeats, it is a positive, not a negative.
But progress waits for no man.
And Saints may have tough decisions to make in the January window if they are really serious about reaching their stated destination.
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