After leaving boyhood side Newcastle United in 2018, Adam Armstrong took the long route back to the Premier League.

The 25-year old initially dropped down to League One with Blackburn Rovers and helped them earn promotion to the Championship before returning to the top flight with Saints last summer.

And at the centre of that mini-odyssey back to the top? Confidence.

“I’ve always been a confident lad on and off the pitch, in my abilities, I know what I can do,” Armstrong said after signing in August. 

“I’m a confident lad, so I won’t shy away on the pitch, I’ll be taking shots and entertaining fans, hopefully scoring a few goals for them.”

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But with something as powerful as confidence, there’s also the other side of the pendulum. It appears that Adam Armstrong is currently feeling the downward effects in the cycle of confidence. 

Armstrong scored on his debut against Everton but has added just one more league goal since - a terrific strike in fairness - against Aston Villa.

But since that November fixture, Armstrong hasn’t really taken notable steps forward. He’s started just one of Saints’ last 13 league games and saw Nathan Tella and Shane Long enter the pitch ahead of him on Satuday at Leeds.

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It pales in comparison to his numbers from last season when he notched 28 times in the Championship.

So what’s gone wrong for Armstrong this season? Well, we might as well focus on what worked for him in the past and now seems to have disappeared: his confidence.

Always a shooter, Armstrong took 178 shots in the Championship last season, 4.31 per game. It wasn’t just the most in the division, it was the most by a massive margin, Norwich’s Teemu Pukki coming in at second with 44 less shots than Armstrong. 

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This season Armstrong’s shots have dropped, but that was always likely to happen such was the absurdity of his previous number and the sizable step up. But he’s still shooting. A lot. His 2.78 shots per 90 minutes (per Wyscout) sits 11th in the Premier League and he’s the only player in that top 12 who's playing for a team outside of the ‘typical’ big six.

Despite limited minutes, his 44 Premier League shots tops the Saints charts, Che Adams in second with 42.

But diving further into those shots gives us a deeper understanding as to what might be going wrong for the 25-year old this season.

In all competitions, Armstrong has taken 53 shots so far in a Saints shirt. Those 53 shots have come at an average of 2.77 seconds per shot; measured from the time he takes his first touch to the time he shoots the ball. 

Using the same sample size and comparing to his final 53 shots of last season yields a fairly stark difference. Armstrong’s final 53 shots of the 2020/21 season came at an average of 2.11 seconds per shot. Those shots equated to 11 goals rather than the three so far this season.

Armstrong is getting his shots off more than half a second slower this season compared to last. Half a second may not be a lot in certain businesses but it’s a huge margin amongst the frenetic speed of football, particularly in the Premier League. 

Seemingly sapped of confidence, it doesn’t look as if Armstrong is playing instinctively. Instead, he’s thinking too much when he gets the ball in dangerous positions, often hesitating before pulling the trigger.

Let’s look at this in action. 

In the 54th minute of the recent FA Cup defeat to Manchester City, Armstrong got on the end of a Saints counter, cut inside to beat Kyle Walker before lining up a shot from the below position.

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Only…he didn’t actually shoot. Instead, he let the ball run and run before eventually firing his effort into the forming crowd of City bodies.

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Here’s another example from earlier in the same game. Shane Long finds Armstrong on the edge of the box and his first touch sees the ball bounce up invitingly. He shapes to shoot…

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But instead, lets it bounce again before trying his luck and firing over the bar.

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It’s actually not an awful effort, but once again the gap is narrowed by the time he actually takes his shot.

Below is another instance of hesitation against Watford at Vicarage Road. Armstrong does incredibly well after picking the ball up on the left flank, driving inside and beating a pair of defenders.

These are split-second decisions and it never fully opens up for him but Armstrong certainly has a couple of opportunities to pull the trigger before he eventually does.

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The first above - after initially bypassing the two defenders - would have been some effort but the second occasion is far more open. Che Adams even jumps into the air, expecting Armstrong to shoot.

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The shot eventually does arrive but by then Armstrong has long been closed down.

Here’s one more example from October against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Carrying the ball forward, Armstrong is in acres of space as Thiago Silva backs off of him. He shapes to shoot…

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…but doesn’t let fly. By the time he does try his luck, Silva is within striking distance and makes a relatively simple block.

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Of course, in all these cases he did end up taking the shot and waiting to get closer to goal before firing isn’t a problem in itself. But the frequent hesitation doesn't seem to be helping his cause.

Armstrong sees shots blocked at a higher rate than any of his Saints strike partners. 34% of his shots in the Premier League this season have been blocked compared to 21% for Armando Broja and just 16% for Che Adams (Shane Long has managed just four shots in the league so he wasn’t accounted for).

All of this supports the view that Adam Armstrong is stalling before shooting and/or shooting from the wrong locations.

We see the same thing when looking at how many touches he takes per shot. Of those final 53 shots of last season, 35 of them came with his first or second touch. Just 26 of his shots this season have been first or second-time efforts.

It’s a strange trend for a striker who has almost always been a shoot on site player. 

There’s a scene in the 2003 film ‘The Samurai’ where main character Nathan Algren - played by Tom Cruise - is participating in martial-arts training. Time and time again he’s knocked down and after one particularly painful bout, he’s approached by a young Samurai.

“Too many mind,” Cruise is told.

“Mind the sword, mind the people, mind the enemy, too many mind.  No mind.”

The pep-talk works and Cruise’s character ends up holding his own in future sparring sessions. The point of this story - as relatively silly as it is written out - can be easily transferred to Armstrong’s woes.

A striker - a born finisher - Armstrong is no longer playing instinctively; instead, he’s using “too many mind.” You can’t think and thrive as a striker. And right now, Armstrong seems to be thinking too much.

Interestingly, Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl has noted Armstrong's anxiety in front of goal but feels it's a case of lacking patience. 

“What he sometimes lacks is the last bit of patience before he scores or shoots on goal," the Austrian said. "He can be calmer in some moments, and he knows this.

“It is not always necessary to shoot immediately, but when he did it against Aston Villa it was perfect and we loved it. Other times it was not maybe the right decision."

The truth is, that waiting too long or not waiting long enough are symptoms of the same problem: Armstrong doesn't seem to be operating on instinct in front of goal. Perhaps his hesitation is actually an attempt to put into practice the patience Hasenhuttl is encouraging but regardless, he's shooting with an absence of calmness.

In addition to just a bit “too many mind”, Armstrong's positioning as a Saint is certainly curious. 

“It all just kind of came together in the last few seasons, I was playing down the middle a bit more in the last couple seasons,” Armstrong said in August of his relatively recent emergence over the last few years. 

Only this season, he hasn’t been playing down the middle. As is seen in the heat map below, Armstrong has spent much of his time on the left side.

Daily Echo: Adam Armstrong's heat map for the 21/22 seasonAdam Armstrong's heat map for the 21/22 season

He still had a preference for the left last season in a Blackburn shirt, but as is clear below he was operating much more as the prototypical central striker.

Daily Echo: Adam Armstrong's heat map for the 20/21 season.Adam Armstrong's heat map for the 20/21 season.

Granted, Blackburn largely operated a 4-3-3 system with Armstrong as the focal point whereas in Southampton’s front-two approach, there was always going to be adaptation. 

But his positional maps showcase far more of a discrepancy than is explainable simply by a system switch. This is particularly clear when compared to teammates Armando Broja and Che Adams, both of whom get all over the attacking half of the pitch.

Daily Echo: Armando Broja's heat map for the 21/22 season.Armando Broja's heat map for the 21/22 season.

Daily Echo: Che Adams' heat map for the 21/22 season.Che Adams' heat map for the 21/22 season.

Armstrong is extremely effective when peeling away on the left flank before driving inside on his right foot; just take a look at the previous examples above where he skins Kyle Walker with ease or destroys two Watford players at once.

But is he trying too hard to focus on what’s familiar thereby making it easier to mark him out of games? 

It’s not clear how much of this is due to Armstrong’s personal in-game decision-making and how much is based on the tactics he’s told to utilise. But the location of his shots just further emphasises the point of his left-side dominance.

Below is a chart of where on the pitch Armstrong’s shots have come from this season. A total of 45.2% of his shots have occurred on the left side of the box while a massive 73.5% of his shots have come from the left side of the pitch as a whole.

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Just 13.2% of shots this season have come from the right side of the box while a total of 26.4% occurred from the right side of the pitch in general.

At Blackburn, the same trends were evident but to a far less lesser extent.

The splits are much more even. The majority of his shots still came from the left side of the pitch, but just 56.4% of his total efforts - 17.1% less than this season. Meanwhile, 23.9% of his shots in the box came from the right side compared to just 13.2% this season.

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Make no mistake about it; if journalists and fans are able to spot these trends than analysts of rival Premier League clubs will have as well.

So now to the big question: is there hope for Adam Armstrong in a Saints shirt?.

The more one looks into the striker, the easier it feels to keep the faith. A confident Adam Armstrong can really make things happen and that’s because he’s always trying to make something happen.

Sometimes that means he’s wasteful. But strikers often need to be.

Against Manchester City he had four shots. The first rolled into the base of the post, one sailed over the bar, another was dragged wide and the fourth was blocked. But multiple of the openings were created by himself. His finishes against Everton and Aston Villa (granted the only two he’s had from open play) have been confidently and ruthlessly dispatched.

There’s a player in there and potentially a very good one. His 3.87 touches in the box per game ranks 28th in the Premier League and the most of any Southampton player while his 44 shots in the league is also top amongst Saints. He’s lacking confidence and he’s lacking conviction but Armstrong can create his own magic and is capable of pulling off something special.

Just take a look at this chance against Norwich - created entirely on his own.

As Max Aarons approaches Armstrong with the striker’s back to goal, he deftly turns away from the defender leaving him in his dust before firing straight into the keeper’s hands (after a moment of hesitation on the shot).

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There’s reason to believe Saints will be patient with Armstrong. He’s still just 25-years old and there are very real parallels to Che Adams. Adams was also prolific in the Championship, hitting 22 for Birmingham in his final season in the Midlands. He then struggled in his first Premier League campaign - scoring just four goals.

But he made strides in his second, notching nine goals. This season he’s leading Southampton in the Premier League with seven. They could certainly still use more from Adams but he’s moved in the right direction.

Something else the two strikers have in common is tireless work rate and pressing ability, a major reason for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s interest in the first place.

With the future of Armando Broja past this season murky at best - particularly with Chelsea’s boardroom uncertainty - Saints might need reinforcements up front regardless of their faith in Armstrong. But either way, he could still have a big part to play at St Mary’s.

But to do that he needs to triumph over this crisis of confidence. Less ‘mind’ would probably be a good place to start. 

Data for this article was found on Wyscout.

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