As Nathan Collins rose above the sea of Saints players to nod home Burnley’s second goal, the only real surprise was that it had taken so long to arrive.

Following a half in which Saints could barely string a pair of passes together, only another Fraser Forster masterclass kept Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side in the game approaching the interval. 

Connor Roberts’ early curling effort had put them in a hole but it deepened greatly when Collins latched onto a corner and finally beat Forster to double the home advantage in the 44th minute.

It punctuated a meek performance in which Saints were physically out-matched and seemingly out-fought by relegation-battling Burnley.

Following victory against Arsenal on Saturday, difficult questions were naturally raised once more after Saints’ epic inconsistency was back on show at Turf Moor. 

Romain Perraud accused his side of “wanting” it less than their opposition and perhaps nothing summed that up more than Collins’ virtually unchallenged climb above the Saints defence. 

Daily Echo: Saints players meet with Hasenhuttl during Thursday's 2-0 defeat. Image by: PASaints players meet with Hasenhuttl during Thursday's 2-0 defeat. Image by: PA

But this was no isolated incident: Saints have now conceded 13 goals from headers - with no team in the Premier League letting in more from headers.

Why does this keep happening? And what can it tell us about Saints’ wider problems?

Of the 13 headed goals conceded, Collins’ was the seventh from set-pieces with the other six coming from open play.

As Burnley prepare to swing their fourth corner of the game into the box, Saints are set up in a hybrid zonal and man-marking system. There are five Saints players in the six-yard box compared to just one Burnley man while there are five Clarets making runs from the clump around the penalty spot with four Saints marking them.

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In total, there are ten Saints players in the box compared to just six for Burnley. But immediately when the ball is is hit, five Saints players are taken out of the game.

Looped towards the back post, those Saints zonally marking at the near post are completely bypassed. In fact, of the ten Saints outfield players in the box, the only ones actually affecting the play once the ball is live are James Ward-Prowse (marking Collins) and Romain Perraud (marking Jay Rodriguez).

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The rest are there, but they aren’t really there. This is exemplified by Oriol Romeu and Jan Bednarek, seen marking each other at the near post. 

Saints’ tallest players - Armando Broja, Romeu, Bednarek and Lyanco are not even in position to challenge for the ball while the two that actually are - Ward-Prowse and Perraud - are each 5’7”. 

Compare that to the three Burnley players in the danger area - Collins, Rodriguez and Wout Weghorst who combine for an average height of 6’3” - and it’s an obvious recipe for disaster.

Burnley are a taller team than Saints which was always going to make defending set-pieces at Turf Moor a challenge, but Hasenhuttl’s side certainly didn’t help themselves. As discussed, the plan is bizarre and the execution disastrous - summed up by Romeu and Bednarek tussling with each other.

Where’s the organisation? Where’s the leadership? 

Sadly this isn’t an isolated incident. Saints have conceded 14 goals from set-pieces this season - third-most in the division - and it was easy to see why when watching Burnley miss chance after chance.

20 minutes before Collins’ goal, Saints were already handed a lifeline when Weghorst somehow missed from about three yards out after a terrific Forster save had initially denied Rodriguez.

Ahead of the delivery, Saints are set up in virtually the exact same way with their mix of zonal and man-to-man marking. The man-to-man marking of the three Saints players around the four Burnley men on the penalty spot is far from perfect with Collins getting in behind and Weghorst in front…

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On this occasion, the corner actually is played towards the near post area where Saints have extra bodies. Yet, it’s Rodriguez who gets his head to the ball…

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It’s obviously not great that despite seemingly being set up for a near-post corner and marking Rodriguez initially, Saints still allow their former player to win the first header.

But what happens next is arguably worse and gives a great window into Saints’ wider problems. As the ball pops up into play following Forster’s impressive save, the players in yellow don’t react.

Seven Saints players are behind the ball and thus not even in the equation while the two that are still alive - Lyanco and Perraud - are not getting the job done.

Lyanco is out-jumped by Collins for the second ball while Perraud is behind Weghorst and gets nowhere close to stopping the giant Dutchman. Fortunately, his header cannons off the crossbar.

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Hasenhutt’s side failed to learn their lesson and were eventually punished on the stroke of half-time. In total, Burnley managed six headed shots and only a combination of Forster, the woodwork and some shoddy finishing denied the hosts more goals from their aerial supremacy.

It’s no secret that Burnley enjoy a physical and direct approach, but they simply took advantage of a problem that’s been plaguing this Saints team for months.

Let’s take it back to the 9th minute of the early October defeat to Chelsea.

Once again, Saints are set up in a part-zonal part-man-to-man system. Only, once again, it’s heavily flawed. The man-to-man markers have failed to pick up Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the near post or Trevoh Chalobah at the back post.

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As the ball is swung in, Saints have the bodies in place to defend but their positioning is all sorts of catastrophic.

Loftus-Cheek and Rudiger are free at the near post with four Saints around them - but not actually challenging them. Meanwhile, Thiago Silva is also free with a trio of Saints behind him, but once again, just standing there.

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Loftus-Cheek wins the first ball and as his header travels across the box, Saints fail to react to the second ball - just as seen in the big Weghorst chance we looked at moments ago.

This time, they don’t get lucky with Chalobah nodding home at the far post…

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It’s understandable if you want to levy the blame at Ward-Prowse considering he is marking Chalobah initially but it would be disingenuous to blame this horrific team effort on just one player.

What were the four players at the near post doing? Could none of the three in the next line clean up the second ball?

Regardless, it ends up in the net and Chelsea barely have to work for it.

Here’s another - different - but really very similar example .

It’s the 62nd minute at Molineux and armed with a 1-0 lead Wolves have a free-kick 35 yards from goal wide on their left flank.

Initially there’s little wrong with how Saints defend this. They have eight players to Wolves’ six and are ready in their defensive line. Nothing majorly worrying.

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As the ball is delivered to the back post, Max Killman rises above Che Adams and Armando Broja - neither of whom leave the ground - to get his head on it. It’s obviously not great, but a player outjumping his marker is something that happens. It’s just about acceptable.

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But the reaction from the eight Saints players is far more difficult to take. As the ball ricochets off the post and back into play, they just stand and watch. Four of them haven’t even gotten back to help while the other four are rooted to the spot as Conor Coady runs right through the gap between Romeu and Bednarek to tap home.

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The point is becoming painfully obvious but let's take a look at an example from open play to show that this isn’t just a problem connected to set-pieces - although that is a major element of the issue.

As Takehiro Tomiyasu prepares to cross for Arsenal, Saints are already struggling. They’ve certainly got enough numbers in the box but their positioning is just ludicrous. Tino Livramento is marking Alexandre Lacazette but the Arsenal striker is behind the Saints defender.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle Martinelli is ‘marked’ by Nathan Redmond although he’s actually completely free on the edge of the box calling for the ball.

Then there’s Kieran Tierney at the back post who clearly isn’t even being factored into Saints’ thinking. Of course, that’s where the ball goes…

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As Tierney attempts to cross back into the danger zone, Saints have reacted to the first cross but certainly not in the best way. Four Saints scramble towards the ball, leaving a ridiculous amount of space right in the middle of the box that Martin Odegaard spots.

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But Livramento manages to block Tierney’s first cross and Saints have a chance to reboot and get back into position ahead of the second cross.

Except, they actually end up in a worse position.

The four players continue to just stare at the ball while Odegaard has indeed moved into the free space as Ibrahima Diallo fails to track him. Martinelli has moved away from Bednarek and found some space while Bukayo Saka is at the back post not even remotely marked.

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The ball eventually falls to Odegaard who heads home. Despite being a completely different game and a completely different situation to Coady’s goal, the similarities are frustratingly evident.

In both cases, there are enough Saints players to defend the danger but they are stood watching the ball and not even worrying about the attackers around them. No wonder they conceded on both occasions.

Compare that to the previously discussed Weghorst miss (seen again below) - where seven Saints players are just standing watching - and it’s hard to not let out a scream of frustration.

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Only four teams in Europe’s top five leagues have conceded more goals from headers than Southampton’s 13. Meanwhile, only Leicester and Leeds have conceded more goals from set-pieces in the Premier League. 

Defensively, Saints have not been a top-ten side this season - Hasenhuttl has said as much and the statistics are hard to argue with - only four sides in the Premier League conceding more goals than them.

Their defending from set-pieces and general inability to defend crosses says a lot about why that is.

Saints appear trapped on their heels defensively with no real plan, just reacting to what happens and doing so late. There’s no real evident leadership or anyone taking responsibility. That was clear on Thursday evening in Lancashire and it’s been clear on multiple occasions this season.

And it’s not just reserved to defending headers. Take this piece of defending from the recent 6-0 defeat to Chelsea.

As N'golo Kante carries the ball forward, all Saints in the vicinity are drawn to him while no one is marking Christian Pulisic or Timo Werner either side of the Blues midfielder. 

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The ball does indeed fall to the feet of Werner after Kante’s attempted chip is saved and the German makes no mistake with the simplest of  finishes.

The defensive plan should come from the manager and clearly that plan has its major flaws. But once they cross the white line, the players on the pitch have to take responsibility and make sure they get the fundamentals of defending right.

That means marking opposition attackers, it means being proactive, it means clearing the ball, it means winning headers and it certainly does not mean standing still and watching as things develop around you.

On Sunday, Saints travel to Brighton in a clash that will have major repercussions on the race for a top-ten spot. If they continue to defend like they did at Burnley - even with Brighton’s famous profligacy - they’ll suffer another embarrassing defeat.

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