After a strong start to the season that saw Southampton sit top of the Premier League in early November, the club have spiralled into a dangerous position. They have won one of their last thirteen games in the league and now sit only eight points above the relegation zone. Ralph Hasenhutll’s already small squad has been decimated by injuries which has been a huge factor in their recent plight, with the club having nine first-team injuries at one point. However, one absentee that has been missed more than most is the Southampton full-back Kyle Walker-Peters.
Kyle Walker-Peters a Huge Miss for Southampton
Absence Felt More Than Most
After signing for Southampton permanently in the summer following a successful six-month loan, Walker-Peters has emerged as one of the signings of the season. The 23-year-old left Tottenham Hotspur for a regular starting role and has flourished ever since. He is very comfortable in possession and an aggressive one-on-one defender who is rarely beaten down the line and he was a much-needed player in a position Southampton have had problems with for a few seasons.
When Walker-Peters initially joined the Saints in January 2020, the club allowed Cedric Soares to join Arsenal. Soares’ contract was due to expire that summer and Walker-Peters was seen as his replacement. Prior to Soares leaving, he had not long regained the starting right-back spot from young Frenchman Yan Valery. However, with Valery leaving the club to join Birmingham City on loan in January, neither Soares or Valery were at the club, leaving Walker-Peters as the only natural right-back.
When Walker-Peters went down injured against Wolverhampton Wanderers in his first league game back from a four-game injury lay-off, Southampton fans’ hearts were in their mouths. He had to go off in the 72nd minute to be replaced by Mohammed Salisu which led to a change of formation for Southampton who lost 2-1.
Southampton didn’t pick up a single point in Walker-Peters’ previous four-game absence and fans will understandably be concerned with the news that Walker-Peters is set to be missing for at least the next few weeks. Southampton manager Hasenhuttl will have to find a solution if his side are to stop the rot of negative results and, with the news that battle-hardened midfielder Oriol Romeu is now out for the rest of the season, it has started to feel like the bad news doesn’t stop at St Mary’s.
Without Walker-Peters Southampton Lose Balance
The biggest problem that Southampton face in Walker-Peters’ absence is that without him the side completely lacks balance. As there are no natural right-backs currently at the club that can replace the injured defender, players have had to play out of position to try to cope with the loss. This has had varying levels of success.
Club captain James Ward-Prowse has deputised in the right-back position on occasion, most recently against Aston Villa, but his influence in the centre of midfield is missed when he isn’t there. Valery filled in before his loan departure but clearly didn’t gain the trust of his manager.
Ibrahima Diallo has also played full-back this season but is currently also injured and Moussa Djenepo has filled in but more as a right wing-back than a conventional right-back. Jack Stephens has also played the role in the past but, again, is not a natural in the position.
Since young Ghanaian defender Mohammed Salisu has gained full fitness he has emerged as a good option in the centre of defence and this has allowed Hasenhuttl to pair him with giant Dane Jannik Vestergaard. This has subsequently allowed central defensive stalwart Jan Bednarek to shift across to an unfamiliar right-back role.
Against Chelsea, in Walker-Peters’ first game out injured of this spell, Hasenhuttl changed his tactics to play a back three whilst in possession and shift to a back four out of possession, with Bednarek becoming the third central defender in attack and the right-back in defence. This was successful as the Saints ground out a 1-1 draw but is unlikely to work in fixtures when Southampton will have more possession.
Without Walker-Peters in the team, Southampton are incredibly unbalanced both in defence and attack. Defensively it is difficult to play high-pressing aggressive football when you have a centre-back playing right-back who doesn’t want to exposed in one-on-one situations. However, it is perhaps more noticeable in the attack.
Much of Southampton’s width going forward comes from their full-backs. Walker-Peters and Ryan Bertrand on the left have the licence to bomb forward and join the attacks. This is especially important as Southampton’s wide midfield players have complete freedom in the system to roam infield and pick up the ball in dangerous areas centrally. It is, therefore, often Walker-Peters and Bertrand who create the space for those players.
Walker-Peters loves flying forward and has remarkable close control as well as the ability to navigate in tight spaces and beat his man. Unfortunately for Southampton, there is no one in their squad who can replicate the role that plays he plays effectively and, as such, when he is missing, it is glaringly obvious. His one Premier League assist so far this season is a misrepresentation of his attacking influence and he is often heavily involved in the build-up of Southampton’s attacks.
Walker-Peters Absence Highlights Poor Recruitment
Hasenhuttl will be awaiting Walker-Peters’ return to fitness very impatiently and Southampton will be desperate to get the former England U21 international back on the pitch as soon as possible. However, the fact that his absence is felt so severely is ultimately down to a failure to address the lack of depth in the squad in January.
It may seem from the outside that Southampton were foolish to let Valery join Birmingham on loan as he was the only natural alternative. However, after a number of failures to take his chance since initially impressing when he broke into the team in 2018, it seems Hasenhuttl just does not rate him highly enough. Given his frequent defensive shortcomings, perhaps Hasenhuttl cannot be blamed for this view.
Hasenhuttl was said to be desperate to add a fullback to his squad in January and is said to be a keen admirer of Manchester United’s Brandon Williams. One of the reasons he is so keen on Williams is his ability to play either right or left-back and thus providing depth and competition in two positions where Southampton lack depth. However, the decision to recruit a new defender in January remained outside Hasenhuttl’s hands.
The difficulty that the Coronavirus pandemic has caused was a major factor in the failure to bring in a right-back and Hasenhuttl has moved to assure fans that the club did all it could to get a right-back in January. Hasenhuttl said: “If you had given me one that was possible to sign and that we were able to get then we would have done it. You can be sure of that.” Before adding that: “You can be sure that we tried everything to get players in, within our limits that we have.”
Southampton’s shortcomings in the winter transfer window have undoubtedly come into sharp focus due to the number of injuries that the squad has picked up. However, none of these have stung as sharply as the loss of Walker-Peters. If Southampton are to prevent themselves sleepwalking into a relegation battle then they will need their right-back fit again as soon as possible.
Embed from Getty Images