Has Southampton run out of steam in the Premier League?
With just three months of the 2014/15 Premier League campaign remaining, positions in all sections of the table are beginning to become clearer. The next 12 games will separate the men from the boys in the English top flight.
Southampton, after having the sort of campaign that pre-season many would have scoffed at the mere notion, are now entering their true moment of examination.
The Saints suffered somewhat of a blip in form after losing all four of the games they contested inside the space of two weeks from late November. However they then went six games unbeaten, winning on five occasions and still maintained a top-four berth. Now, having slipped out of the coveted Champions League places for the first time since late December, have Ronald Koeman's men simply run out of steam?
Sunday's defeat to Liverpool meant The Reds had achieved a season double over their unlikely Premier League rivals. The loss compounds the second real troublesome period for Southampton, and their manager has discovered just how difficult it is to manage a successful campaign in England, juggling all competetions.
The absence of both Toby Alderweireld and Ryan Bertrand through injury and suspension respectively, has been a huge blow to Southampton's momentum from their offensive back line. Likewise, Koeman's side have missed the strength and tenacity of Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama of late. With all four set to be involved together in the first eleven away at West Brom this weekend, we may see a more balanced unit and memories of their seven clean sheets from the first eleven outings this term, may be rekindled.
The Hampshire outfit also need to address their lack of goalscoring. Not only have they experienced the loss of key individuals in person, but their main goal-poacher seems to have gone missing - statistically speaking at least. Graziano Pelle has now not found the in nine games, with his last goal coming versus Everton before Christmas. Like the defensive unit, Pelle excelled at the embryonic stages of this term, at one point scoring six in eight games. When he wasn't scoring however, he was creating goals.
The Italian's problem of late has been that both elements of his game have suffered and looks a shadow of the out fashioned centre-forward he was being billed as. He still does have a very physical side to his game and should not be tossed to the pile. But the fact remains that since mid-October he has only netted twice. As documented also, in the nine goalless outings the 29 year-old has encountered he has only assisted an unflattering once.
So, where do Southampton look to remedy their lack of goals?
The stark truth is that Pelle has not been dropped as they simply do not have a better alternative. Sadio Mane is extremely capable as a attacking forward and has scored The Saints' only goal in the last four matches. But to utilise him as a striker? Shane Long is still recovering from niggling injury complaints. In the wide areas, Eljero Elia - since scoring twice at St James' Park on his debut - is yet to fire and the width Serbian Dusan Tadic provides has failed to materialize on a consistent basis . There may however be salvation in a man who waits in the shadows and just perhaps for Southampton, may ride to their rescue.
Jay Rodriguez is close to a return to first team action, 10 months after suffering ligament damage away to Manchester City last April. He was due back in November before suffering a setback, common in all long-term injuries. Rodriguez' ability is undoubted and if he can be nursed back through March, he may well have a say in Southampton's last six weeks of the campaign.
Looking ahead, Ronald Koeman only has left to negotiate away trips to two of the top six; Chelsea and Man City; any of the other ten games are eminently winnable. That battle starts in earnest at the Hawthorns on Saturday and Koeman will know that his side will have to start to fire versus the dynamic and pacy duo of Saido Berahino and the revitalized Brown Ideye. Yes, the south-coasters may have hit a wall, but with key members returning, they may yet have the ammunition for rejuvenation and with the battle for third to seventh wide open, there is still much to play for.