All that can really be said is that it took the month of November for our first truly rotten performance of the season.
Sure, we’ve lost with regularity on the road this season, but had emerged with credit and a clutch of mitigating circumstances until now. This defeat, and its dispiriting nature, offers very little comfort, but instead a sobering assessment of just how cruelly injuries are biting and how extensively we’ll be punished for sloppy performances.
Not that the horrible run of injuries can be exclusively cited as the reason for our heaviest defeat of the season. A questionable formation and some remarkably insipid personal performances were at least as responsible. It means we enter the international break in a reflective mood.
The formation, then. It was 3-5-1-1, reminiscent in theory of the one that served us so admirably in the second half of last season, when the Aluko-less City were grinding out win after win en route to promotion. For this game, it was populated thus: Harper; Figueroa, Davies, McShane; Elmohamady, Huddlestone, Livermore, Meyler, Rosenior; Boyd; Sagbo.
It didn’t take awfully long to realise it wasn’t going to work.
From the start Southampton were on, pressing City with extraordinary effectiveness, keeping possession and attacking with pace, power and invention. It was not wholly dissimilar to the chastening beginning to the Chelsea match. City’s area was being peppered with dangerous crosses, the Tigers completely unable to halt their supply, and a goal seemed inevitable.
What a pity it arrived in such dismal circumstances. Another cross was launched into the penalty area, Lambert won the first header and Schneiderlin the second to make it 1-0. And if you lose successive headers in your own penalty area, you deserve to have bad things happen. Poor defending, Southampton embarrassed themselves with goal music, and we feared a bad afternoon.
And we were right. Southampton, to their huge credit, didn’t let up at all. Their ruthless determination to put City to the sword was rewarded once more on the half-hour with a second goal. Lambert sent a clever through ball to Lallana, Harper fatally hesitated over whether to come off his line to intercept, and by the time he arrived on the scene Lallana was able to easily beat him to it and execute a splendidly theatrical tumble to the turf. Penalty? No-one really argued, and just because you absurdly exaggerate a fall doesn’t mean it’s not a foul. Harper was cautioned, Lambert blasted home the penalty, and already it was a case of just how many.
What on earth was going wrong? Well, everything. Davies looked discomfited as part of a central trio, Rosenior was lost on the left, Elmohamady a virtual passenger, with the gaps between the two wing-backs being repeatedly exploited. Livermore was toiling but swamped, with Huddlestone having an oddly discordant afternoon. Up front, nothing was sticking, no support was offered to Boyd and Sagbo and the ball just kept coming back. The City fans, 1,400 strong but already in morose silence, fretted and prayed for respite.
It arrived, but not before any slim hopes that a half-time reorganisation could rescue things were dashed. And once more, the defending was some distance from the required standard. Lallana collected possession in the centre, wandered out to the Southampton left, danced through some stunningly weak challenges (when did Paul McShane turn into Matt Hocking?) and then, almost unable to believe the ease with which he’d cut through a previously robust defence, steered a low shot past Harper. A fine goal for sure, and we should always note moments of skill from the opposition however harmful they are – but goodness, this was seriously poor stuff from City.
Half-time, and the opportunity to obtain much-needed alcohol. It was also a chance for Steve Bruce to switch the formation, with 4-4-2 restored and Elmohamady hooked in favour of Robert Koren.
It worked, briefly. For a bit. A rare mistake by Southampton saw possession coughed up thirty yards from goal to Sagbo. With only two Saints in attendance, he marched forward and coolly passed it in the bottom corner past Artur Boruc.
That’s the first time the Southampton keeper has been mentioned so far. Telling.
A fine finish, and it brought about a rally, both on and off the field. A few minutes later the ball bounced up for Huddlestone on the edge of the area, and his sweetly hit volley was unlucky to go straight to Boruc; a yard either side and it’d have presented him with problems. Had that gone in, an epic resurrection couldn’t have been ruled out.
Eventually, City’s ten minute flurry tailed off, and Southampton resumed control of the game that was to remain for its duration. Davis replaced Wanyama shortly before Harper produced an excellent save to deny Lambert, a Fonte shot was charged down by Davies, then he headed a cross over as it once more came rather embarrassingly one-sided.
Steve Bruce brought Danny Graham on for Meyler, Osvaldo replaced Lambert and then Quinn came on for Boyd as both sides prepared for the final minutes. And during those final minutes, Southampton finally achieved the sort of scoreline their unstoppable performance merited.
Another fine (and unprevented) cross found Davis in a worrying amount of space at the far post, and his low shot was never going to miss.
I’m afraid this doleful account must finish here, as this observer left at this point. A spot of justification: I hate early leavers, not only because they’re bailing on the team, but because one day they’re going to miss an amazing, improbable late comeback. The last time I exitted early was October 1996, when Tigers 2000 arranged a walkout during a dismal home defeat to Fulham. And had it remained 3-1, our group would have remained defiantly stood in St Marys until the bitter end, Just In Case; but that stadium is a full mile from the railway station, the 1715 to Birmingham was the only one that’d get us back to Hull the same day and was unlikely to wait, and the thought of getting on the train following that sort of display without going to the off-licence first was unbearable. It appears we missed little.
We can do nothing more than hope that this was a bad day at the office, aggravated by the desperate series of injuries to our very best players. There were always going to be hefty losses at this level, particularly to the best sides, and anyone who doubts that Southampton aren’t one of those hasn’t been paying attention.
So, we need not lose heart. A fortnight off awaits, during which we must hope for better news on the injury front, and we trust that the team’s confidence will be unduly harmed. We always knew it’d be the case, but even more than ever – that game against Crystal Palace is going to be absolutely crucial.