Southampton fans questioned how their side would fare when star striker Charlie Austin suffered a shoulder injury in December.
Now, a month after he was forced off the field during a Europa League Game against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, we can analyse how the Saints have fared in the absence of their first-choice hitman.
Put bluntly, Claude Puel’s side have not looked anywhere near as dangerous.
In the six Premier League games since Austin went down, Southampton have earned seven points and scored six goals. Though this betters the record of the previous six games, it would be fair to say that there have been many times when the South Coast club was lacking a presence up front.
Jay Rodriguez has appeared to be Puel’s preference to deputise in Austin’s place, while Shane Long has also seen minutes operating as the focal point of the attack. Rodriguez’ highlight was a brace against Bournemouth and Long scored in the New Year’s Day match with West Brom.
Ultimately, neither been convincing in their time spent in the No.9 role – at least not to the measure of the man they are replacing. While Austin was not in his best form directly before his injury, he undoubtedly added a different presence up front.
The English striker has not gone more than two consecutive starts without scoring across all competitions in 2016-17. His height and strength are a major asset for the Saints, giving teammates a target to aim for in the 18-yard area.
Given the quality of delivery that which Dusan Tadić, Cédric Soares or Ryan Bertrand can supply, the smaller-bodied options do not seem to provide the same level of threat that Austin carries. It also seems that a focus on crosses is the way that the club are set up to function, having already delivered a league high 520 balls into the box.
Alternates to the former Queens Park Rangers man are capable in the air, but while not being clinical, Austin’s ability to throw himself around in the area can often create the movement space for his teammates to carve out an opportunity.
It has also been highlighted in recent games that long balls out of the Southampton defence are not as effective without the likes of Austin to hit. Rodriguez is better with the ball at his feet and Long looks most threatening when in-behind.
The man who sits on the sidelines with a shoulder injury was the only one to provide an option similar to that of Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimović. A player capable of controlling a long ball out of the back and bringing his teammates into the game seems lacking in Puel’s side at the moment.
Unfortunately, there have been no signs of any movement made at the club to bring in a replacement. Puel iterated that there was a good chance Southampton would not make a move in the January window shortly after a four-month injury layoff was confirmed for Austin.
With only three goals coming from a striker in the seven fixtures since the 27-year-old’s injury, there are serious questions raised about how the side will fare in the latter stages of the season. Puel has put the onus on his current options to step up and fill the role, though it would appear that more serious consideration needs to put into transferring in a replacement.