The two teams at the very bottom of the Premier League table meet when Southampton host Watford at St Mary’s on Saturday (5.30pm live on Sky Sports).
Both sides have struggled badly so far this season. Watford are dead last, with just one victory and eight points to their name from their first 13 matches of the campaign. Southampton are a place and point ahead of them in 19th, with two wins on the board.
It is not a situation that either club really expected themselves to be in. Watford finished up in 11th last season, 16 points clear of the bottom three. Although Southampton did look in trouble at times, they eventually finished five points and two places above the drop zone. Both thought they would be looking at solid mid-table finishes this season.
Instead, they are down in the relegation places a third of the way into the campaign. The bottom half of the table is relatively tight and they certainly still have time to claw their way out of trouble, but neither of them have underlying statistics that suggest their current positions are a poor reflection of their performances. They have been among the worst teams in the division.
There should perhaps be a little bit more optimism on the south coast. The bookmakers have Watford as the second favourites for relegation behind Norwich (currently 18th), with their odds implying that they have a greater than 50% chance of going down. Southampton are viewed a bit more favourably, with more chance of sneaking ahead of one of the other candidates to stay up.
Part of that optimism is due to the difficulty of the fixtures Saints have faced so far. They have already played all of last season’s top nine, and their defensive record, the worst in the division, is very much skewed by the 0-9 thrashing they received after being reduced to 10 men just 12 minutes into their home match against Leicester last month.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side even came exceedingly close to taking all three points away to Arsenal at the weekend. Danny Ings gave them an early lead and although their hosts swiftly equalised, James Ward-Prowse restored Southampton’s advantage with twenty minutes to play. Just as they seemed on course for victory, Arsenal scored an injury time leveller.
Now comes the reward for such a stacked early schedule. Saturday’s match begins what could easily be a season-defining stretch of games against other potential relegation candidates. In their next five fixtures, Southampton host Watford, Norwich and West Ham, and travel to Newcastle and Aston Villa. Their situation could look very different if they are able to get three or more wins in that time.
Watford don’t have quite such a convenient excuse for their own poor start to the season. Nearly half of their matches have been against teams currently situated in the bottom half of the table, while they have also only faced four members of last season’s top six. Even a change of coach, from Javi Gracia to Quique Sanchez Flores, hasn’t produced much improvement.
Last season was a superb one for Watford, combining their best league finish since the mid-eighties with a run to the FA Cup final. Things had already started to decline during the latter part of that campaign. Results didn’t change too much, but their underlying numbers fell off a cliff, especially defensively. After a summer in which they didn’t really strengthen an ageing squad, it isn’t perhaps all that much of a surprise that they are where they are.
It isn’t a case of simple imbalance that could perhaps be solved on the training pitch or in the January transfer window. Watford are bad at both ends of the pitch. They have scored just eight times to date (and two of those were penalties), three less than anyone else, and conceded 26 times, the third-worst record in the division.
Southampton couldn’t really ask for a better opponent against whom to kick off a series of matches that they hope will allow them to pull clear of the bottom three in the run up to Christmas. Even in the midst of a poor run of form that has seen them go winless in the league since September, they should still have the slight edge on Watford this weekend.
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