Charlie Austin could be key to handing Claude Puel his first Southampton win
Charlie Austin's storybook start to his Southampton career seems a long time ago, but Claude Puel should turn to the front man to give his St Mary's reign the jumpstart it requires against Sunderland on Saturday.
Almost from the moment Austin completed his surprise transfer from Queens Park Rangers in January, Saints fans were crowing they had pulled off one of the signings of the century. After scoring within minutes of coming on as a substitute to lead the south coast side to an historic 1-0 win against Manchester United at Old Trafford on his debut, Austin's modest £4 million transfer fee looked like an even bigger bargain.
Injuries have restricted Austin to just two Premier League starts since his heroics at the Theatre of Dreams, and the ex-Burnley striker has not been able to add to his goal tally. Used as a substitute in each of Puel's first two Premier League games as manager, his impact has been limited to start the new campaign.
With Shane Long struggling to replicate his excellent goal-scoring form from last season -- which helped fire Southampton to a Europa League place -- this weekend could be the perfect time to give Austin a chance to show what he is capable of.
Long cut a frustrated figure as he was substituted during the second half of Friday's 2-0 defeat to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired Manchester United, his toothless team having failed to muster a meaningful shot on target. The guitar-loving player has been distinctly off-key, not just since his return to domestic duty but also during the European Championship with the Republic of Ireland where the toils of a long season appeared to take their toll.
It is also clear that the controversial midfield diamond formation -- which Puel has stuck to rigidly in the early weeks of the season since replacing Ronald Koeman -- does not play to Long's strengths as it leaves him isolated up front.
Austin is more suited to the new system and would work better as a target man than Long, who is better at racing onto passes and exploiting defences with his pace rather than holding the ball up. While it is too early in Puel's tenure to make any clear-cut conclusions about his ability to manage in the Premier League, Sunderland's visit already looks like a significant fixture.
The Black Cats have made their customary poor start to the season, failing to win either of their first two league games for the seventh year in a row. Like Puel, David Moyes is still trying to impose himself on Sunderland's style of play, but having sold Younes Kaboul to Watford and with want-away Lamine Kone kicking his heels at home they have obvious defensive vulnerabilities which Saints can exploit.
In order to expose them, Puel's men will have to show more creative spark than they did at United and in their laboured 1-1 draw at home to Watford on the opening day of the season.
Puel seems obsessed by possession stats and wants Southampton to keep the ball. But, as champions Leicester City showed last season, possession is no longer king.
A more direct approach could pay dividends against a Sunderland side already portraying a lack of confidence, and an in-form Austin could be the key to handing Puel a much-needed first win. Will the former Nice and Lyon coach be brave enough to put his faith in the former bricklayer to pave the foundations for what he hopes will be a successful maiden season in English football?
Alex Crook is ESPN FC's Southampton blogger. Follow him on Twitter @alex_crook