Shane Long's profligacy opens door for Charlie Austin to start for Saints
As the rest of his teammates mobbed starlet Jake Hesketh following his maiden Southampton goal in Wednesday's 2-0 EFL Cup win over Crystal Palace, most inside the St Mary's Stadium missed Shane Long kicking his boot against a post in frustration. It was a bizarre moment, drawn to the nation's attention by eagle-eyed former England goalkeeper David James while working as pundit for television show Football on 5.
Long could not hide his distress having just passed up a golden chance to find the net for the first time this season when Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey saved his close-range one-on-one effort before Hesketh gleefully dispatched the rebound into the top corner.
Realising he was in danger of stealing the spotlight away from midfielder Hesketh, 20 -- the latest product from Saints' fertile and world-renowned youth academy -- Long quickly regained his composure and, sporting a wry smile, cajoled himself into joining in the celebrations. However it was not the first time this season Long has let his frustrations get the better of him, publicly portraying his unhappiness after being substituted during the 2-0 reverse at Manchester United in August.
Despite still being regarded by his training-ground colleagues as a vital cog in the Saints wheel, there is no disguising the fact Long's lack of form has taken its toll on the affable Republic of Ireland striker. Gone is the smile that adorned his face for much of last season, when his best ever Premier League goal haul helped drive Southampton to a Europa League place that looked improbable halfway through the campaign.
It was a similar story during the European Championship in France, when a combination of being starved of service and the weariness from running himself into the ground week-in week-out for Saints saw Long struggle to make any kind of impact. In fact, you have to go back 14 games to Ireland's 1-1 friendly draw with Netherlands in May, in front of the watching Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino -- who was linked with a summer move for the former Hull and West Brom marksman -- for Long's last goal for club or country.
Long ended speculation about leaving the south coast by penning a bumper new contract on the eve of the season, and perhaps the security that comes with knowing he has signed the last big paycheque of his career has also contributed to his newfound profligacy.
Whatever the reason for the reversal in fortunes, and despite a much improved performance in the Palace triumph, manager Claude Puel has a big call to make over Long's place in his team, especially with fellow striker Charlie Austin bang in form having scored four goals in his last three matches.
Puel's decision to leave out Austin for last weekend's 1-0 win over Swansea, when the ex-QPR ace came off the bench to score a second-half winner, raised eyebrows. If the out-of-sorts Long is once again preferred to Austin when Southampton, searching for a fourth straight win in all competitions, travel to the resplendent London Stadium to face struggling West Ham on Sunday, the former has every right to feel aggrieved.
Against Palace, Long's runs into the channel, stretching an injury-hit Eagles defence, helped produce openings for Austin. However Puel remains keen to shoehorn winger Nathan Redmond into a central striking role, even comparing the summer signing from Norwich to Arsenal icon Thierry Henry, whom he coached in France.
Assuming Redmond starts on Sunday, either Long or Austin will find themselves surveying proceedings from the bench. If judged by this season's performance, there is only one inevitable outcome.
Alex Crook is ESPN FC's Southampton blogger. Follow him on Twitter @alex_crook