Stuart Armstrong has only started three competitive games for Southampton since his £7million switch this past summer. While it’s not ideal for a player Scotland fans would have been hoping would take the next step and develop further in the “Greatest League In the World”, it does appear he’s been a victim of circumstance rather than suffering a sustained period of poor form.
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The ex-Celtic and Dundee United star was the darling of the pre-season. Fans raved about his performances as he reproduced the trademark runs and long-range shooting ability which made him one of Scottish football’s best players.
@Almangrayharis wrote on Twitter after the friendly with Celta Vigo: “Thinking about how good Stuart Armstrong was today, actually world class.”
He remained in the team for the first game of the campaign, a 0-0 draw with Burnley, where the midfielder acquitted himself very well before being forced off with injury: “Armstrong was our best player until he went down,” wrote Bettswresident on Saints Web, the leading fans forum.
Despite the 26-year-old being fit enough for a place on the bench the following week, he’s barely been seen in the attacking line-up since.
Chris Hughes, writing for fans website Saints Marching, offered an explanation when Armstrong was omitted from the squad for a 2-2 draw with Brighton in mid-September (despite him starting in a 1-0 win over the same opposition in the League Cup) which followed another non-appearance for a game against Crystal Palace.
“Another reason which could explain his absence could be the switch in formation. After rotating between a 3-4-2-1 and 3-5-2 almost exclusively in pre-season, it was binned after just over 45 minutes in the Premier League for a 4-4-2,” wrote Hughes.
“The only games Armstrong has started was in the 3-5-2 in that match against Burnley on the opening day, and when [manager] Mark Hughes experimented with a 4-2-3-1 in the Carabao Cup win over Brighton. Either side of that we’ve seen him limited to just ten minutes of involvement.
“Granted, despite his energy levels, the ex-Celtic man doesn’t possess a great defensive game and therefore having him occupy a role in a midfield two wouldn’t be wise – he’d need to play in at least a three or in his natural CAM position we’ve seen him play in those two aforementioned starts.
“However if Southampton’s back-up plan was always to play 4-4-2 it begs the question why they signed such a one-dimensional player? It’s not a massive draw-back or criticism of Armstrong’s game, but if the Saints are to stick with this two-striker formation we’re unlikely to see the £7 million arrival get much more than cameo appearances.”
Little knocks and strains, the types of injury which curtailed his influence during his final season at Celtic Park, have also played a part. However, there does now seem to be cause for optimism.
Armstrong started at the weekend, his first since August, as Saints drew 1-1 with Watford. Despite missing a good chance to extend the home side’s advantage, the reviews of his performance were largely positive as he operated in the No.10 role of a 4-2-3-1.
PeteCampbell said: “I thought Armstrong was overall very good though and the goals will come with him as he gets more starts.”
Derry added: “Armstrong looks better than Elyanoussi and taking him off for James Ward-Prowse was crass.”
And Pimpin4rizeal asked: “Why the likes...Armstrong get ignored so often baffles me. They looked great in pre season so why always benched?”
There is light at the end of the tunnel, though he’ll have to start taking the sort of chance which came his way on Saturday if he’s to continue in his favoured No.10 position. With Saints just above the relegation places on goal difference, Hughes will have a very short leash on his summer signging.
Let’s hope, for the sake of Armstrong and Scotland, he has a strong international break and comes back with an excellent performance in Southampton’s trip to Fulham - provided he’s given the chance.