If a mini mid-winter revival under Dean Smith offered Norwich City faint hope, this defeat saw them revert to type. On this evidence, the remainder of the season promises to be a slog and it would have been a travesty had Southampton only came away with a slender victory. Just as it seemed Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side would have to settle for what would have been tantamount to a one-nil battering, the midfielder Oriol Romeu smacked in a wonderful effort from the edge of the box with a couple of minutes to spare, building on Che Adams’s first-half strike. Southampton, who have lost just once at home all season, are keeping good company in the top half.
The home support were able to afford a communal chuckle at the slapstick manner of Adams’s 36th-minute opener but it made painful viewing from a Norwich perspective. Brandon Williams, who struggled at left-back, made a sliding intervention but inadvertently gifted the ball to the swarming Tino Livramento and the teenager sent a low cross into the six-yard box. Angus Gunn, the Norwich goalkeeper whose last Premier League game at this ground was for Southampton in the infamous 9-0 defeat to Leicester, skewered the ball with his right boot and it bounced off Max Aarons and to Adams. The Southampton striker made a mess of applying the finishing touch, swiping at thin air the first time around before finally scooping the ball over the line and setting off towards the corner in celebration. By then, Gunn had repelled a Mohamed Elyounoussi volley and a deflected strike by the superb Stuart Armstrong as Southampton peppered the Norwich goal.
Hasenhüttl once compared the Scotland striker Adams’s previous struggles in front of goal to the all-or-nothing nature of shaking ketchup out of a bottle but this scruffy strike from close range against feeble opponents represented a ninth goal in 16 games for club and country. “It felt a tough night,” Smith said. “I thought Southampton played at a high level and we had too many six out of 10s and if you have that you’re not going to compete in the Premier League. We weren’t aggressive enough without the ball and certainly not good enough with it. Teemu [Pukki] was isolated but he is going to be when you cannot string three or four passes together.”
Smith stewed in the away technical area. Williams found the going tough against the roaming Livramento and the full-back presented the voracious Armando Broja with a sight of goal after overcooking a simple pass into Mathias Normann, but the striker’s shot dribbled at Gunn. Josh Sargent had a shot blocked after Pukki expertly turned Jan Bednarek before Billy Gilmour dropped the rebound wide but Norwich, who have lost nine of their past 12 league matches, did not offer anything to suggest they are going to wriggle clear of relegation. “We have to put it into context but the players know they have to be better than they were,” Smith said. “I don’t believe it was a backwards step in terms of the mentality and belief. We just didn’t play at a good enough level.”
Southampton have now lost just one of their past 12 matches. Pukki enjoyed the odd foray upfield – Kenny McLean skied a shot after the striker cut the ball back to the edge of the box – but he was a one-man band and his frustration caught up with him when he tugged at Livramento’s shirt. On the opposite flank Norwich could not live with the again brilliant Kyle Walker-Peters. It seemed a matter of when and not if a dominant Southampton would double their advantage. Gunn kept out another Armstrong shot, and a volley by Walker-Peters with 20 minutes to play. Armstrong then flashed another shot wide.
Gunn looked at the yellow shirts before him aghast. Southampton were stupidly comfortable and when Norwich did locate the ineffective Milot Rashica with an incisive through pass Mohammed Salisu switched on the afterburners to steal the ball. Norwich roused now and then – Salisu stood his ground when Pukki swivelled neatly in the box with 15 minutes to play and Grant Hanley glanced wide unmarked to Smith’s pain – but with the final whistle approaching Romeu leathered in emphatically from the edge of the box.
Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough blared at the final whistle, a fitting soundtrack for the Saints who march on. “We knew these are the toughest wins because everybody expects it, against a team who are super organised and fighting for everything,” Hasenhüttl said. “A fantastic shot by Ori calmed the game down. The crowd is fully believing in us.”