SAINTS man­ag­er Rus­sell Mar­tin has got one big prob­lem left ahead of the Cham­pi­onship run-in.

It is not the fact they must play 10 games in 36 days — although that is not ide­al either — as momen­tum could be mas­sive. 

He has no issue with scor­ing goals, as Saints aver­age more than two a game with a front three of envi­able qual­i­ty and expe­ri­ence. 

There is also depth all over the pitch with two play­ers of evi­denced reli­a­bil­i­ty in almost every sin­gle posi­tion.

The issue is a lack of clar­i­ty on what his best defence should look like — and that might mean bench­ing the club cap­tain. 

Mar­tin does not want to do that and has altered how the team build-up to accom­mo­date Jack Stephens in the last month. 

“It is about get­ting cer­tain play­ers in,” Mar­tin recent­ly explained when asked why he has fid­dled with what was a reli­able back four.  

Daily Echo: Saints did not concede twice in a league game from the end of October to mid-FebruarySaints did not con­cede twice in a league game from the end of Octo­ber to mid-Feb­ru­ary

“At the moment, this team needs Jack in it,” he said pre­vi­ous­ly, speak­ing after the 2–1 home defeat against Mill­wall.

The first point I feel com­pelled to make is that Stephens has played well on an indi­vid­ual basis in the games he has come on. 

He shows what Mar­tin wants in being brave play­ing out the back and dri­ving into mid­field in a John Stones-style role. 

Watch­ing Stephens makes me won­der if Mar­tin looks at him as the style of defend­er he wish­es he was allowed to be.

The boss often com­ments how he nev­er got to play this way, caveat­ing that with the sug­ges­tion he would not have been good enough any­way. 

Stephens is also in the team for his lead­er­ship — the deci­sion to elect him as the next club cap­tain was made with­in days of Mar­t­in’s arrival. 

“My half-time team talk was made loads eas­i­er by what he said to the play­ers in the dress­ing room before I got in there,” Mar­tin said. 

Daily Echo: Jack Stephens has made 170 appearances for SaintsJack Stephens has made 170 appear­ances for Saints

That was after the chaot­ic 4–3 win at Birm­ing­ham City the out­ing before last, with Saints 2–1 down at the break. 

How­ev­er, with all that being said, Stephens is sim­ply not as good a defend­er as Jan Bednarek or Tay­lor Har­wood-Bel­lis.

He has racked up 170 appear­ances for Saints and would start for almost every Cham­pi­onship side so it is not that much of a slight.

But the Pol­ish inter­na­tion­al and Eng­land’s under-21s cap­tain are two of the best in the entire divi­sion in their nat­ur­al posi­tions. 

This sea­son, Saints have allowed 0.92 expect­ed goals against per game in the nine match­es with Stephens play­ing 60 min­utes or more. 

The num­ber ris­es to 1.06 in the games he has played no part in, indi­cat­ing an increase in the amount and qual­i­ty of chances con­ced­ed. 

Mar­tin may also be influ­enced by the fact that Stephens did not play a minute in games against Bris­tol City and Hull City. 

These are the recent defeats in which the boss like­ly feels his team shrunk and were beat­en by a braver group of men. 

Daily Echo: Flynn Downes missed the defeats versus Bristol City and Hull City through injuryFly­nn Downes missed the defeats ver­sus Bris­tol City and Hull City through injury (Image: Stu­art Mar­tin)

This does not fac­tor in the absence of Fly­nn Downes, which meant reduced pro­tec­tion of the back four that did start.

Now the West Ham loa­nee is back, Mar­tin can play the same back four and mid­field six that large­ly saw the side 25 unbeat­en.

The obvi­ous ques­tion is why change some­thing that has been proven to work? It is a long-term effect of miss­ing Downes for those games. 

There will be at least one big deci­sion made for the vis­it of Mid­dles­brough on the return of foot­ball after the inter­na­tion­al break. 

Kyle Walk­er-Peters will be fit mean­ing Mar­tin will have Stephens, Bednarek, Har­wood-Bel­lis and Ryan Man­ning to select three from.

Daily Echo: Kyle Walker-Peters is expected back to face Middlesbrough on March 29Kyle Walk­er-Peters is expect­ed back to face Mid­dles­brough on March 29 (Image: Stu­art Mar­tin)

One of Man­ning and Stephens are most like­ly to be on the block but the deci­sion could offer clar­i­ty for the run-in. 

Mar­tin did with­draw his cap­tain after 70 min­utes against Sun­der­land in favour of a tra­di­tion­al right-back in James Bree. 

Bednarek could make Mar­t­in’s life eas­i­er as he is set for a two-match ban if he gets booked against Mid­dles­brough.

Should the 27 year old escape a 10th yel­low card in that fix­ture, the thresh­old for a ban will increase to 15 book­ings. 

It is an old Sir Alex Fer­gu­son quote that attack wins you games and defences win you titles. 

The Cham­pi­onship’s top two cur­rent­ly are the two teams with the best defen­sive record — Leeds Unit­ed have con­ced­ed 19 few­er than Saints. 

Mar­t­in’s side have shipped an unsus­tain­able nine goals in their last four games — that is going to have to change.