Key talking points ahead of Saints vs Middlesbrough — Walker-Peters, defence and more

FRIDAY’S home game against Mid­dles­brough marks Southamp­ton’s return to Cham­pi­onship action.

Saints have not played since their 4–2 win over Sun­der­land on March 9. It will have been 20 days since that game by the time kick­off rolls around.

Southamp­ton need to ensure a pos­i­tive per­for­mance and result if they are to catch the teams above them in the pro­mo­tion hunt.

Here are five key talk­ing points ahead of the clash at St Mary’s…

Start of the pro­mo­tion run-in

Fri­day’s game against Michael Car­rick­’s Mid­dles­brough is the first of 10 games across a win­dow of just 36 days.

With Saints cur­rent­ly off the pace in the pro­mo­tion race, they can ill afford to lose any of those 10 games if they are to make it to the Pre­mier League.

They start off with a home fix­ture against a Boro side who are hop­ing to make it into the play­offs before the sea­son draws to a close.

Seek­ing revenge

Mid­dles­brough were 2–1 win­ners at the River­side Sta­di­um when these two sides met ear­li­er this sea­son thanks to a penal­ty from Jon­ny How­son.

Not only was that defeat Southamp­ton’s fourth straight loss, it also marked Boro’s first win of the sea­son.

Rus­sell Mar­tin and his play­ers have not for­got­ten how dis­ap­point­ed they felt after that result and will look to put things right on Fri­day. 

Daily Echo: Kyle Walk­er-Peters return?

Mar­tin has pre­vi­ous­ly out­lined that this game is the most like­ly return date for the injured Kyle Walk­er-Peters.

The two-time Eng­land inter­na­tion­al has been out since Southamp­ton’s 3–0 FA Cup defeat to Liv­er­pool at Anfield.

Pri­or to his injury, Walk­er-Peters had played every minute of the Cham­pi­onship cam­paign — a clear sign of how impor­tant he is to the club.

When com­pared to oth­er play­ers in the Cham­pi­onship, he ranks in the 95.3 per­centile for drib­bles per 90 min­utes (2.18) with a suc­cess rate of 68.3 per cent.

He also ranks in the 95.3 per­centile for touch­es in the oppo­si­tion box per 90 min­utes with 3.79.

Both Walk­er-Peters and Ryan Fras­er have been pic­tured back in train­ing dur­ing the inter­na­tion­al break.

Improve­ment need­ed at the back

Southamp­ton have con­ced­ed 18 goals in their last eight games — a record that falls far short of what is required for a team gun­ning for Pre­mier League foot­ball.

In con­trast, Leeds have con­ced­ed four goals in that time, Leices­ter have leaked 13 and Ipswich have allowed nine.

Across the whole sea­son, Saints have con­ced­ed the 8th least goals per match in the divi­sion (1.3), mean­ing they have it with­in them to shut up shop.

It remains to be seen whether Mar­tin will per­sist with his new defen­sive sys­tem, which sees Jack Stephens and Tay­lor Har­wood-Bel­lis deployed in ver­sa­tile roles designed to help build up play.

Daily Echo: Saints manager Russell Martin and defenders Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Jack Stephens

READ MORE: Southamp­ton’s Mar­tin has one big prob­lem ahead of Cham­pi­onship finale

Record on return from pre­vi­ous inter­na­tion­al breaks

Southamp­ton have had a mixed bag of results across the three games direct­ly after an inter­na­tion­al break this sea­son.

The Sep­tem­ber break was fol­lowed by a crush­ing 4–1 loss to Leices­ter, they beat Hull 2–1 fol­low­ing the Octo­ber camp and were held to a 1–1 draw by Hud­der­s­field in Novem­ber.

Train­ing num­bers are nat­u­ral­ly deplet­ed dur­ing the inter­na­tion­al win­dow with key play­ers jet­ting off with their nation­al teams.

Mar­tin may call upon play­ers who have stayed at Sta­ple­wood rather than those who have been away in order to get some con­sis­ten­cy from train­ing to match­day.

How­ev­er, that tac­tic would see them lose too many first-choice play­ers, so per­haps a mixed selec­tion is the best bet.