Southampton must take Fraser Forster and Jack Stephens out of the firing line

Claude Puel is one of the most-mild mannered managers in Premier League history but the Southampton boss needs to show his ruthless streak to keep alive the club's hopes of achieving a top eight finish.

For 45 minutes of Tuesday's 4-2 defeat at Chelsea, Puel's men looked like they could have the beating of champions-elect Chelsea. But for all their vibrant and creative attack play, the south coast side were undone by the type of shambolic defending that has become the hallmark of their season, especially since the absence of star man and captain Virgil van Dijk.

It was the same story in the 3-2 defeat to Manchester United in February's EFL Cup final at Wembley, when for large periods Southampton played Jose Mourinho's team off the park, only to leave Zlatan Ibrahimovic unmarked inside their penalty area to head a crushing late winner.

Puel will tell you his players take collective responsibility for such errors, but there are two major factors in their new-found inability to keep clean sheets, namely the troubling form of goalkeeper Fraser Forster and the weaknesses in the centre back partnership of Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens.

In Forster's case the cracks in his armoury have been clear to see for much of the season.

Where once there was an almost impenetrable 6-foot-7 wall in the Southampton goalmouth, there now stands a player who has become the shadow of his former self, slow to get down to shots, lacking the self-belief and confidence to command his penalty area, and who regularly plays his team into trouble with poor distribution.

In short, Forster has under-performed too regularly to be guaranteed his status as Southampton's No. 1.

The continuing absence of injured Alex McCarthy, recruited from Crystal Palace in the summer as competition for Forster, coupled with the frankly bizarre signing of veteran Stuart Taylor has limited Puel's options.

However the manager did return to old club Nice to take Mouez Hassen on loan in January and it surely the time to blood the French under-21 international against relegation-haunted Hull on Saturday.

Forster looks like he could do with a rest and a spell out of the limelight, and with Southampton neither troubled by the threat of relegation or a challenge for a spot in Europe what does Puel have to lose?

It may be the kickstart that Forster needs to rediscover his lost form in time for the start of next season. There is no doubting his talents, which were evident in his first two years after his £10 million arrival from Celtic, but something has to give if he is to get back to those high standards.

Forster's shakiness has also had an impact on the defenders in front of him, which brings us on to the second issue: Puel's strange reluctance to blood former Juventus centre-back Martin Caceres.

When Caceres was recruited as an expensive free agent in the lead up to the EFL Cup final he was expected to take Stephens' place alongside Yoshida. But having not kicked a ball in anger for the first-team, Southampton fans are wondering what was the point in bringing in the experienced Uruguayan at all?

Again, with Hull struggling for goals on their travels, this would seem to be the ideal fixture to hand Caceres his debut and take Stephens out of the firing line.

The England U21 international has enjoyed some excellent performances in his breakthrough season and has certainly not disgraced himself in deputising for the stricken Van Dijk. But young players need nurturing and it is asking a lot mentally and physically for Stephens to play 90 minutes every game.

Making bold decisions has not been a trademark of Puel's management career but now is the time to throw caution to the wind by making these two changes.