Nathan Jones’s long wait for his first Premier League home game in charge of Southampton ended in a 3-1 defeat to Brighton at St Mary’s on Boxing Day.
The hosts trailed by two at the interval, after former Saint Adam Lallana headed in the opener, before Romain Perraud diverted a low cross into his own net.
A double substitution at half time breathed new life into Saints, who were much better in the second period, but Solly March’s long-range thunderbolt left Jones’s side with a mountain to climb.
James Ward-Prowse did pull a goal back, heading in the rebound after Robert Sánchez saved his initial spot-kick, but it was too little, too late as Saints were beaten on their return to Premier League action after 44 days away.
Jones made three changes from the starting line-up he selected for Tuesday’s Carabao Cup win over Lincoln, including a first Premier League start for Samuel Edozie, who would be Saints’ most threatening attacker all afternoon.
Elsewhere, Ibrahima Diallo and Moussa Djenepo were also recalled, as Armel Bella-Kotchap, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Adam Armstrong dropped to the bench.
Some neat play straight from the kick-off earned Saints the game’s first corner, from which Ward-Prowse’s teasing delivery needed to be turned behind for another by Sánchez, as Mohamed Elyounoussi closed in on the keeper.
Brighton’s response was a sprint into the box from lively winger Kaoru Mitoma, who forced Gavin Bazunu to be quick off his line and shut down the angles, giving Mitoma very little to aim at.
What followed was a sustained spell of possession from the visitors, who were looking comfortable on the ball, but in Edozie Saints have a counter-attacking threat down the left.
When the 19-year-old escaped, his first cross was blocked before his second picked out the surging Elyounoussi, who threw himself at the ball but could not direct his header back across Sánchez, who was able to gather at the second attempt.
Saints could be happy enough with their start, but Bazunu’s error allowed the Seagulls to edge in front on 14 minutes, when March was afforded too much time to step inside on to his stronger left foot and cross for Lallana, whose glancing header somehow escaped the clutches of Bazunu.
The goal gave Brighton even more confidence, as the Seagulls continued to lend the ball to one another, but when Saints won it back they tried to break quickly and directly.
Edozie remained at the heart of that, and when he was barged over on 25 minutes, Ward-Prowse had a free-kick in exactly the sort of range he likes.
Up stepped the skipper, who sent Sánchez scampering to his right, but the strike just curled away from the Spaniard’s right-hand post with the keeper at full stretch.
The worry for Jones would have been the ease with which Brighton were penetrating Saints’ defence, as Pervis Estupińán surged forward on the overlap and crossed low, beyond Bazunu, and against the unfortunate Perraud, who deflected the ball into his own net.
A matter of moments later, it was Leandro Trossard racing into the same channel and crossing for Mitoma, who headed over.
Mitoma went close once more before the interval thanks to more clever link-up play from Trossard, as Bazunu made another close-range save, while Saints were pushing for a route back into the contest at the other end, as Elyounoussi looped a header off target and Diallo saw a shot blocked from the edge of the box.
Jones’s half-time response was to make a double substitution, introducing Stuart Armstrong and Joe Aribo for Djenepo and Diallo.
Straightaway there was more intensity about Saints, an extra sense of urgency. Armstrong spotted Edozie in space, whose first touch let him down before his quick feet engineered another shooting chance that he blazed over.
Then Ché Adams, so often the target from crosses, chested one back for Edozie to strike, but Lewis Dunk’s last-ditch block kept Saints at bay.
Jones took off Perraud and shifted Kyle Walker-Peters to the left flank to accommodate Maitland-Niles on the right, but March instantly took the game away from the hosts with a Goal of the Month contender.
Again, perhaps it was too easy for a left-footed player on the right to come inside, but March made Saints pay in style, rifling an unstoppable rising drive into the top corner, high to Bazunu’s right.
The goalscorer threatened to turn provider once more when he beat Walker-Peters and crossed for Mitoma, whose miss from six yards was largely inexcusable.
That left Saints with a glimmer of a chance, and Edozie took matters into his own hands 20 minutes from time, as he set off on a solo run from the left touchline.
Sidestepping his first defender, he raced towards the penalty area, jinked inside Dunk and was blocked off by Pascal Groß, who was penalised by referee Robert Jones.
VAR had a good look at it, with Groß protesting that he had not made a challenge, but the on-field decision would stand.
After a lengthy delay, Ward-Prowse went eye to eye with Sánchez, who saved his penalty, diving to his right, but could not prevent the skipper nodding the loose ball over the line to reduce the deficit.
Sánchez seemed rattled by the loss of his clean sheet, and perhaps lucky to escape a second yellow card for shoving Adams, before his wayward distribution sparked ironic cheers from the Saints fans, who sensed an unlikely route back for their team.
Sékou Mara and Adam Armstrong were both summoned from the bench as Saints pushed for a second, but Brighton held firm to continue their impressive season to date.