Before kick-off, nobody on Friday evening could have possibly predicted that a joint-record Premier League defeat was ahead for Southampton. Although the Saints have had a below-par start to the season, sitting 18th in the table, they weren’t really considered to be in a relegation battle by pundits and fans alike. Nine goals fired past Angus Gunn later and those views have significantly changed. Four years on from Southampton competing in the Europa League, it has been a relatively swift decline since. But how has this come to be?
POOR PLAYER RECRUITMENT
It has to be said that one of the main reasons for this drop is big money purchases that have simply failed to work out. According to Transfermarkt.co.uk, Jannik Vestergaard is the Saints’ record signing at £22.5m. Vestergaard has failed to win over the St Mary’s faithful since his arrival in the summer of 2018 and was a part of a back three for the 9 – 0 defeat to Southampton, his lack of pace much maligned. Vestergaard is a far cry from the defensive solidarity of Jose Fonte and Virgil van Dijk of the 2015/16 season.
Another poor buy in recent years was the £19.8m signing of Argentinian striker Guido Carrillo from Monaco in January 2018. Carrillo made a total of 10 appearances, scoring 0 goals in the process before being loaned to Leganes where he spent last season. He returned to the club in the summer but didn’t impress Ralph Hassenhuttl and was sent back to Leganes for another temporary spell. Widely regarded as Southampton’s worst ever value-for-money signing, Carrillo will be unlikely to feature again for the Saints and this transfer will be considered a wasted investment by those in the Southampton boardroom. It’s fair to say Carrillo won’t be remembered as having the same goalscoring prowess as Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle of years gone by.
The previous two names stick out as the worst buys in recent memory but other dishonorable mentions must go to the left-wing duo of Sofiane Boufal and Mohammed Elyounoussi, both £16.5m signings, the former, at time of writing, has clocked up 4 goals and 5 assists in 68 appearances, which can be considered nowhere near enough to justify the hefty price tag shelled out on him. The latter, made 19 appearances for the Saints last season, registering no goals and no assists. That is a woeful statistic, one which Hassenhuttl will be not have been impressed with, sending the Norwegian winger on loan to Celtic for this season.
Other mentions for this category include Mario Lemina, Manolo Gabbiadini and Wesley Hoedt. Lemina and Hoedt have both been sent out on loan to Galatasaray and Royal Antwerp respectively following their big money moves to the club and Gabbiadini has since moved on to Sampdoria after scoring 12 goals in 60 games in the red and white after a £15m move from Napoli.
After Ronald Koeman guided Southampton to a 7th placed finish 2014/15 season and then an 6th placed finish the season following that, everything was going perfectly on the south coast and it seemed as if Koeman would have a job in Hampshire for as long as he wanted to stay there. However, ahead of the 2016/17 season, Everton came knocking for Koeman and he was willing to leave, leaving Southampton managerless and unexpectedly needing to identify a new manager to appoint in his place. However, in the four seasons that have followed no manager has lived up to the 48.35%-win percentage recorded by the Dutchman.
Koeman’s replacement came in the form of Claude Puel, who spent one season at the club before being sacked. Puel secured an 8th placed finish as well as finishing as runners up in the Capital One Cup, which was a successful season for the Saints. However, the fans had never really warmed to his style of football, in addition to a poor end to the season where his side only scored 17 goals in their final 19 matches and didn’t score in six of their seven last home matches. A harsh sacking at first glance but a justified one when looking at the bigger picture. Puel would later go on to manage Leicester City and Saint-Etienne.
Mauricio Pellegrino (not to be confused with previous Saints’ manager Mauricio Pochettino) was next up the Southampton dugout having had a successful season at Alaves in LaLiga. The Saints never really got going under Pellegrino and after seven months of negative football, including one victory in his last 17 matches, he was relieved of his duties with Southampton in a real relegation battle.
Next in at St Mary’s to try and drag Southampton to safety was Mark Hughes. Hughes succeeded in his task of keeping his side in the Premier for the 2017/18 season and not long after signed a new three-year deal at the club. Things quickly turned sour though with the Saints 18th in the league in December and the supporters rapidly growing tired of constant negative football, Hughes was sacked and left his post with a dire record of five wins in 27 matches.
Quickly in to replace Hughes was former RB Leipzig manager Ralph Hassenhuttl, which appeared to be a very progressive football as the Saints’ boardroom had finally appointed a manager who says his side will play attacking, front-foot football. Hassenhuttl succeeded in keeping Southampton in the top-flight for another season and tried his best to reduce an extremely bloated squad in the summer, creating lots of optimism for the 2019/20 campaign which has yielded an underwhelming start for the Saints as they look destined to once again find themselves in a relegation battle. Hassenhuttl’s job doesn’t appear to be under pressure at the moment although Friday night’s disastrous result against Leicester may raise a few questions as to whether the Austrian has the credentials to take the club forward. For now, at least, it seems he has the backing of the club and the supporters, although that could change very quickly.
It appears to be the case that no matter who is in the St Mary’s hotseat, it is becoming a more difficult task year-on-year to guide the Southampton back to their former glory of just a few years ago. How soon they will, if ever, return to European competition remains to be seen and whether Hassenhuttl is the man to do so remains to be seen. His contract runs until 2021 so next season is make or break for him.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Whatever the main cause of this decline, be it the fault of players or managers, it seems obvious to suggest the blame lies with those at the top of the football club. Although there has been a reshuffle in the St Mary’s boardroom over the last 12 months with the departure of technical director Les Reed and chairman Les Reed, both of whom were heavily criticised during their times at the club, as well as former Director of Football Ross Wilson who left for Rangers earlier this month. Whether current chairman Gao Jisheng, CEO Martin Semmens and whoever takes the vacant role of Director of Football fare any better than their predecessors in recruiting the right players for the club or getting lucky on the lottery that is managerial appointments should the axe ever be swung on Hassenhuttl, only time will tell.
An important factor in helping the Saints climb the Premier League table in seasons to come will be how easy or difficult it is to shift their ‘deadwood’ players so to speak and what proportion of the original fee forked out for them they will be able to recoup and invest back into signing new players. Either way, this will be a very large rebuilding job as even if these players are sold, there is no guarantee suitable players will be bought in their place. It could be suggested that Southampton need to follow the model of a club like Norwich City who under the guidance of their Sporting Director Stuart Webber have created an identity of developing players and selling them on for a major profit whilst replacing them adequately and remaining competitive on the pitch, as demonstrated by winning the Championship last season and defeating Manchester City this season.
Some would argue that a relegation is what is best for the club, although not ideal financially, it would allow for a ‘clearing of the decks’ so to speak, removing the ineffective high-earners from the wage bill and allowing players who want to be there to thrive, similar to how West Brom have built their squad this summer and are now reaping the rewards of it. It may take a few years in the second-tier but that wouldn’t be disastrous, so long as the club doesn’t go any lower in the football pyramid, replicating a season similar to the Sunderland side of 2017/18 and quite possibly the Stoke City side of 2019/20. It would allow their fans to experience that winning feeling on a more regular basis than they currently do as well, as building a new identity on the pitch, far away from their current identity which seems to be to cling on to Premier League survival year after year which isn’t fun for anybody. This season is far from over but if Friday night is anything to go by it might be a wise idea for the club to be drawing up early plans for the possibility of spending next year in the Championship and how they can secure promotion at the first time of trying.
How Southampton bounce back from the devastating defeat of Friday night is yet to be seen (their next two matches are trips to Man City in the Carabao Cup and Premier League), but what needs to happen sooner rather than later is to arrest this decline that has been taking place over the course of the past four years, from the moment Ronald Koeman signed his name on the dotted line of that Everton contract. If not, they risk sliding even further down the leagues and looking more and more like a shadow of the team that finished 6th and qualified for the Europa League group stages not so long ago.
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