Southampton’s model has never been under as much pressure
Club have been set up for the long term but this season’s nosedive has forced them into drastic action and to re-examine the guiding principles that have served them so well
You get the impression that plenty have been hoping for Southampton finally to find themselves in this position, stuck in the relegation whirlpool and forced to make the kind of late-season decisions about sacking managers that they usually see less well-run clubs confront at this time of year.
After all, before Leicester City’s miracle of 2015-2016, there was Southampton, embarrassing all those managers and owners who said that, with the best will in the world, your league position was about your wage budget and not much else. They sold £100 million-worth of players in the summer of 2014, lost their manager Mauricio Pochettino and finished one place higher, seventh, the following May – and always the contention has been that a club cannot simply keep doing this.
Of course, the reality is that there is no real alternative when players are being courted by Champions League clubs, and although some like Sadio Mane, Morgan Schneiderlin and most recently Virgil van Dijk were kept one year longer than the players would have preferred, the final outcome was inevitable.
Southampton’s most sought-after players were never going to sign new contracts, and so the trick is choosing the moment for peak value and then trying to restart the whole process again. The same goes for the managers, at a club which lost two in succession in Pochettino and then Ronald Koeman to bigger, wealthier rivals – both of whom represented ideal figures for the club’s particular moment in history.
Mauricio Pellegrino, sacked on Monday, was given all the time the club could afford him before they feared for their Premier League status. His predecessor Claude Puel was sacked because Saints feared a similar decline under him, and one way or another they have got it.
There are few clubs obliged to cope with so much change as Southampton, who were long placed between the ruthlessly acquisitive
League’s mediocre rump of teams. Mark Hughes (left) takes charge today in the FA Cup quarter-final against Wigan Athletic with a squad that the club themselves believe to be as strong as any other, in which all fees, with the current exception of the £75million for Van Dijk in January, have been reinvested. The plan that got them to seventh in the Premier League, and a place in Europe, has worked well in the past and there remains faith in it.
The fundamental problem with Pellegrino was a tendency towards cautiousness that affects some managers who play attacking football elsewhere and then get spooked by the strength of competition in the Premier League. While Koeman’s natural confidence suited Saints well, Pellegrino retreated. The chief complaint was his unwillingness to play two strikers in any tactical guise, and in that his limiting of Manolo Gabbiadini’s game time.
The best Saints teams under Pochettino and then Koeman played with the handbrake off and it suited them – in fact, the general consensus is that the club have never invested more in higher-quality attacking