Are Southampton Stagnating In The Premier League This Season?

Are Southampton Stagnating In The Premier League This Season?
Oct 15, 2017

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I remember watching Southampton play against Arsenal in their first season back in the top flight, back in 2012-2013 season. A Jos Hooiveld own goal started what at the end would be an utter humiliation. Arsenal defeated Saints 6-1 and the first season back in the top-flight was becoming a horror show for Saints’ fans.

The club had already faced both Manchester clubs and Arsenal in their first four games and had failed to win a point. As they sat at the bottom of the table, any Premier League fan would have told you that they’d be the first team to be relegated.

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The string of poor results continued and Nigel Adkins was sacked. The same Nigel Adkins who had led Southampton to back to back promotion after years of financial struggles and club mismanagement. The substantial spending thus far hadn’t materialised into results and the board felt that a change was needed.

In came Argentinian manager Mauricio Pochettino, unknown in the English household and probably in world football except in Spain, where he was the manager of Catalan club Espanyol. Mauricio had taken over Espanyol at the age of just 36 and managed to save them from relegation comfortably. He managed a best finish of eighth with the club in the season of 2010-2011. He was then relieved of his duties in November of 2012 following termination by mutual consent.

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Mauricio’s appointment was heavily scrutinized because of his anonymity. Former Southampton manager and Vice President of the League Managers Association, Lawrie Mcmenemy, once said: “With due respect to Pochettino, what does he know about our game? What does he know about the Premier League? What does he know about the dressing room, does he speak English?”

Mauricio came in silently and changed the whole season of Southampton. His side beat Chelsea and Liverpool as he steered the ship towards a satisfactory season. His high pressing, high tempo football earned him plaudits from every corner of England and opposition teams took notice. That season Southampton finished 14th.

The following season (2013-2014), Pochettino finished six places better, finishing the season in eighth, Southampton’s best ever finish in the Premier League with their best ever points tally. The attractive brand of football had caught everyone’s eyes now. ‘Poch’ was no longer unknown.

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But then came the ugly part. With every promising mid-table club’s remarkable performance comes the prospect of their best players being sold to better teams. Mauricio Pochettino, who had done a fantastic job left for Tottenham; Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren left for Liverpool and Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers left for Manchester United and Arsenal respectively. With each outgoing transfer, anxiety grew around the St. Mary’s.

Southampton hired Ronald Koeman after Pochettino’s exit but not much was expected from the Dutchman after the mass exodus of their remarkable talents. But, Koeman didn’t let Southampton fans miss Mauricio Pochettino at all.

Constantly shifting between Champions League and Europa League places, a poor run of form towards the end of the season saw them finish 7th, eclipsing their best ever finish in the Premier League era from the previous season. Graziano Pellé became one of the most menacing target men in the Premier League and Dušan Tadić became one of the most effective creators in the league. The sense of anxiety had gone and the Saints’ had announced that they are here to stay for the long-term.

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The next season brought in a lot of optimism. That season the club made two important signings in the form of Cédric Soares and Virgil van Dijk, who have become their mainstay in the current side.

The season of 2015-2016 was by far the most memorable in Southampton’s Premier League history as they eclipsed their best finish once again and also played in a European League albeit for getting knocked out in the 3rd round. Though, the club was on the rise and it was evident.

Even after losing so many of their first teamers gradually, they went from strength to strength every season. The day they would break into the Premier League’s top 4 didn’t seem too far away. What they had in place was a brilliant youth system, a great negotiation team (for they signed some really good players on a shoestring budget) and a good manager in Ronald Koeman. Southampton fans were having the time of their lives and as an Arsenal fan, St. Mary’s was always a place that I’d hate us visiting.

But then Ronald left.

The Saints had to do it all over again. The fans obviously didn’t lose their confidence because they had seen their board do an effective job. They knew the board would do what’s in the best interest of the club. They decided to appoint Frenchman, Claude Puel.

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Puel was relatively unknown in England despite leading AS Monaco to a Championship in his first full season. Fast forward a season, he had taken Southampton to the EFL cup final, losing agonisingly to Manchester United. Another eighth-placed followed, even after losing both Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mané to Tottenham and Liverpool. But still, Puel was sacked. Mixed reactions followed.

The major drawback in Puel’s regime was that he was too defensive. Southampton were one of the lowest scoring teams with only 41 goals in 38 games, the lowest tally in the top half. They had scored 59 goals the season before. Moreover, they finished 15 points below 7th placed Everton. For these reasons, the board took the drastic step of sacking him with fans complaining about the boring football they were watching week in, week out.

The search for a new manager began, again.

The board at the start of this season appointed Mauricio Pellegrino. Another Unknown name except for the fact that he had played for Liverpool and was also working subordinate to Rafael Benítez at Liverpool and then Inter Milan.

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Hopes were up within the Southampton fans as Pellegrino had done a fantastic job with newly promoted Alaves leading them to a Copa Del Rey final the last season and also a remarkable finish of 9th in La Liga.

But the optimism hasn’t materialised into desired results. The start to this season has been horrendous and nothing short of that. All the aspects considered, Southampton are really struggling. First of all, at the start of the season their talismanic defender’s transfer saga. It was embarrassing to retain him even after the player handed in a transfer request. The saga had everything, from an FA investigation to player fallouts. That set the tone for maybe a really really long season for the saints.

Secondly, the directionless play that Southampton use. Maybe it’s too early to judge Pellegrino but the first eight games have been excruciatingly difficult to watch. Only at United did the Saints try doing something constructive. The club have looked less and less threatening with each passing game, so much so, they have only scored 5 goals in 8 games with 14 teams have scored more than them.

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More possession and less play. Southampton have had an average possession of 56% per game but nothing to show for it. To make matters worse, Pellegrino’s side have the second worst shot accuracy in the league (30%). Only Crystal Palace have had worse (29%).

Moreover, defensively, without their main defender, they have made 6 defensive errors, only Brighton have made more. Out of this 2 have led to a goal.

Pep Guardiola once said: “I hate tiki-taka. I always will. I want nothing more to do with tiki-taka. Tiki-taka is a load of shit, a made-up term. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression – nothing. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for all that rubbish”

And Southampton look just that. There is no direction or purpose. Passing just for the sake of it. The strikers are misfiring. The manager doesn’t know his best combination of players. And the fans are discontent over the team selection week in week out along with the performances.

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Maybe, it is too early on my part to judge but the signs are not great neither are the fan reactions. The atmosphere around the Southampton fans is alarming, it’s like a repeat of the 2012 days but at that point of time, they had nothing to lose.

This is a club which was on the up consistently and now it’s stagnating. As an admirer of Southampton, it would be a joy if they turned things around this season. But, the way things are going it looks difficult. And, if the things keep crumbling like the way they are Saints fans could witness another ‘Claude Puel’ in the making.

*stats used before today’s 2-2 draw with Newcastle*

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