Season review 17/18: ups, nearly downs, Hughes smiles, Pellegrino frowns

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We all know that this was not how it was supposed to end.

We are safe. Yes. But are we happy? Far from it.

In past reviews of the season/previews of the summer, I’ve been lucky enough to reflect on seasons packed with a fair few highlights, even if they haven’t always borne fruit (European qualification and a cup final are both recent highlights). I’ve also been able to point to outstanding players, young players with a bright future, glistening gems that we may need to say goodbye to.

This season? I’m just pleased that it’s over.

I always try to be optimistic and take the long-view when talking about Southampton FC. I’m a big believer in long-term goals yielding incremental increases in overall quality. When things go wrong, I also try to examine all of the variables, as no one individual at a club is responsible for a disappointing season.

So I thought I’d break this down into chunks, and review each element. This might be a long blog, so apologies for that.

Here are the key factors for review:

  • The Manager(s)
  • The Players
  • The Board

So let’s begin.
The Manager(s)

Mauricio Pellegrino

When Mauricio Pellegrino was first appointed last summer, I was initially optimistic. We were painted as ‘naive’, ‘thick’ and ‘entitled’ for getting rid of Claude Puel (a decent man but a staggeringly uninspiring coach and manager) by elements of the media who think we have no right to demand entertainment from a sport that is, in short, meant to be entertaining. Pellegrino had a solid, albeit not especially exciting CV, but when he took over, the promise from him was to bring an attacking, energetic style to the club. Lots of finger-snapping, table banging and long analogies about football being like a dance.

But what did it translate into? Possibly some of the dullest, most risk-averse football we have ever seen at Southampton Football Club.

Whilst initially, Pellegrino won some friends amongst the fans with his outlook, stated approach, and willingness to make tough decisions (making a clearly-unfocused and disruptive Virgil van Dijk train with the U-23s), it soon became clear that what was being said, and what was being presented on the pitch, were not one and the same thing.

Whilst a dull 0-0 draw with Swansea at the start of the season could be written off as teething problems, the 1-1 away draw at Brighton, and subsequent comments from Oriol Romeu about the coach wanting players to focus on defending even when attacking (which would explain why players like Redmond and Tadic were running around like their internal GPS had been left in the sun for too long) revealed a manager that some felt would rather draw 0-0 than win 3-2.

Mauricio Pellegrino

The season continued. Things did not improve.

By January, we were firmly mired in the mid-to-lower reaches of the table. We were ‘still learning’ how to play, according to Pellegrino. Alarm bells were seriously ringing amongst fans. In a last roll of the dice, the board attempted to throw their support behind Pellegrino by abandoning their tight constraints, and allowing Pellegrino to roll the dice in a pretty disastrous fashion. Guido Carillo, to his credit, joined a club struggling for form and goals, so to be able to create the change required that quickly was a tall order. That said, even by those standards, I’ve never seen a striker hailed as a target man look so innefective in the air. No pace, not great with the ball at his feet, and easily bullied. A huge gamble that not only didn’t pay off, but also wasted the first chunk of money we received from the sale of VVD.

After the utter battering we received at the hands of Newcastle, the board finally (nearly too late) lost patience with Pellegrino, who had seemingly alienated his dressing room with the killer Puel combination of a lack of intensity in training (our players looked incredibly unfit in the final quarter of games – it’s little surprise that throughout the season, we conceded so many late goals by fair means or foul), and ineffective leadership and communication.

As with Puel, I have nothing against Pellegrino personally. He would never willingly leave a job that would provide him with a substantial pay-off if dismissed (and why should he? None of us would), and also, I’m sure he still believed that he could keep us in the Premier League. But to be quite frank – he just wasn’t good enough. Not good enough for this league, too risk-averse, and this was alluded to by players, and Ralph Krueger in his end-of-season interviews with Solent and The Daily Echo.

(As a side note – thank you once again to Adam Leitch, Adam Blackmore, Luke Osman and Dave Merrington for all of their excellent reporting this season.)

Appointing Mark Hughes at the point we did was another gamble, albeit one with slightly lower stakes. A lot of column-inches are written by journalists regarding the ‘managerial merry-go-round’ – a baffling process to some, in which some managers (SHOCK! HORROR!) get new jobs after leaving their previous job – but in my view, it was time for some realism and pragmatism in what had been a season of smoke and mirrors.

Mark Hughes, Southampton FC vs Newcastle

Hughes brought a pedigree that many other managers did not have who were available at the time, he was ready to step into a tough position, and he rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job. It was noticeable that he also began to build bridges with the club support – almost immediately in fact. This is part of a bigger strategy now by the club – one in which they have finally acknowledged what many supporters have said for a long time – that the club was becoming disconnected from it’s core supporters.

In addition to that, Hughes got stuck into the dressing room dynamics almost immediately, and identified players who either needed a bit of an arm around them (Lemina strikes me as that kind of player – he responds well to strong, yet supportive managers), or a kick up the arse, or a kick out the door (the mental image of Sofiane Boufal offering Mark Hughes out for a fight is one that still makes me chuckle).

It’s my view that Mark Hughes has done enough in his short tenure to warrant a three-year deal. He came in, did a job, re-energised a team, provides us with experience in the Premier League that we may need next season, and can provide a level of gravitas and credibility to the dressing room – not unlike Ronald Koeman.

People who want to win things like to play for winners. Hughes is a winner. And to people who say ‘yes, but look at what he’s done at other clubs?’ I say: sometimes managerial appointments just seem to click, sometimes they don’t. It’s tough to say at the time. On paper, Pellegrino and Puel must have checked a few of the boxes that we were looking for when it came to implementing ‘The Southampton Way’ – but that’s not the be-all and end-all. There is an element beyond that – the ability to run a changing room, to hold a player’s attention, to ensure professionalism and intensity is kept up. Maybe it didn’t work at other places for Mark. In some cases (QPR, Stoke City in his final season), it definitely didn’t. But it needs to be remembered that a coach or manager isn’t solely to blame for a situation (as I’ll allude to later in this blog) – there are many variables for an under-performing team, but the easiest person to sack is always the coach.

So, in my view, we deviate from our blueprint slightly and play it safe (!): keep Hughes.
The Players

A key factor in our underperformance last season was an easy one to spot on the pitch: the disconnect between our players, and the previous two coaches to Mark Hughes. This caused a variety of problems, but as I said earlier in this article, it’s easy to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Puel and Pellegrino. Once both of those coaches left, it became really clear that some players were not performing to the best of their abilities due to their own personal developmental issues.

In times of adversity, some of us front up and accept responsibility without question. Others hide. We’ve seen out on the pitch this season the players that have chosen to hide, but one thing I’d like to highlight is the attitude of two players who have never been fan favourites, and perhaps never will be: Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond.

I’ll start with Dusan.

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Nobody could ever deny that by his own standards, Dusan Tadic, until the very last few games, had a shocking season. A lack of goals, assists and confidence seemed to dog him for most of the season, making many people in the stands start to question his continued selection.

One thing that I tend to look out for during games however, isn’t the fact that a certain player has been in or out of form, or whether or not he’s scored goals or set them up. It’s the effort and commitment they show over the course of the campaign. Even in games where he has been dreadful, and in fairness, playing in a dreadful team, I’ve never seen his head drop once.

And since Mark Hughes has taken over, we ‘ve seen a very different Dusan to the one we’ve seen for the past few months. It seems that he’s been playing with a weight off of his shoulders, and as a result, he’s put in performances (the game against Bournemouth in particular) which have gone a long way to keeping us in the league this season.

The most frustrating thing for me when it comes to Dusan is that he seems to get very little leeway from fans when he does make an error. I think that people should bear in mind that an attacking midfielder, especially a creative one that is judged on assists, at the most will only be successful in 20% of the chances they attempt to create.

Once they also put a ball through for a striker, etc, it is then down to the striker to convert. It is not Dusan’s fault if he puts a player through and they do not finish. It is also not a punishable offense if he tries something that doesn’t work. As a creative midfielder, we are paying him to spend the game making an effort to make a difference in the top half of the pitch.

Yes, he does need to track back more, but I’ve been sat at games this season (including Bournemouth), where he has set up or scored goals, and people sat around me have carried on criticising him for every little mistake regardless. By all means, dig a player out for a lack of effort, or for consistent poor form, but don’t do it just because you don’t like them for some reason.

Which leads us on to Nathan Redmond. A baffling signing considering the first two managers he’d played under, Nathan is clearly a talented lad who needs a stronger coach at the helm.

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Having Puel, then Pellegrino manage him – two managers who seemed unable to get the best out of our attacking players – it’s been tough for Redmond to adapt. Granted, with his propensity for complaining at his colleagues whenever he misplaces a pass, and his subtle digs back at the boo-boys, he’s not endeared himself to the Southampton faithful. But on his day, as we saw against Everton this season and Liverpool in the League Cup last season, when the shackles are off, he’s capable of so much more.

I’m not apologising for his poor performances – there have been some awful performances from Redmond in a Southampton FC shirt – but I am giving some context as to why that may have been the case. I hope he has a much better season next time around, and we have many more reasons to cheer him next season.

It’s not been a vintage season for either of these players, or for any of the other attacking players at Southampton. But I have to say since Mark Hughes has entered the fray, we’ve seen a lot more endeavor from them, and a return to some of the more direct play we saw under Ronald Koeman.

Defensively, we’ve had to deal with an unfit, disorganised, unsettled back 4/5 for the majority of the season. I’ve had some harsh words for Wesley Hoedt. And I stand by many of them.

Whilst he is still young, and hasn’t been helped by being thrown in as our number one centre-back immediately, rather than having a more experienced pro beside him (Yoshida notwithstanding), he’s been presented with a steep learning curve to overcome, and we’ve seen it played out in so many games this season.

The mistakes have not only harmed his confidence, but also harmed the confidence of the players around him, who may at times feel like they are putting in an extra shift to dig him out of trouble. The problem with that being that Jack Stephens is still learning how to be a senior Premier League player, and Yoshida needs to focus fully on his own performance to be fully effective. Add to that the fact that Cedric seems to have sleep-walked his way through the season, having had a transfer request turned down, and Bertrand still performing, but with slightly less intensity given that he also has one eye on the exit sign, and you have a perfect storm in defence that means that we averaged about two catastrophic errors per-game for most of the season.

The bright spots defensively have been the introduction of Jan Bednarek and Alex McCarthy. Bednarek had a shaky start to life in English football, looking out of depth even in games against Brentford and in U23 outings. But as the season has progressed, his dedication on the training field and his attitude has started to translate into positive first team outings for us. His goal and performance against Chelsea, followed by his other performances in the closing games of the season, point to a bright future.

Alex McCarthy has come on in leaps and bounds since replacing a Fraser Forster, who thanks to ligament damage (he’s constantly stretching throughout every game to stop his legs from seizing up – i.e. he’s carrying an injury he’ll never get over), may never be the same again. Fans were clamouring for him to come into the starting lineup, and he’s justified those calls with a number of athletic, secure displays – keeping us in games at times that we would normally have lost. He has been a worthy addition to the starting XI, and should be considered as our number one for next season.

In midfield, we’ve seen another stop-start season for James Ward-Prowse. Whilst his contributions in dead-ball situations and his run of goals in January and February seemed to herald a new, more consistent JWP, we’ve seen him overlooked once again in recent weeks for a starting berth. It’s on him to figure out now. He needs to know what kind of player he is. Being a deadball specialist, but only an okay midfielder, isn’t enough at this level. That’s what he needs to consider this summer.

Honourable mentions this season for Mario Lemina, who has been word-class on occasion (when fully fit and focussed), and Steven Davis, who I think may be leaving us this summer for a return to his beloved Glasgow Rangers. Oriol Romeu has also performed to a decent standard this season, despite the chaos around him at times.

Boufal? I’m over talking about Boufal. His attitude is an utter disgrace, and whilst he undoubtedly has a lot of talent, he also has a lot of issues with his application, attitude, and opinion of himself.

With regards to strikers, we’ve had some awful luck (Charlie Austin’s injury), some awful finishing (Shane Long, nearly every chance he has), and some baffling omissions (Manolo Gabbiadini should have played more under Pellegrino, but it seemed that he just didn’t know what to do with a striker who could make clever runs and also poach goals – once again, that’s because he wasn’t a very good coach).

I have next-to-no opinion on Guido Carillo other than he looks like he can’t win aerial duels, is too slow for the Premier League, and can’t seem to finish the chances he’s presented with. An odd signing made to appease Pellegrino, I think we may see him leave this summer.

In terms of playing staff, it’s clear that our priority this summer has to be an experienced Centreback who can lead our defence. Ben Gibson has been linked early on in this window, and seems to fit this criteria. We may also see direct replacements for Cedric and Bertrand, Boufal and Carillo, and maybe a new goalkeeper to replace Stuart Taylor and provide extra competiton.

Our loan returnees (Harrison Reed, Matt Targett, Sam Gallagher), will have a full pre-season to convince Mark Hughes that they are ready for full first-team integration. If Targett steps up, we may only need cover for him in the transfer market, and if Reed is ready for first team rotation, then he should be considered after a good season at Norwich. If Gallagher is seen as surplus to requirements this pre-season, I expect we’ll see him move on in a permanent basis. Either way, it’s crunch time for many of these players. Out of the three, for me it’s critical we keep Matt Targett.
The Board, The Fans

This season, we’ve seen and heard too from Ralph and Les. Especially Les. This has frustrated many fans, who look to Les so that they can ask for a comment from him and then throw the comment they receive back into his face. Which, to be fair, is part of his job.

It’s not easy being in charge of a football club. You deal with a lot of complex situations, from the global aspect of the game (commercial elements, Ralph’s responsibility) to ensuring that the core reason for it existing (the team, the fans) are happy, and everything is either running smoothly, or better than smoothly. Those final factors are down to Les Reed and Ross Wilson.

But this season has been especially notable due to the change in tact we’ve seen from the team at the top. Following the takeover from our now majority partners The Gao family, rather than more communication coming out of St. Marys, we seem to have less communication coming out of St. Marys.

For this, I’m not going to blame the owners, or Katherina Liebherr, who in fairness, was just as private as the Gaos are with regards to making public statements. It is the job of the senior leadership team to guide communications at the club, and in this respect, my feeling is that whilst Ralph Krueger has stepped up at a couple of points this season to make comments or statements, it’s rarely the voice that the fans really want to hear.

What we’d all like to hear is some words from Les Reed. We know that the buck stops with him with regards to player recruitment. Whilst we know that he cannot control the amount of money he is given to spend by the owners, he is responsible, along with Ross Wilson, for the quality of the players that we bring into the club.

In my view, during Reed’s whole tenure at the club, the one element in player recruitment and contract negotiations he has got wrong seems to be the psychological element.

It’s beginning to get tiring to hear of players within our squad developing attitude problems, or not playing well with others. A football club is a very delicate eco-system, and the dressing room is the nerve centre of this. When a player who is respected, for either their ability or their seniority, starts to answer back or step out of line, it can warp a dressing room, and make a manager’s position difficult. Dropping extra players in there with questionable attitudes, and things get really messy. Sofiane Boufal and Virgil van Dijk are two prime examples of that. Both blessed with genuine ablility, they seemed to quickly down tools, or become petulant, when things did not go their way.

Boufal, for all of his undoubted talents, still looks like the boy you played football with at school, who beats everybody on the pitch seven times, but then knocks the ball out of play because he won’t pass it.

Virgil, and this will be the last I ever write about him, is a great player with a disgusting attitude. And I think Liverpool fans will find this in a couple of years time when Manchester United (who, despite what they may think, is a bigger club than them), Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid or PSG want to sign him. He’ll down tools, and act disrespectfully towards them too.

It’s a marked difference between them, and players like Cedric and Ryan Bertrand who – despite wanting to leave – did not actively down tools.

So, when Les (if it is still Les) is looking at signing players this summer, attitude needs to be near the top of the list of core requirements for a signing. I for one would rather have a very good player with a good attitude, than a disruptive great player. We’ve seen several times now how that effects the makeup of the team.

This is the window in which the board, and the new ownership, will be truly assessed. As many people have pointed out, many Chinese businesses, upon purchasing new assets, adopt a ‘wait and see’ strategy for the first year of ownership. So, with regards to a judgment of what they are looking to do, full judgment and assessment start now.

It’s been stated that infrastructure and stadium improvements are high on their agenda. Whilst having nicer hotdogs and a fan-zone isn’t my idea of a better stadium experience (a competitive team is my idea of a great stadium experience), it must be said that the stadium could do with a lick of paint and some modernisation.

With regards to the stated updates to the training facilities – in my opinion, investing in training and development infrastucture is always money well-spent. Better facilities attract the best young talent, attract players (who know they’ll be well looked-after with regards to facilities), and assist with the long-term fitness and development goals of the club.

Whilst some may retort that we are the 18th richest club in the world, and that we should be chucking money at new signings – we have a transfer model in place for a reason. It’s important that we maintain the sell-to-buy model. It helps us to maintain our position and makes the club a more attractive proposition to players.

As fans, we need to look at where we are in the global food-chain, and accept that there will always be clubs bigger than us for a variety of reasons. Historical success adds to the bottom line – which is why clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, etc., will always be bigger pulls than us.

Their legacies have generated a large global fanbase, with deep pockets, and it adds a significant amount to their bottom line. That allows them to pay higher wages, and higher fees for players. Additionally, these clubs are normally based in large, well-connected urban centres (Manchester, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London, and yes, even Liverpool), which are attractive to players and their families.

We are a small-ish city on the south coast. Unless we become a principality like Monaco any time soon and start to offer 0% tax-rates, we will always be hamstrung by that. These are things that we cannot change, so we have to adapt a different strategy to be successful.

Many of us may not like that, and feel that it diminishes the club somewhat. But for me, I would rather have a sustainable Premier League team with a focus on cups and top ten finishes, than a club that gambles it’s future on big signings.

The idea of speculating to accumulate is all well and good, but it should always be pointed out that many clubs that adopt this approach end up losing, and losing big eventually.

Our greatest moment is winning the FA Cup final in 1976. We were underdogs sticking our middle finger at the 1% that day. That, in my view, is what we should be aiming for even today, in the Premier League. Who wants to be the 1%? It’s much more fun to compete in cup tournaments and maintain in an utterly moribund league, than be fans of a team that complains even after winning the League and the FA Cup in successive seasons (hello, Chelsea fans).

A special mention to our fans this season – away support in particular. We’ve seen some terrible performances. But the fans have always continued to show up. Our support at Everton and Swansea, in particular, was utterly fantastic.

The club seems to have acknowledged the disconnect between the club, the players, and the fans, and have noticeably been reaching out more often, and trying to right that wrong. Whether that will continue past the fan’s forum we’ve been promised in August remains to be seen.

But for now? Let’s see what the summer brings. As we all know, there’s never a dull moment. And I don’t anticipate it getting any duller on the south coast anytime soon.

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Hughes that?

 

Mark Hughes, Southampton FC vs Newcastle

Pellegrino has gone. And it looks like Mark Hughes is going to be the man replacing him at the helm of our beleaguered club.

So many column-inches have been given to our current situation, if not in the local press, then at least in the regional press. Adam Blackmore must be given particular credit for pressing Mauricio Pellegrino hard last Thursday on his in-game tactics. Pellegrino responded that ‘we are improving’, ‘spirit is good’, and ‘my players do not play with a chain on them’. He also started referring to himself in the third person, which is not a good move if you want to present yourself as somebody with a decent grip on reality.

On Saturday, we then witnessed what can only be described as a pretty disgusting capitulation against Newcastle. Nothing was right about that performance. No spirit, no signs of improvement, no sign of players playing with any freedom, or even showing any interest in playing for a manager I am sure they knew was on the way out.

The problem I have with this response from the players is that it did a massive disservice to the travelling fans. We continue to live in fairly dire economic times, and the price of a season ticket, or an away ticket plus travel is a substantial investment. For what? We know that in football, results are not guaranteed, no matter how much money you throw at a problem. But fans recognise and reward effort. What we saw out there on the pitch fell so short of that. It was hard to watch. Nobody could justify it, and if, as a coach, you cannot motivate players to perform in games like that, then you have no other route available to you than the one out of the door.

Our new boss, Mark Hughes, will have a number of problems to quickly address: team morale, the fact that a few players may need their heads re-attaching, and turning a team around who have not won in 17 Premier League games. At this point of the season, survival is paramount, and we need to start winning – by fair means or by foul.

Hughes may not have the ‘pedigree’ of some of our previous appointments – a European-sounding name, a continental philosophy, a fashionable legacy. But we are in no position to be footballing hipsters here – trawling the continent for obscure but brilliant b-sides, when we need to go full-throttle, three minutes and thirty seconds, Teenage Kicks-style into our remaining fixtures.

A short-term contract building into a long-term project. That’s what we should be looking for. Having Hughes in a ‘try before you buy’ capacity would be a wise move.

Frankly, I couldn’t give a shit about what people think of us for hiring a manager like Hughes. As a player, he was the sort of needling bastard that we hated when he played against us. Nudging, gobbing off, elbowing, scoring goals and loving it. When he came to us he was in the twilight of a hugely successful career. He was still fit and firing, and had a desire to win. When he stopped scoring goals, he dropped deeper into midfield, and played a less-heralded role. He scored a pearler of a goal against Newcastle in a game I remember fondly:

We are not in the position to be picky. We are not Bayern Munich, we are not Manchester City, we are Southampton FC. People may want us to be a massive club, but having had recent insight into what it takes to turn a football club into a huge global footballing behemoth – it takes more than just a rich owner pumping money into the playing side. We are still a long way behind the larger clubs in terms of scale and revenue. And we have to ask ourselves – how much of our identity are we willing to sacrifice to become that? That’s a question for another time.

At this moment, we have to focus on remaining in the Premier League. As a fanbase, we need to unite behind the team, and the new coaching staff at the club. We need to unite behind the badge.

Let’s be a tough team to play against again. And as fans, lets play our part in that.

On silence, on capitulation, on Pellegrino, ‘on paper’

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It’s a mystery. Toyah Wilcox said that. I’m saying it too. It really is a mystery.

This season, so far, has been an absolute car-crash for a variety of reasons. And the so much of it has been covered, and not changed in the slightest, that I do sometimes wonder to myself why I continue to write, to tweet, and to share views of just what is going on at our beloved club this season.

‘On paper’ is a phrase we hear a lot when we are talking about Southampton FC this season. ‘On paper’, we are too strong to be in this position. ‘On paper’ we have a top ten squad. ‘On paper’, we shouldn’t be struggling. But yet here we are – 18th place as I write this, with our least successful coach in recent memory at the helm of a chronically underperforming team.

Something seems to have changed pretty fundamentally at the club in the past two seasons. Some of this could be down to the coaches that we have selected, but an important point to make is: who selected these coaches? And why?

There has been a lot of smug musing in the press about us sacking Claude Puel, Leicester’s performance, and how we’ve replaced him with a worse coach. Whilst I liked Claude Puel, in all fairness to him, he was never going to be successful at Southampton for a number of reasons.

Firstly, he inherited a squad that was set up to play precisely the opposite style to which he liked to play – our team was set up to press, turn the ball over quickly, and attack, employing a high line and with a focus on utilising the pace of Mane and the physicality of Pelle. The team that we gave him was significantly weaker with the loss of both of these players, and to add to that, the replacements that we signed that season (Boufal, Pied, Redmond, Gabbiandini), were not the solutions that we needed. They all seemed to add something different to the team, but together, it seemed as if we lacked a clear identity. We were an attacking team playing deep-laying, possession-based football, trying to hit teams on the break. But when we did break clear, the players we had signed that summer either did not fit the style of play that we needed (Redmond had pace and skill, but pretty poor decision-making, Boufal needed a season to acclimatise himself, Gabbiadini is not that kind of player, and is not an out and out target man, and Pied can’t pass). Leicester were set up for a manager like Puel – his style is how they won the league, that’s why they are doing so well. I’m pleased for him.

It’s who we chose to replace him with which was the problem.

Pellegrino is a defensive coach who can’t organise and drill mistakes out of a back-line. The fact that he has an army of assistants to try and implement this means that he gets no pass and no quarter in my book for not sorting this out.

He builds his team around a reliable, but pedestrian player like Oriol Romeu. Oriol is a nice guy, and a good defensive midfielder, but slows down the play to fit his style. When the ball is played out through him, it normally results in a risk-averse, pedestrian passage of play – which is very easy to counter if you are not Manchester City or any other possession-based side in the top half of the table. We do not have a plan B for when teams park the bus in this manner. We are very easy to defend against, and our slow style leaves the players unable to rapidly respond or up the pace if the other team increases their tempo.

As a counter-point, look at how Mario Lemina brings the ball out from defensive positions. He is able to power forward, and use a turn of pace, skill and strength to drive the side forward from deep. The only problem is that when he does that, he’s often met with a wall of opposition shirts, and nobody around him showing for the ball. This is down to risk-averse management.

For me, the writing was on the wall with regards to Pellegrino when he suggested that he’d played the Brighton game at the AMEX wanting a draw – and whilst I do not want to criticise Romeu for speaking in defence of our manager, which is something he did for Puel as well, but it’s not hard to speak in favour of a manager who clearly rates you as his best midfield option.

I will always have a fundamental problem with any manager who approaches every game with a ‘must not lose’ attitude, rather than a ‘how can we win this?’ approach. Not losing is actually made a lot easier by creating and converting opportunities. The number of losses we’ve had by a one-goal margin speaks volumes. The amount of times we’ve sat on a lead that we know we are not good enough to hold, and promptly lost it, this season, is utterly staggering.

This is Pellegrino. This is his approach. A man who claims to be big on detail, yet slow to realise we are making the same old mistakes.

Why is he still in charge? 

I’ve warned for a while, even during the good times, that the club’s increasing reluctance to communicate with the fans on anything beyond trivialities and banalities, which we can see straight through, will eventually harm the relationship between the club and the fans.

And yet. And yet. Nothing has changed. In fact, it’s got worse. Les Reed was at least expected to front up to supporters at the end of every transfer window and explain why things had gone/not gone to plan. Now he won’t even speak to dedicated local journalists like Adam Blackmore. Frankly, this gives the appearance that he doesn’t feel accountable to the supporters, and it looks to the fans as if he is only willing to speak to us when things are going well. It’s really easy to pop up when there’s a signing, beaming like a Cheshire cat. It’s much harder to justify as the most senior member of non-playing footballing staff at the club not fronting up when things go wrong.

Pellegrino has often been left to field questions regarding transfers during his weekly news conference. As far as I’m concerned, from the answers he gives, he knows about as much about our transfer dealings as he does about organising a back four. And as a coach, he shouldn’t be focusing on the former – the latter should 100% be his priority, especially when he’s shown just how cack-handed he is with it.

Les, or Ross Wilson, should be talking to journalists in an open and honest manner. Ralph Krueger, who is there purely to drive the commercial element of the business, shouldn’t be talking about the playing side. And he certainly shouldn’t be having lunch with the players and trying to figure out why they aren’t playing with any confidence or self-belief. This should be a question for the coach – who should be an outgoing coach.

We have 11 games left to salvage this season. Personally, I am not afraid of relegation. If we got relegated, yes, it would be a big hit for us financially and commercially, and we will lose a lot of players – some of which I’d happily wave off. What concerns me is the manner in which we are going down. I don’t believe that panic achieves anything, but the way it’s being approached – every utterance from the players, coach, staff (Barring Lemina), displays all of the passion of somebody announcing a platform alteration at Waterloo Station.

I believe that our coach needs to leave. And I believe that there does need to be a shakeup at the club in terms of structure. Whilst I know that out new ownership is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach in keeping with a lot of long-term investments, there are urgent issues that need to be dealt with. Top of the bill: Mauricio Pellegrino.

Mauricio Pellegrino: please leave our club now.

Southampton FC: If he won’t leave, please let him go. Now. This is the point of no return this season.

As fans, as supporters, we will always wish for the best for the club. We hope for the best outcome, even when we are staring the very worst outcome in the face.  Just give us something to cheer in these last 11 games. Please. Show us that you’re listening. Give us a sign!

Rotation, formation, capitulation, tribulation

Torpor

We’re pretty much at the halfway point of this season, and so I thought it would be time to take stock, and analyse any trends in our performances.

Mauricio Pellegrino

It’s tough, isn’t it?

I always try to adopt a positive mindset when supporting Southampton FC – I’ve always regarded it as a character-building trait to support my home team. To be part of something that wasn’t wildly successful when most people in my class when I was growing up supported Manchester United or, in some isolated cases, Blackburn (the ultimate in perverse glory-hunting for any self-respecting southerner), made me feel like part of the fabric of the city I grew up in.

But the problem with this season? There is no pattern on the pitch. There is no rhyme or reason. This is the most staggeringly inconsistent Southampton FC team I’ve seen in quite some time. Good performances (Arsenal, Manchester City) are followed up by utterly atrocious results (the 4-1 defeat to Leicester City should be a mark of deep shame for the squad and the manager – not something to be brushed under the carpet). We are deep into December, and as far as I can see, there is no discernable pattern or style of play emerging. Who is Mauricio Pellegrino? He needs to stand up.

Hope is what keeps you going as a football fan. It’s what keeps you there when you are 0-3 down at home to a side no better than yours. Hope keeps you renewing your season ticket or membership. Hope is a feeling.

But football is a mixture of passion, data-points, strategy and finance. All of which must be balanced to deliver a successful club. How many of these have we seen this season?

That’s not to say that there haven’t been bright points. Charlie Austin looks like a threat against clubs of every stature in the league. Fitness concerns aside, he has proven himself to be a ‘right time, right place’ player. His goals for us, whilst rarely spectacular, come from finding space in the box, and anticipating where the ball will land from our crosses. He turns chances into goals, and half-chances into goals. When he plays, you can see the confidence of the players around him increase. Our wide players know that he will do his best to get something on the end of their crosses. Our playmakers know that he can be relied upon to latch onto through balls.

Sofiane Boufal terrorises defences. Whilst he’s far from the finished article, he creates confusion and has excellent close control.

The key problem, however, isn’t the squad of players that we have at our disposal. It’s our manager, Mauricio Pellegrino. I fear that he’s not up to the job for a number of reasons.

Firstly, formation: whilst we know that the fabled, marketing blurb of ‘The Southampton Way’ is not to be taken at face value – but it is December now, and our team are still playing without any fixed identity.

Pellegrino picks his squad from game to game, seemingly totally without regard to form or emotional intelligence, something I think he prides himself on, but is clearly lacking in some of his management of the first team squad.

Watching the players body language throughout the games, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they didn’t have a clue what they were doing.

I think this comes from the fact that, quite simply, Pellegrino doesn’t know what he’s doing with the players, and is still genuinely unsure of the best formation for us to play as our first choice.

We’ve heard a lot of talk about the ‘Southampton Way’ over the course of the past year and a half with regards to the supposed abandonment of our playing style. Whilst, in the light of recent proclamations, the attacking football that we were promised when Pellegrino took over has not manifested itself, we have to be careful not to just simplify any potential solutions that we may have.

There is no ‘Southampton Way’ – it’s just a concept and a formation (4-2-3-1, no long ball). Pressing never entered into ‘The Southampton Way’ – it was just a style of play that Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed playing whilst he was with us, and has slowly evolved into a more pragmatic, possession-based style. This started with Koeman, who favoured a more direct approach at times.  We have to be careful not to start acting like West Ham fans, and start talking about ‘The Southampton Way’ as if it is ‘The Best Way’, or ‘The Only Way’.  It is not the only way.

That is not to say that as supporters, we do not deserve a little bit better than what we are getting at the moment.

Secondly, squad rotation: whilst beneficial and necessary in the case of teams playing in multiple competitions (as we were last season), rotation only works if it is consistent, and there is a set shape and style to the team. Whilst adaptability is essential for top-level pros, it can’t be easy for them to be rotated in and out of a starting XI that is seemingly changing shape every week.

The other difficulty is that the rotation is not regular. 1 game in 7 for a player is not rotation. Being suddenly brought in from the cold and expected to play flawlessly is part of why they are paid so highly as professionals, but I’d like to ask our management for a bit of consideration for these players.

The best teams have a consistent, settled starting XI. The manager knows his best lineup with regards to skill, attitude and application. Players are brought in and out when there is tiredness, loss of form, or injuries.

Pellegrino has been here since the Summer. He does not know our best starting line-up. I cannot emphasise this enough: HE DOES NOT KNOW OUR BEST STARTING XI.

That is why the alarm bells are sounding in my mind.

I don’t buy into alarmist clap-trap about pushing the panic button and picking a short-term, pragmatic replacement for our coach in the mold of Tony Pulis, or any other coach playing that style of football.

But I would argue that we do need some kind of style. We do not have one at the moment. Our football lacks identity.

Our game against Huddersfield on Saturday is a must-win. As fans, we do not have a choice but to turn up (or tune in), and have our guts torn to shreds by every kick of the game.

Whilst I’ll be clear and say that I do not think the current coach is right for us, I will not give in and hope that we do not get a result. My wish for the club is to always win, and to get as many points on the board as possible.

I don’t dislike Pellegrino. I didn’t dislike Puel. But that doesn’t mean I think they are right for the job.

Whatever happens on Saturday, it is vital that we get a bit of clarity from the club over the festive period over plans for 2018 and beyond. What do the new owners (‘partners’) want? What was our goal for this season? Are we achieving it (arguably not)? Who is accountable?

By not having one point of failure, the answers to these questions will be messy. Enough people at the club – players, coaching staff, the board have enough room for plausible deniability when it comes down to finger pointing. Blame shared equally means that most of the people responsible won’t take the fall. That’s where football mirrors politics quite closely. It’s how torpor sets in. It’s how mediocrity takes root.

Either way, whatever happens, we need a catalyst.

Holding patterns, possessions and partnerships: ten games in

Shane Long vs Newcastle

Pic by Mark Watson

The first ten games of the season have passed here at Southampton FC, and now seems as good a time as any to run the rule over Pellegrino, and his initial impact here at Southampton.

That won’t take long.

I say that for two reasons – not to be glib, and not to be too judgemental of a boss who, once again, seems to have lost a few fans already.

Stepping into a job like Southampton at the moment is a role that, on paper, to a coach, seems incredibly attractive. We have fantastic facilities, a decent-sized stadium, and a good squad full of players who are at the right age, and seemingly with the right credentials to push on in the league.

That’s on the surface. Underneath, however, there are practical and psychological reasons why this job, for even the sturdiest of coaches, my currently be almost untenable.

Firstly – expectations. As fans, over the past ten or so seasons, we’ve had seven that have been packed with positive drama, upwards momentum, and some absolutely thrilling displays of football – regardless of the divisions we were in. It could be argued that the period beginning with the Johnstone Paint Trophy victories, and two successive promotions, were amongst some of the most thrilling seasons in the club’s recent history. A generation of fans grew up watching that – watching Lambert, Lallana, Fonte, Shaw, Schneiderlin, Mane, Pelle, etc., play a swashbuckling style of football that entertained, regardless of the results at times. On the whole though? 80% of our recent (10 years) history has been positive, following an upward trajectory, and full of daring football.

However – with football as with most things in life, a continued upward trajectory is nearly impossible to maintain – especially in a bloated, cash-rich league like the Premier League. If we had continued on our trajectory from previous seasons, we would probably have been champions of Europe by now. Should we expect that? Of course not. At some point, reality needs to set in.

We are not one of the teams that are going to be able to compete with the top six at the moment. Thanks to FFP, the entrenched historical and global success of well-marketed teams that, in all honesty, the people at the top levels of the Premier League, and in the media, would like to continue to be successful, gravity was bound to kick in at some point, and temper the club’s progress somewhat.

However, as with any broad fanbase, there seems to be a disconnection with some between the reality of the situation (we are competing in a league where Leicester’s title win is a blip) of playing in a league where the odds are stacked against us, and the thorny issue of what people define as ‘ambition’.

The question is, when you are in a position where you are treading water, do you thrash and kick wildly, or do you calmly continue to tread water? Kicking wildly (the Everton solution), is to spend A LOT of another person’s money (a rich backer with patience) on a load of seemingly ready-made managerial and playing appointments, in the hope that you can break the hegemony.

Continuing to tread water means a slow-and-steady approach, picking your battles, and perhaps choosing your moments to strengthen and to push a bit more carefully.

A fan’s expectation is to never tread water – it is, for the most part, a trade-off with the club in some way. You provide me with entertainment on a Saturday afternoon and give me something to be proud of, and I will, in return, give you my undying support. For the most part, all that’s really expected from the club’s side is the impression that an effort to progress is being made, and clarity on what the club wants to achieve season after season. What does the club aspire to?

Style of play is the second reason why it’s so confusing at the moment to be a Southampton fan at the moment. We are told week-in, week-out, that the club wants to play pressing, attacking football with a positive mentality. Then matchday comes around, and we’re met with either caution or pragmatism. The cognitive dissonance is beginning to become quite pronounced.

At the moment, we are a possession-based side. We like to play it safe, and believe that the opposition can’t hurt us if they can’t get the ball. Whilst that is true to a certain extent, it won’t be achieved by playing the deep-laying possession football which we witnessed against Brighton on Sunday.

The Spanish national side, and the death of ‘tiki-taka’ as an effective modern footballing style is a cautionary tale when it comes to discussing our fortunes over the past couple of seasons. Spain dominated world football for a spell between 2010 and 2013 with a style of possession football that relied on out-passing the opposition and using the possession to move up the pitch. Using possession as both the best form of attack and defence.

At times, that team looked unplayable. And then the rest of the footballing world caught up. In 2014, Spain were found out in an embarrassing manner on the global stage.

In words much more eloquent than mine, here is Barney Ronay of the Guardian summing up a style of play that sounds incredibly familiar to Southampton fans this season:

Against Chile and Holland, Spain had more possession. They had 15 shots to Chile’s seven, while Claudio Bravo made nine saves to Iker Casillas’ two. And yet they never at any stage looked like winning the game.

That was at international level. In a domestic, high-intensity league like the Premier League, it’s a downright dangerous way to play. We coach and play for speed over here. Counter-attacking and intense football is more than just the flavour of the month in the UK – we love watching it because it’s what we were raised on. Whilst change should be embraced at times, and pragmatism should be employed when we are playing teams capable of shredding us defensively, I really cannot see a reason why we are playing this style against teams on the same level as us.

The reason Barcelona are still successful as a possession-based team is simple – they have Leo Messi, Suarez, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique and Rakitic in their lineup. Messi alone would justify it. We don’t have that level of player, and I feel that we only have one player really comfortable with playing in that style – the La Masia-trained Oriol Romeu. And you can’t build an exciting team around a defensive midfielder.

The list of teams trying possession-based football in the Premier League and failing is growing. Manchester United under van Gaal were unsuccessful in terms relative to their size playing in this style. AvB has been unsuccessful twice trying to implement the same strategy. Are we following suit?

It’s difficult to watch as a fan. Having 60-70% of the possession during a game makes 0% difference if you do not a) make chances and b) convert chances. At the moment, it’s difficult to see where the link between midfield and attack is coming from. One of the most encouraging moments from pre-season, which proved to be somewhat of an aberration, was James Ward Prowse’s goal in our 3-0 victory over Saint Etienne.

The reason it was such a heartening goal was that it suggested that we would be looking to push more midfield players into the box to support attacks from our wide defenders. To dare. To hope. But where has that been this season? It seems to have been abandoned.

That being said, I am not a fan of a lot of the negativity being beamed from the stands onto the pitch at the moment. In particular, the abuse directed at Nathan Redmond just needs to stop. Booing a player as he comes on, regardless of your opinion of him, can hardly be the most productive way for fans to get a player psyched up to do his best. And the personal abuse that he is starting to get from fans in some quarters is starting to cross the line from constructive criticism to outright aggression and hatred. And yet, we’d all be jumping up and down if he scored the winning goal this weekend. And when he was 50% of the reason we made it to Wembley last season.

Whilst there have been poor individual performances so far this season, I don’t think the problem lies solely with the individuals. It’s more than that. Are we all to blame? It seems like a vicious circle at the moment.

I can, on a deeper level, understand why the boos are ringing out after games though, particularly at home. Whilst a pragmatic, safety first approach might serve you well in tight away games, at home, this is simply not the style of play Southampton fans want to see, and they are entitled to ask for something different, when we were told that Pellegrino was going to be playing in an attacking style. Are we seeing that at the moment? Definitely not.

In short: the majority of fans didn’t want Puel to leave because of his manner in interviews, etc. That was a symptom. The actual problem itself was the style of play. And ten games in, that doesn’t seem to have changed.

Looking around the mid-table in the Premier League, we are not the only fans with this problem. Fans of Stoke and West Brom, in particular, are expressing the same frustrations with their team.

This is what is known as ‘the Charlton conundrum’. In the early noughties, Charlton Athletic were a perennial, occasionally entertaining mid-table Premier League side. Every season, you could count on them finishing between 7th and 14th. Alan Curbishley, their manager at the time, was seen as a safe pair of hands. But a few seasons in, the fans wanted more. They wanted the club to ‘show ambition’ and ‘splash the cash’. Take risks. So they did. And they were promptly relegated. The past few years have not been kind to Charlton Athletic. And I wonder what their fans would sacrifice for a boring, mid-table Premier League finish now?

I can see the reasons why the club seems risk-averse at the moment. And in hindsight, I can see why they club were risk-averse last season. The club itself was in flux. We were in the process of a takeover (‘partnership’), and the club as an asset needed to be protected. ‘Don’t spend too much money, don’t take unnecessary risks,’ was probably the unspoken message that the fans weren’t privy to at the top echelons of the club.

Now? Our club is past that. We own our stadium outright. We have a new ownership structure. And we have a platform to build on. Now we can aspire, and set in motion a plan of where to go next. But we’ve had no mention of what we can expect this season from the club. And I think that whilst the new partners are settling in, the plan has been, and will be, stability and stasis. Les Reed used the dreaded phrase ‘strong and stable’ during close season. ‘Strong and stable’ isn’t an entertaining message to send to fans. Tell us what you want to achieve this season. Muted mutterings of ‘maybe Europe’ and ‘do well in the cups’, isn’t enough if you’re focusing on making up the numbers until you decide what to do next. It’s lip service. And fans can spot it straight away.

So give us a plan, Southampton FC: what do you want to achieve this season? How do you want to achieve it?

Nobody wants the club to go bankrupt chasing a dream. But that doesn’t mean that the club should deny the fans the opportunity to have dreams in the first place. Hope is what keeps fans of clubs like ours coming back. Being entertained keeps fans of clubs like ours coming back.

Give us something to dream about, and to hope about, Southampton FC. It’s confusing at the moment because you’re not telling us what you want, so we don’t know what to expect.

It’s time for a new chapter, and a new blueprint to be laid out clearly. And I hope that over the coming months, we’ll see that.

Southampton FC, Risk/Reward, and adopting a Positive Mindset

Mauricio Pellegrino

It took me ages to boot up this MacBook that I’m writing this on. I got in back in 2010, and it’s been through several moves, lots of changes in fortune (mostly good), and living in Manchester and London. Southampton FC’s fortunes have changed a lot since then.

After our defeat to Watford today, and the summer we’ve had, I felt motivated to pick up a metaphorical pen and write because it’s the first time I’ve genuinely felt concerned about the feel around the club – not just what we’ve seen on the pitch.

The Watford defeat today was hard to take. Yes, we’ve had much, much worse defeats at home, against much worse sides than Watford – but it was still hard to take. Watford are a well-drilled side with a young manager who has a big point to prove. We are a side still learning a new style of play with a young manager with a point to prove. On that count, Watford were superior. They looked better-prepared than us, were first to the ball more often than us, and took their chances when presented to them. Long-range goals count as much as penalties and tap-ins do, and whilst we can say that the players ‘took a chance’ on those shots, the players in question actually took the chance when it presented itself, and that shows a confidence that some of our team seem to lack in the final third.

I try to remain positive-yet-pragmatic when discussing our performances on social media, and in general. I have found in the past ten years that football has become shockingly short-term in approach, and has started to replicate many of the things that I dislike in life in ‘the real world’, and not in the escapism that I seek in football.

A player can have a decent game (Lemina), and suddenly he’s hailed as the solution to all of our problems. Conversely, a player can try something new, or not play well, and be derided as ‘shit’, ‘useless’ or ‘pointless’ (Boufal). In top-flight football, there are only one set of people with less patience than the average unstable club chairman: the fans. And four games in, we are already looking for a disaster to glom onto.

That’s not to say that there isn’t something clearly amiss. It’s been amiss since last season, and it’s the reason Watford won today and we lost: confidence. Psychologically, something does not seem right with the players at Southampton FC.

Are they being stifled by the expectations that we now have for them? We booed our team off at half-time today. As somebody who has recently been diagnosed with ADHD, I’ve struggled to live a life at times where I’ve met expectations.

When people aren’t succeeding, there are two schools of thought: some people believe that the best way to sort things out is to switch on the proverbial hair-dryer. To ‘dish out a bollocking’, like a foreman on a building site telling off apprentice brickies for getting the cement mix wrong, a drill sergeant sending recruits to paint coal for stepping out of line during a march, or the teacher who throws a desk rubber at a pupil’s head for not paying attention.

The effect of that is to isolate the person or people who aren’t meeting expectations – to ‘other’ them and separate them from the group. Isolation and blame can lead to resentment in the long-term. As I less-than-succinctly put it at half time during the Watford game, if you are looking for a reaction from somebody, booing at them and making them feel a bit rubbish is a way of placing a barrier between you and them. It creates a disconnect. Do you think a player, when he hears that, thinks ‘Oh, these precious fans, the lifeblood of the club that pays my salary and allows me to do this, are dissatisfied – I MUST please them at all costs. It’s all my fault.’ Or do they think ‘I’m trying, and failing at the moment, and this isn’t helping. Fuck these guys.’ Disconnection usually follows.

I get that we can’t all give highly-specific feedback to players precisely how they aren’t performing to standards set in previous seasons and under previous regimes. But that’s what we’ve hired Mauricio Pellegrino to do. And I hope that he follows the school of thought below.

The second school of thought is to discuss what is going wrong with the people or person in question, listen to them, and then see how you can improve their performance. Making somebody feel supported and listened to isn’t weak and wishy-washy – it’s how we form bonds, correct errors, and become stronger as a unit.

The manager’s job is to not look at a game in binary ‘good/bad’ terms. It’s to tweak a machine, and a team, until they are all performing as close to what could be optimum as possible.

You can do that by mentally training and coaching players – by instilling a positive mindset that encourages risk-taking to a degree, and not becoming fixed in a mentality or approach.

For Pellegrino, there is more than one problem here to solve: on the pitch, he needs to get the players used to the style of football he wants them to play. We want a more attacking style of football, and it sounds like that’s what Pellegrino wants to bring to us.

But there is something not clicking at the club – mentality. For a team that finished 8th last season, and reached a cup final, why is the confidence so low?

Under Puel, the players seemed to have a certain degree of risk-taking trained out of their mentality. It seemed like he could be such a slave to tactics that, like the criticisms leveled at Wenger and Arsenal at times, that he’d rather have his teams play to a shape, and score in a way that he liked, than to score goals and win games. In short – better a 0-0 home draw where no mistakes are made, than a 2-1 win where good chances are taken when an opportunity arises.

This is a Serie A, Ligue 1 style of play. Possession football, rope-a-dope, waiting for the perfect opportunity for a perfect move to carve the perfect goal out to win 1-0. That is not how the EPL works. And whilst it may have ground out results for Puel, and look good on paper, it did nothing for the fans, and made the players, as Nathan Redmond admitted in the close season, ‘scared’ to take a risk.

That mentality seems to still be there. And for what it’s worth, it does look like Pellegrino is trying to change that. But we need to play our part. We need to let the players know that it’s okay to take risks. Pellegrino needs to let the players know that it’s okay to take risks.

One further concern is that, like all projects, the ‘Southampton Way’ badly needs a refresh. Talk of Europe from the club, at the moment, is well-intentioned, but ultimately hogwash.

Fans of the club applauded our stance this summer when Southampton FC rebuffed the advances of Liverpool and held on to Virgil van Dijk. It was a highlight of a turbulent summer: player unrest, new manager, new owners. A holy trinity of developmental issues for the saints to deal with. But now that’s done, the door needs to be shut on that, and all of the focus needs to be fixing what is happening on the pitch.

Since Jose Fonte left, we have lacked a leader on the pitch. It was a huge mistake in my mind to offer the captaincy to Virgil van Dijk. Giving the captaincy to your best player based on ability is a lazy approach to fostering a good team culture, and it’s backfired massively. The decision was either made over Claude Puel’s head, or he didn’t put enough thought into the choice. We need to look at mentality. In my view, that leaves Oriol Romeu as the obvious choice.

We need to instill a culture at the club that rewards creativity, not just sticking to a fixed strategy and shape at all costs, win or lose. Our best players over the years have been livewires – unpredictable players playing within a team where everybody knew their roles, but everybody had an overriding objective: to win football matches.

Data and statistical analysis can help give a team an edge over another in terms of fitness, sharpness, and in knowing an opponent’s weakness. What it can’t do is input a mentality into an individual on how they go about it. That’s where the coach and the club come into it.

Do we have a coach in Pellegrino whom players will want to run through brick walls for? I can’t tell at the moment. Only time will tell that. Emotionless, 100% data-driven coaches and managers like Villas-Boas and Puel can fail in high-pressure environments because they prefer to look purely at statistics, tactics, and data, and point to that, rather than look at improving the subtle intangibles – team atmosphere, fostering a positive mindset, being open to change.

We like to talk about our club as being reliant on data – The Black Box, our analytics team, diet, and nutrition. But who’s talking about the mindset? This is what needs to change.

We need a positive, encouraging environment for our players. We need to let them know that it’s okay to take risks, because nine times out of ten rewards lie outside of your comfort zone.

We need a new project – to create the happiest club to be at in football, where players can express themselves – not a club where we stick to one shape, offer no variety, and obsess over every single data-point.

It’s down to the club, and it’s down to us as fans, to demand that, and to create it. That’s the new blueprint we should be following. Look at the misery around us. Look at how toxic it got last season. And then remember the joy when Lambert equalized for us on our return to the Premiership against Manchester City. Or when Manolo Gabbiadini scored the equalizer in the League Cup final. Two games we lost but took fond memories from. That wasn’t down to shape. That was down to taking chances and being positive.

At the moment, on and off the pitch, Southampton FC lack a personality, and can come across as passionless. When you invest as much time, money and effort into something, and don’t get that return, as a fan, and a player, that can be draining.

Our new partners, the Gaos, need to look at this. Les Reed and Ralph Krueger need to look at this. Mauricio Pellegrino needs to look at this. The players need to look at this. We need to look at this as fans – what can we do to improve this situation?

Otherwise, we could be in for a long, joyless season, wherever we finish.

New Manager, New Players, New Season, New Owners?

 

 

Mauricio Pellegrino

Photo credit: Matt Watson

 

From an outsider’s perspective, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Southampton FC has it all worked out with regards to the transfer market, and managerial appointments.

With the vast amount of data that we have at our disposal, the famed ‘Black Box’ constantly running at Staplewood, and targets constantly being assessed by Les Reed and Ross Wilson, 90% of our investments, managerial or player-wise, have worked out for the benefit of the club.

However, we all know that in football, and with fans, 90% success is not enough. It’s the 10% that you get hammered on.

Last season under Claude Puel, despite some notable successes, felt to many fans like a 10% season.

On paper, Claude Puel looked like a typical Southampton appointment: a manager known for dynamic football, blooding young players and working within a fixed budget. Focused on being a coach, not being the omnipotent ‘manager’ that needs to have his fingers in every pie at the club. A better record than Pochettino when he joined.

But part of being a good coach is not just being able to focus on all of the statistical variables of a football game. If that was the case, there would be no need for any human involvement in the process. We could outsource all coaching decisions to and AI ‘coach’, who monitored our opponents statistics, our players and their fitness and overall performances, and based our decisions purely on the data available. Just hook the players up to a tracker, and away you go. If only it were that easy.

The main reason that Claude Puel failed at Southampton was human error. As an individual, he failed to bond with the players, the press and the staff. When something did not work formation-wise, he wouldn’t change it. When it started working, he did change it. Players would be dropped whilst still in-form, and it seemed that they were not given a clear reason for it.

But ‘on paper’, he was a great appointment. This is where the main failing came in – ultimately, humans make the final decision. Les Reed and Ross Wilson made the final decision on Claude, but maybe they should have allowed a bit of gut to determine the decision as well.

They got it wrong on this count. But I’m not going to give them a hard time for that. In fact, I think that they should probably trust their gut on things more often.

A lot has been made about statistical analysis and data when it comes to our recruiting. But instinct (which can be trained) and psychology (which can be learned) need to play their part.

Compare the initial interviews with Pellegrino and Claude Puel released to the fans. You see a world of difference. With Pellegrino, you get a sense that he can engage you, can sell you an idea and a mentality. With Puel, you got a sense that whilst the ideas he could tell you and about teach you about were sound, he lacked the engaging qualities to sell his ideas to players and fans. Questions were met with a shrug, answers spawned more questions, people grew frustrated.

These are the responses that you don’t see ‘on paper’ when you are making a data-based decision.

Squawka, betting sites and many other sites ply their trade in claiming that if you rely on the statistical element of a footballing decision, you really can’t go wrong. If only life was that simple.

We are just over two weeks into Mauricio Pellegrino’s reign as Southampton manager, but the early signs are there that he is switched-on, engaging, and has a good handle on both how to motivate average players to exceed their potential (see Alaves last season), and manage with what he has, not with a huge chequebook and a bit of swagger. He made a team out of second division players and loanees. That is hugely impressive, and I am looking forward to seeing what he can do with the squad we have at our disposal.

With regards to the squad, it looks like we may have a ‘one more season’ agreement in place with Virgil van Dijk that was very similar to the one we had with Morgan Schneiderlin back in 2014/15. The addition of Bednarek looks to be a long-term signing, and securing contract renewals for both Sam Gallagher and Jack Stephens (who, whether you like it or not, is Jose Fonte’s replacement) are positive moves, and a signal that there is a desire for stability. Whoever we bring in now will only be to improve the squad.

Many fans erroneously point to teams like Huddersfield and Bournemouth when comparing our transfer activity. The simple fact is that we were due a quiet summer, and both of the aforementioned teams, Huddersfield in particular, need to make multiple signings. Huddersfield in particular still largely had a squad that had scraped to survival the season before their promotion. Major surgery is required, hence the spending spree.

With Jay Rodriguez gone, we may see one more striker in, and a couple more additions. But lest we forget, much of the transfer activity we’ve had over the past 3/4 summers has been down to needing to replace big outgoings with quality replacements. It’s down to the players we signed last season (Boufal, Gabbiadini, Pied, McCarthy, Hojberg etc) to step up now they have had some time to acclimatise themselves with the league we’re in. So we may not see huge signings, but we’ll definitely see good signings.

One thing I’d like to see solved, however, by the end of the summer, is the ownership situation. It’s crystal clear that Katharina Liebherr is fully focussed on the sale of the club at the moment, and whilst the club have only made one clear statement regarding the situation back in February, I sincerely believe that allowing the question marks regarding ownership to continue will ultimately do more harm than good in the long run.

To be clear, I am not advocating a blind rush into a deal with investors, and I don’t believe that this will happen. But surely Katharina must realise that the longer this drags on, the worse it is for fans of the club? We’ve had (relative) stability over the past seven or eight years, but let’s not forget that The Championship is littered with clubs who had owners that lost interest. And the merry-go-round in the years leading up to the Liebherrs’ investment, from Michael Wilde, to Leon Crouch, to Rupert Lowe was deeply harmful to the club.

Additionally, some of the organisational elements behind the scenes, whether it’s marketing, their social media, or their pre-season planning, has come across as a bit half-arsed. I’d like the club to focus a bit more on putting their full arse into these matters. It really isn’t that hard to keep fans up to date and engaged.

Fans have been living with a lot of ‘don’t know’ for months regarding our ownership. Whilst part of life is about learning to be comfortable with the unknown, true success can only be built on solid foundations, with complete buy-in from the club, and the fans unified. With that in mind, I think we need some answers from Katharina Liebherr (who I have a great deal of respect for) by the start of this season. In or out – we need to know. That’s one point that needs immediate clarity.

To my mind, it’s a hugely positive step to have Ralph Krueger and Les Reed making the big decisions at the club, and with Krueger taking more of a controlling interest, I feel that sporting decisions will be given more weight than just the book balancing element. He’s got a proven understanding of sports psychology, and how professional sportspeople tick. That’s a fantastic trait to have in a chairman.

Time will tell, and we’ve been here before, both with managers and playing staff. Whilst I remain very confident despite the oddly flat feeling around the club last season, I’m just looking for that little bit extra from the club with regards to communication. Good news or bad, it’s just good to hear it from them, rather than through an intermediary.

But overall – let’s unite behind squad, manager and staff at the club ahead of this season. We can achieve great things when we work together. So let’s do that, and avoid another 10% season. Gut feeling, data, and incredible support can take us a hell of a long way. Trust me on that.