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!

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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.

2016-17 overview: marching on, but where next?

Southampton fc huddle
When I opened up my computer this morning, I was confronted by a quote: ‘Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today.’ It’s by 20th-century American vaudeville star Will Rogers. And it’s something that I’ve been trying to adhere to this season when it comes to following Southampton FC’s fortunes.

#WeMarchOn: it’s what we’re told. It’s the phrase that we’ve adopted wholeheartedly. Born out of the embers of administration, we marched up through the leagues back to where we belong.

‘A club built on faith’: I’ll freely admit to not being religious, but the concept of a club built on faith really resonate with me. We are, at our core, a church footballing team – a place where people come together on a weekly basis to share in the ups and downs of life, to play, and to enjoy playing together.

And this season, we’ve had a European campaign, victory over Inter Milan, and a League Cup final in which we pushed Manchester United to their limits. 
Over the closing stages of the season though, something changed for me.

I was quite prepared, as I wrote in an earlier blog, for a season of transition. Last season was a rollercoaster of highs and lows, compounded by yet another close season full of departures (although I do think it was the right time to sell both Wanyama and Mane – we’d have lost the former for nothing this summer, and the latter was never going to sign a new contract with us for the money we could offer).

Once again, we have had a season of highs and lows. The high-point for me, was not the victory against Inter Milan at home, but the League Cup semi-final at Anfield. Shane Long powering up the pitch, latching on to a perfectly-weighted ball by Josh Sims, powering it past Mignolet. The celebrations. The feeling that the players and the fans, for that one moment, were one.

The lows have been, in fairness, shocking. A 3-1 defeat at home against a very average West Ham side summed up our home-form for me, along with the woeful home performance against Hapoel. Chances created, none taken. Possession held consistently without threat.

As for our record against top six sides, this is definitely a season to forget. I’d like to think it was some kind of Holmes-esque conundrum, but the reality is quite simple, sadly. Teams in the top six play European football regularly. French and German teams in particular like to play considered, possession-based football. Teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool are so used to teams setting up against them that way. It’s not a chore for them to come up with a Plan B for possession-based football. This is why teams like Chelsea and Arsenal are content to let us play in that manner, then casually stroll up the pitch and tear us to shreds as soon as we open up. 

As much as I think Graeme Souness is a prize bell-end, he had a point when he said that we were very easy to play against for the larger teams. Eden Hazard does not need consistent possession to hurt you – he needs one moment against a weakened defence. Ditto for Sanchez. It’s actually quite easy for them. Roll the ball past a couple of players who are used to playing patient, slow football this season, and score.

Very little has changed in terms of the playing staff, and despite what has been said in some quarters, I do feel as if we have replaced adequately. The Fonte situation was a bizarre one, but it can be argued that £7m for a player clearly on the wane represents good business for the board. A player agitating for a pay-rise two seasons in a row is poor form, captain or not, and is also the sign of somebody who maybe thinks that they have more in their locker than they truly do. Also, let’s not forget that Fonte was hardly on the breadline – he had, and was offered, a very good deal by the club. I would rather not have a 34 year-old on £60k per week, when we could be signing a younger player for the same salary.

Despite criticisms (some justified), Puel has showed his knack for developing and nurturing players.

Nathan Redmond
Redmond has been an excellent buy for us. Whilst many were quick to write him off, I feel that was mostly down to the misunderstanding Claude Puel created by calling him a striker. It created an unnecessary burden on the young lad’s shoulders, and he spent the first part of the season trying to figure out what he was expected to do.

James Ward-Prowse
Another two reasons to be cheerful is that James Ward-Prowse is finally being given game-time, and being trusted by a manager. I feel that this is important, and something that he hasn’t had since Nigel Adkins was at the club. He’ll never be a barnstorming, all-action midfielder, but he is quickly turning into a fantastic technical footballer with an eye for a pass.

Jack Stephens
Jack Stephens has also stepped up to the mark, and is showing real signs of progress. In an otherwise poor team display against Arsenal, he managed to make one of the best tackles I think I’ve ever seen from a Southampton player, dispossessing Ozil with a sliding tackle, controlling it, and getting back to his feet to play a pass. This kind of technical ability is something that we often rave about when it is exhibited by an Italian, Dutch or Spanish defender. Maybe in the next couple of seasons we can see him push on and try and claim a spot in the England squad? Once he develops his strength in the air, where he is prone to be bullied, he will turn into a hell of a defender. He is already very comfortable with the ball at his feet, reminding me of Dean Richards and Claus Lundekvam in that respect. We love a ball-playing centre back here at Southampton.

Maya Yoshida
Maya Yoshida also deserves a special mention. A player who has often been derided in some quarters as a lightweight, mistake-prone defender, has grown in both confidence and ability this season with the trust shown in him by Puel. His aerial ability has improved hugely, and his performances this season in my opinion, whilst they can never reach the levels of VVD, and he can still be prone (as Stephens can too) to lapses of concentration, certainly warrant a new deal this summer. Maybe change the name on that contract snubbed by Jose?

Special mentions must also go to Josh Sims, Matt Targett (when not injured), and even the young Harry Lewis, who will really benefit from a spell out on loan next season. He may have played in a cup hammering against Arsenal, but he was essentially playing in front of a row of four statues for most of the game, and he will learn a lot from that.

Football these days is a mix of science, creativity, data, tactics, art and alchemy – all of these combined give you the elements of a top team. You can’t help but think the art and the alchemy has been missing somewhat this season.

Part of this is down to the fact that, simply put, there is such a thing as too much football. A lot is made of the fact that footballers ‘have it easy’. The turn up and train, and then get paid for working 90 minutes once or twice a week. That players in the 60s, 70s and 80s never moaned about the sheer volume of games crammed into a season.

Both of those points are fallacies. Football today is a quicker, more athletic game than it ever has been. The average footballer in the Premier League runs between 10-12km per match, often in jogs or sprints. Multiply that by three, and you have a lot of distance covered per game. Exhaustion and fatigue would start to set in, especially amongst players who have also played a full EURO 2016. Add into that 3-5 training sessions per week, plus specialist one-to-one training and development, contracted and compulsory rest time, club promotion commitments and a family, and you have an incredibly busy life which is bound to cause tiredness at some level.

Claude Puel
Claude Puel’s rotation at times, whilst frustrating for the fans, was logical at the beginning of the season. But it’s a double-edged sword. Whilst there is less chance of muscular injuries occurring, and players are likely to stay fresher for longer, it does nothing for the competitiveness of a squad, and the confidence of a player, to know that their place in the side is dependent on policy, and not form.

It’s not difficult to feel sorry for players like Jay Rodriguez and Shane Long. Whilst neither have been on top form this season (I think Shane’s summer of football with Rep. of Ireland didn’t help him, whilst I still wonder if Jay will ever be the same player after his injury), it can’t help but be frustrating to them to play and score one game, only to be dropped the next game. Creative players and strikers in particular rely on streaks and confidence. They feel as if they are unable to maintain the momentum that is crucial for strikers. They rely on confidence, and being backed by the manager. The miscommunication between Shane Long, Eric Black and Claude Puel in our game against Manchester City was not acceptable in any way, shape or form. It was unprofessional.

I’m also concerned, from a fan’s perspective, that for the first time in the past 7-10 years, we have a genuinely unpopular manager at the helm of the club. Whilst it can be argued that the silent majority of fans, beyond the echo-chamber of social media, might be quite happy with Puel, it’s become abundantly clear that there are cracks beginning to show in the club’s relationship with the fans. Whilst it could be argued that, thanks to the age we live in, fans are becoming more entitled, and demanding instant results. The fans have, in fact, been patient over the history of our club. The last time I remember seeing such an uproar was when Ian Branfoot was at the club.

The booing and jeering of Puel over the past few games has been audible. As has some of the shameful xenophobia, both in the stands and online. I may not be Puel’s biggest fan, but some of his criticism hasn’t come from a place of genuine concern over his ability to do the job. In some cases, it may be, but it was just expressed inelegantly. It’s not ‘being offended on someone’s’ behalf to pick up on this. It’s because many people don’t actually like what you have to say.

Anyway, digression over…

Having weighed up the pros and cons of Claude’s first season at the club, my biggest concern isn’t whether he keeps his job or not. It’s about the relationship that the club has with the fans.

For the first time in a few years, it’s starting to feel that we’re not being listened to. It really does cut both ways. I’ve asked for patience in the past with the club, and held off as long as possible before posting this, but it’s a deal. Both sides have to benefit. Some of the least entertaining football we’ve seen in quite some time isn’t keeping your end of the bargain, Southampton FC. I can understand when people spend hundreds of pounds in a shitty economy to watch a game of football, only to see too much pragmatism on the pitch, grow frustrated, and stop doing it.

Like it or not (and sports scientists would argue with this at times), football is a form of entertainment. Barring our trip to Wembley, this season has not been entertaining. We got given a soft goal by Inter Milan at home to cement our Europa League victory against them. Sofiane Boufal’s exquisite strike against Sunderland came during one of the shittest games in living memory at St. Mary’s.

This summer is pivotal for the club.

Keeping a manager who is proving divisive is a risk. That, combined with the sale of players such as Virgil van Dijk, would be nothing short of disastrous. The proposed investment in the club is vital, but the relationship between the club and the fans is more important. This summer is bigger than others. It really does feel pivotal, and that we are at the start of another rise, or another fall.

We don’t need platitudes, or being told that we can just march on regardless. We just need to be made to feel like we’re a part of the club again. It all feels a bit arms-length at the moment.
A lot should become clear in the next few weeks at the club. The ownership question, who will be staying, who will be leaving.

Whilst he has always had his critics, Les Reed has got about 80% of the big decisions right over the years he’s been at the club. In that respect, he has some goodwill built up to draw down on from sensible fans. The problem is that the 20% of bad decisions all seem to have come in the past season. This summer, Les and the rest of the club must get it right.

The transitional season is over: this is when everybody at the club needs to step up.

Transfers, facts, fiction, Fonte, fixtures, finals

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Finalists

You may have noticed on this blog that I only write something when I really need to, or really feel like it. Three times a season, in most cases.

This isn’t because I don’t give a shit – far from it. Take a look at my Twitter feed.

The reason I don’t post very often is simple: There is such a disproportionate signal-to-noise ratio on social media and the blogosphere in general, that at times I think that the best thing to do is remain quiet, and consider.

With that in mind, here are my considerations for the season so far.

On Puel: so much has been written about Claude Puel since he joined us in August, and you’d be forgiven as an outsider for thinking that we know all there is to know about the diminutive Frenchman. But we don’t. We know how he likes to set the team up on the pitch, we know that he favors possession-based football and rotation when there is a glut of matches (to-date we have played 37 games this season in all competitions). But apart from that, the man himself is a mystery. Reserved and repetitive in interviews (perhaps due to the language gap), we’re so used to his ‘possibilities’ and ‘opportunities’ now that you rarely need to tune into his press briefings anymore.

I’ll be honest: I like that. I’d much rather we had a coach who knows his place within the club’s hierarchy (he handles tactical and coaching matters, not transfers), than an Allardyce, Pardew or Redknapp figure. Loads of people hark back to the days of the all-encompassing manager and reminisce about managers handling every element of a club’s business. Puel has made mistakes tactically, but I do not think he warrants some of the stick he receives.

Much of the stick is ideological: some people will never like possession football, some people will never like managers who don’t talk about striking deals and picking up bargains, some people don’t like quiet people. Some people, I think, have never got over the fact that we didn’t hire Pellegrini, and dislike Puel because he is not a high-profile manager. They’re totally entitled to that viewpoint. I respectfully disagree.

One way in which I am old-fashioned is that I believe that Puel, whilst he has made mistakes, deserves the time and the patience to correct these mistakes, and stamp his identity on the team he has inherited. This season, and some of next season, to be precise. If we are still playing poorly in November this year, then I will be concerned, but hopefully with the fixture congestion finally easing for us after Swansea on Tuesday, with only three games in Feb, we should start to see some improvement.

In many ways, this season has been about fixing and adapting on the fly, coping with players already tired from international competitions in the summer, and trying to build a core squad for the long term. As I said at the start of this season, it’s a transitional season, and nothing encapsulates that more than the departure of Jose Fonte. Essentially, we now have a new core of players (barring JWP) to work with, and they need to bond on their own terms and in their own way.

The era of Davis (although he’s still here, as is Jaidi), Fonte, Lambert, Lallana, etc is now officially over. It’s time to plan for a new era. What better place to start than with some silverware?

Even though it is very much a second-string competition to many, the fact that we are in the EFL Cup Final is a marvelous achievement. Cup finals are occasions in which memories are made, and those lucky enough to have been alive to see Bobby Stokes score the winning goal in 1976, or were at Wembley when goals from Lambert, Papa Waigo and Michail Antonio began our rebirth in earnest in the JPT Final, will remember those games much more than the time Danny Dichio hit a poor free kick through Kelvin’s legs against Preston, or losing at 4-1 home against Crystal Palace in our first game in the Championship in 2005.

Not conceding a goal is an even greater achievement, and if we win the cup, little of this season, which is more about ‘just managing the burden’ than pushing for the top 6 again, will be remembered – just the cup win.

Let’s get some silverware. The club has earned it for the rehabilitation we have experienced. The Liebherrs deserve it for their investment. WE deserve it for sticking with the team through thick and thin. So let’s make Wembley a sea of red and white, and be the fans that we like to think we are – the absolute fucking BEST.

On transfers: Once again, I think a great deal of the disconnect between some of us and the club is ideological. Some fans want names, they want numbers, they want cheeky deals for out-of-contract 32 year-olds who can ‘do a job’. Southampton FC will never, in it’s current incarnation, please these people. If we had bought in three players on deadline day, they would have wanted a fourth. If we had a squad of 50, they’d want a 51st player ‘for cover’.

Those days at Southampton FC are thankfully dead. This means that we can allow the people who are hired to do their jobs actually do their jobs, without some knobhead with a cigar and a bad suit (agent or manager) dictating who the club should buy.

That’s not how we work. That’s not how Les Reed works. We had a transfer policy, and if we can’t find the right player, we won’t make do with less. Often, players are released for a reason – they are not good enough for the current side they are playing for, they have recurring injuries, or they have a bad attitude. Bringing in many of these players could upset the balance of the team, and many of the players linked probably do not fit into the club’s plans from a strategic perspective. We have a ‘Southampton Way’ here, and I think that it is less about the style of our football, and more about our hiring and purchasing policy. IF a player fits, we pursue them. If they don’t, we won’t. It eliminates uncertainty, and I trust our transfer team to do their due diligence on a player mentally and physically before he joins.

That’s why we should be excited about Manolo Gabbiadini, and not be upset about losing a declining Fonte.

It was clear that our current crop of strikers (barring Austin) are struggling to convert the chances we are creating. So it made sense to bring Gabbiadini in. Once Austin is fit, and Gallagher is recalled, we will have a formidable crop of strikers to choose from.

It’s clear that Hassen has come in to deputise for McCarthy and compete with Forster. Lewis needs experience at a lower level (expect him to go out on loan next season), Stuart Taylor was bought in as a surrogate Kelvin, to bolster the numbers and provide experience on the training ground (also maybe a route into coaching?), and I think we’ve seen the last of Gazzaniga in a Southampton shirt. If Hassen signs on a permanent contract in the summer, as he may do, then we will have an incredibly competitive roster of goalkeepers.

With regards to the centre-back situation, it is clear that Fonte wanted to leave, and that he and the club did not see eye-to-eye on certain matters. A lot has been written about this, and we can go over the why’s and the wherefores, but it sounds like all parties got the best deal out of this offer. One thing I will say about the gossip: I’d take Matthew Le Tissier’s word over a lot of other pundits every day of the week.

Les Reed told us a replacement for Fonte would be found before he left, but unfortunately, with football even the best-laid plans have to be adapted. The move was right for Fonte, and the price was right for us. It is fortunate for us that Florin Gardos is slowly returning to full fitness. He has only played a handful of games for us and should be given the opportunity to succeed or fail on his own merits, and not on his injury record. The game against Arsenal was an abysmal team performance, and I don’t think any one player should be singled out.

This summer will once again surely see plenty of activity. Virgil Van Dijk is by far one of the best defenders I have ever seen in the Premier League, and to that end every club in the top 4 here will be vying for his signature. We have him on a long-term contract, and it will be interesting to see if the club hierarchy would want him to honour another year at least, given his injury. Replacing 2 centre-backs in the summer will be a risky move. But we are also fortunate to have Maya Yoshida in the best form of his career, Jack Stephens starting to deliver on his potential, and Jason McCarthy impressing in both of his loan spells, we have a core. We may get two more in, but some of the catastrophising from our fanbase is a touch overblown. With a potential new stakeholder coming in this summer, it’s set to be an interesting window.

Deadline day has been and gone, and we are now onto the final 16 games of the season. Now more than ever, with the team in mid-table and a cup final to play for, we need to approach this run-in as we would expect the players to: with passion, commitment, and a lack of toxic negativity. It’s always okay to criticise, but let’s move on together. We are not a big, glossy team, and we shouldn’t aspire to be. Let’s be the underdogs. Let’s scrap. Let’s support. This is what we’re here for.