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.

Do Southampton FC fans have the patience for the season ahead?

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New Southampton FC Manager Claude Puel

Football, unlike cricket, has never been a game for the patient. Football in the Premier League, is particularly unforgiving.

From what I’ve seen so far of the new look Southampton FC side so far under Claude Puel, there is much to be excited about – but that comes with a caveat.

Once again, we enter a new season off of the back of a summer spent selling some key players who we knew would leave, and lost a manager who played with fire and got burnt when his wage demands weren’t met. We can complain about the ins and outs, but I prefer to dwell on the positives.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Nathan Redmond are canny signings. I don’t think I’ve seen Højbjerg give the ball away yet, and Redmond has great movement on and off the ball. Tadic playing through the middle will be a big feature for us this season, and if that clicks, we could see some good performances. I actually think Højbjerg is an upgrade on Wanyama, but many may disagree with me. Judging on his passing against United last night, I think we’ve got a real gem on our hands.

For what it’s worth, I think, barring one more signing, we have the nucleus of a good side, albeit one that will probably take a while to adapt to a new formation and style of play under Puel.

The only question I have is – will the fans show patience?

Southampton in the Premier League this time around have always been a frustrating team to support. Not big enough to ever attract or keep the top players, not small enough at the moment to avoid question marks over our ambition from certain parts of our fan base.

I can understand to a certain extent why people were disappointed when Puel took over. He’s not exactly  a laugh-a-minute, but he comes across as a thoughtful, studious coach, who works hard on the training ground and wants his teams’ football to do the talking.

It’s clear that Puel isn’t a short-term appointment. It’s also clear that the signings we’ve made aren’t short-term signings. Something is building again here at St. Mary’s – and we must show a bit of patience and get behind the team.

We may look at teams like Crystal Palace throwing money around left, right and centre, and feel slightly aggrieved that we’re not. But look at the core of Palace’s squad. It’s weaker, and built on shakier foundations. They need to spend that money, and that’s their strategy. Great. Good for them.

It’s clear that our strategy is to build a side with a mixture of homegrown talent and hard-working players that fit our mould. The Southampton Way. We may have lost some of that last season under Koeman, despite our final position. The football, whilst it could have been classed as ‘winning football’ last season, wasn’t great to watch at points. And there has to be hard reset to a certain extent to get back to a style of football we can all be proud of.

And regardless of what many think – it is imperative that we keep young players like Matt Targett and James Ward-Prowse in and around the starting lineup, and allow more of our homegrown players to come through, rather than just buying in. Could that effect our league position? Possibly. Is it the right thing for the club? Definitely. Which would you prefer supporting – a soulless marketing machine like Manchester United, or a team who try to do things the right way, like Southampton do. Despite Friday’s result, I’d prefer the latter.

This season may be a bit of a reality check for us. We have a busy campaign coming up – the league, 2x domestic cups, and a Europa League campaign. Something’s got to give, and I feel we may drop a couple of league positions. But that’s life. We’ll still be there next season.The club will still be there next season. And we’re here now. So let’s get behind the team that we have, and not cause needless casualties through our own lack of patience.

We are a team built on faith. So let’s show some.

Southampton FC’s calm steering will weather this summer’s storm

 

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Nothing is ever set in stone (picture credit: Daniel Lewis – @DLphotographer)

Down on the South Coast of Hampshire, we don’t do quiet summers. Certainly not in the red and white half at least.

Many fans could be forgiven for feeling deja vu last week, when Director of Football, Les Reed, gave a lengthy interview to the club’s Youtube channel about a wide-range of subjects, from youth development, to player contract renewals, to the renewal of boss Ronald Koeman’s contract. Talks were progressing well, according to Reed, and the inference was that the only things left to sort out were the finer points of the contract.

Clearly, Ronald Koeman had other ideas. As I write this post, it’s looking increasingly likely that he will be unveiled as manager of Everton FC, a club that finished way below Southampton FC in the league last season, and a whopping 16 points behind them to boot. It is inarguable that, if you look on the face of it, that Everton, even before the summer transfer merry-go-round gets underway and they lose both John Stones and Romeleu Lukaku, have a significantly weaker squad than Southampton at the moment.

What they do have, however, is a new owner in Farhad Moshiri, who wants to make a good impression with the fans. Making a big splash in the press, offering to make a manager the 6th richest in world football, and promising a huge transfer kitty, is a good way to get started.

A brief word on Everton: if I was a fan of them, I would be concerned about their new owner, and the way that they have started going about their business. For the record, I do not believe him that Ronald Koeman was their first choice as a manager. I believe that, whilst he may be a success, the big pay-packet that he was offered would have also been offered to larger targets: to Manuel Pellegrini, to Frank de Boer, to anybody with real European pedigree. But my gut feel is that they were turned down, and saw Koeman as low-hanging fruit – a good manager at a moderately successful club. And they’ve thrown all of the money they possibly could at him. They’ve got their man, and Ronald has a huge challenge on his hands.

I’m not going to talk about loyalty in football. It’s a luxury rarely afforded to clubs and to players outside of the top 4 teams in world football. If Manchester United had been consistently finishing 11th and 12th in the league, then I don’t think that Ryan Giggs would have spent his whole career there. For Southampton, Matthew le Tissier is a glorious outlier – a fantastic player primarily motivated by the comfort of a nice lifestyle on the south coast, and the adulation of fans who took him to their heart, mainly because he was a mercurial talent who felt lucky to be playing professional football.

Ronald Koeman has no particular allegiance to Southampton FC, and he will feel the same about Everton FC. This is not about love – this is a business decision. And that’s fair enough.

For our part as Southampton fans, you only have to look at Twitter for a second to see the waxing and waining of faith and hope in our club. One of my favourite books is the Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters.

Essentially, this image forms the crux of the theory behind the book:

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Now, you’ll see a load of grey matter helpfully colour-coded into less grey matter, to show you all of the different regions of the brain.

Right in the centre, you’ll find a cheeky little f*cker known as the Limbic System. According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong), the Limbic system ‘is a group of forebrain structures that has the hypothalamus, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. These are involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. The limbic system is where the subcortical structures meet the cerebral cortex.’

Essentially, it’s what we initially relied upon when we were in the jungle. It keeps us safe by flaring when we are under threat, and is responsible for our emotions, our motivations, and our urges.

It’s also the segment of our brain that makes us kick off when we feel like somebody or something has done us a disservice.

When two people’s chimps are in control of their brains, chaos normally ensues. That’s what we’re seeing on Twitter at the moment. Lots of angry Southampton FC chimps, and lots of boastful Everton FC chimps. Both sides beating their chest and defending their territory.

This is not conducive to running a business, or a football club, and I think that Les Reed, and the board at Southampton, know this. That is why I’d imagine they did not react, or panic, when Ronald Koeman was offered a bumper payday at Everton. The calm, rational side of their brains won out.

Football agents, the press, and sometimes owners of football clubs, engage their chimps far too often. Social media has further exacerbated this. Literally none of the conversation this week has been about footballing matters. It’s been about finances. Journalists are under pressure to get clicks through to their site, and to sell advertising off of the back of it – that’s getting worse with the proliferation of dreadful blogs that seem to copy and past any half-rumour and present it as fact. Online betting companies share odds and terrible ‘banter’ to try and get you to lay odds with them, lose the money you put in, and then lay some more money on. Agents will feed stories to journalists to try and secure bigger paydays for themselves, and their clients. Clearly, Ronald Koeman’s agent felt that the offer from Southampton FC wasn’t big enough.

I think it’s right that we didn’t match that offer. I think that the money that we offered Ronald Koeman was more than enough. And I think we were right to let him go if he didn’t feel the same way. So I think that, rather than villifying the Southampton FC board, we should be congratulating them for staying calm whilst others around them lose their head.

The hunt for a new manager for Southampton FC was probably surreptitiously started some months ago. I note with interest that a few weeks ago, when the first Koeman to Everton rumours surfaced, another story claimed that Rafa Benitez had turned down the Southampton role. This may have been a ploy from Benitez’s agent to get him a bumper contract at Newcastle, but the timing was interesting. I would wager that the club has been looking for replacements for some time, and although time may be taken (which we have, given the European Championships), that Southampton FC will be working diligently to secure another manager in time for pre-season training.

In the meantime, expect agent-stirring, headline-writing and betting sites to be dominating social media. But remain calm.

Here are some facts: Southampton FC are a top 6 club, with European football coming next season, a top-class academy which has been notably underused in the past two seasons, elite-level facilities, solid financial backing and a strong squad built to progress.

We already knew, and expected both Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle to leave this summer, so no meltdown there. In fact, it’s interesting to note that Ronald Koeman seemingly upset a number of Southampton players last season – most notably Wanyama, Pelle, Tadic and Mane, by either benching them or criticising their attitude in public. I’d love a penny for their thoughts now.

Southampton FC are a strong team, with a good mentality, and we are an attractive prospect to any managers in or out of roles at the moment. We will have the pick of a big market this summer, but I have a feeling that Les Reed has already been working through his shortlist, and lining up conversations with potential managers. Regardless of who we get, they will have been meticulously-researched to ensure that they fit into the club’s model, and match our ambitions.

The past few years have been a rollercoaster, but what’s blown me away is the calm that the club exudes during times of stress. In fact, Southampton FC seem to thrive in it. I don’t think it’s luck.

One of my favourite quotes, that I have on my desk at work is this one by American author William Arthur Ward: ‘A pessimist complains about the wind; an optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.’ Given the nautical heritage we enjoy down here on the south coast, it’s heartening to see that our club, huddled on the banks of the River Itchen, are adjusting their sails accordingly.

Southampton FC: Don’t Call it a Meltdown

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Southampton FC have missed out on the signing of one of our defensive lynchpins last season: Toby Alderweireld.

It’s disappointing. In fact, that’s probably an understatement. The facts that there may be legal ramifications for Atletico Madrid as a result of this, and that maybe (possibly) we may be morally in the right over the terms of the deal we signed, are both moot at this point. We may get a bit of compensation, but we won’t get our man.

It’s galling that he’s going to Spurs given our rocky relationship with them in the past, but I can understand his reasoning behind the move. Firstly, he will be amongst a core of Belgian internationals currently plying their trade at The Lane, and secondly, London is a huge pull for many professional footballers, with its great transport links back to Toby’s native Belgium. Also, when Marc Wilmots or his scouts head over to check up on the Premier League’s Belgian contingent, he’s much more likely to go and view a number of players in one team, than heading to London, Southampton and Manchester in one trip.

In footballing terms, sadly to many we are still viewed as plucky upstarts from a backwater city in Hampshire, and we are missing out on targets, and losing players because of it.

FFP, the historical success of larger clubs and the obvious favour the top six are given from the Premier League will always see things ending this way for us.

But it doesn’t need to be such a galling experience.

What makes being a Southampton FC supporter special? For me, it’s the fact that it provides a tangible link between me and the city that I grew up in, no matter how far away I am from it. I am currently living in London at the moment (Tottenham to be precise, ten minutes walk from White Hart Lane), and I previously lived in Manchester, but despite the relative distances I’ve lived away from the club, I’ve felt every moment and kicked every ball.

At one point in 2009, I didn’t think that we’d have a club to support any more. The team than my great-uncle had played for, the club that my dad grew up watching, the club that I had shed blood, sweat and tears over, would be gone for good.

But then, something only a little bit short of a miracle occurred. The Liebherr family found us, took us over, and drove us up through the leagues, and changed the shape of our football club as we know it.

We are now one of the best set-ups in world football. We are now the place young footballers want to come if they want to get the best tutelage and development that football can offer. We play in one way – The Southampton Way, and that’s a philosophy that runs through the club like a stick of rock.

We should all be proud of that.

But do you want to know what I’m most proud of?

I’m proud of the fact that the top six clubs are so dismissive of us. It tells me that they’re scared of us. Okay, we might never match their levels of success, but we should be, and regularly are, the team that dishes out bloody noses to them. We’re the unfashionable club that dares to match them. That takes a look at their cosy little cabal at the top of the league and says ‘we want that,’ and gives them all a scare.

We should be proud that we’re not part of the Big Six. We should be proud of the fact that we’re outsiders to them. What would you rather be? The gobby upstarts, or the smug, moneyed tossers at the top of the pile? Give the former every day of the week – it gives us something to fight for.

And we should continue that fight. We should be agressively pursuing these clubs, we should be laughing at how bent out of shape they get when we challenge them.

For me, one of my favourite recent moments of being a Southampton FC supporter was being at the Manchester City game in 2012, our first back in the Premiership. The moment in the 59th minute when Rickie Lambert controlled the ball, and smashed it past Joe Hart to equalise for us, was the moment that told me that we were a club that gave no fucks whatsoever about our supposed ‘betters’. Surging down to the front of the stand to celebrate with fellow supporters, feeling the blood pulsing through my veins – that meant more to me than any FA Cup win, or generic European competition. Success is relative, and for teams of our size, we have to snatch those moments whenever we get our hands on them.

So let’s rediscover that ‘Spirit of Southampton’. Let’s continue to be gobby upstarts – the Bobby Stokes, the ‘underachieving’ Matthew Le Tissiers, the Rickie Lamberts, the punks, the outsiders, the kids egging the windows of the big houses down the end of the road.

As fans, we should embody that spirit, and not whine about life being unfair, but accepting that it is unfair, and doing our best within those confines.

We will be back, and the bloody noses will continue. You can be rest assured of that.

Let’s not have a summer meltdown

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It’s been little more than a week since the season ended, and against all odds, we got into Europe. Pages and pages have been written about that, so I won’t bore you with any more chat about that, apart from saying that it’s excellent, A Good Thing, and a huge step in the right direction after the summer we had last year.

Which is what I kind of wanted to talk about. Let’s not beat about the bush – last summer was rubbish if you were a Southampton FC fan.

Not only did you have to put up with losing your best (at the time) players to ‘bigger’ clubs with Champion’s League aspirations, you also had to put up with the ‘fans’ (inverted commas because nine times out of ten they’ve never seen ‘their club’ play home or away) of these clubs crowing on Twitter about how great it was that we were essentially being gutted for the benefit of the top 4 cabal.

I think there’s a bit of a hangover from it this summer, and you’d be forgiven for having more than a hint of trepidation after the last game of the season about what lies ahead in the summer.

Let’s be clear about this, as I have been all season: Morgan Schneiderlin is going to leave Southampton this summer, and it will be painful, because the odds are he’ll be playing (and playing well) against us next season.

But the majority of us knew this. I expect internally, the club knew this too. The chat that he had with Ronald Koeman and Les Reed last summer was probably something along the lines of ‘give it one more season and we’ll let you go’, and after seven years of playing for the club, you can hardly blame him for wanting a change of scenery.

It will be difficult to see, because I think that Morgan is very clear, and very good, at being enigmatic and typically French about these things. He’ll post cryptic messages on social media because, well, he wants to leave, and he wants to alert people to the fact that he wants to leave. His agent is probably telling him to do this too, to make the exit a bit more inevitable, and alert more clubs to his potential availability.

But let’s not forget that he also said a couple of weeks ago that he wants to play in the Champion’s League. That’s not an unfair goal to have as a professional – one who joined us as we were relegated to League One, and has stayed with us since then.

This season, he’s knuckled down and given us his best season in a Southampton shirt. And we should be thankful for that. Now we have to accept that he’s given us the season we wanted him to give us, and let him leave with our best wishes.

Last summer’s transfer window was horrible. And I think that as fans, we still bear the scars of it. The moment any story has been picked up on Twitter by a 14 year-old agent, or a syndicate of shit football blogs, there is a mini meltdown on the #SaintsFC hashtag.

‘For fuck’s sake – now we’re going to lose all of our best players again.’

Yes, we’ll probably lose a couple – I still think Clyne will leave along with Morgan. If Clyne won’t sign (forgive the rhyme) his new contract, then expect this to happen soon, and yes, probably for about £10-15 million – he’s in the last year of his contract, so don’t expect the big bucks. It’s simple economics. The only reason we got good (great) money for our outgoings last season was because they were all on long contracts. Clyne hasn’t got one. We either sell this summer, or lose him for less in January, or lose him for nothing next summer. It’s shit or get off the pot time for Clyne and the club.

But also, let’s not forget that for every Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana, there was a Ryan Bertrand and Sadio Mane. We’ll be getting players in, we’ll be strengthening the squad, and more importantly, we’ll have a manager at the helm all the way through it – somebody who was arguably our best signing last summer.

It’s going to be a long summer.’

Yes, it will be – if you read the tabloids. They’re bored – nothing is happening. There is no football. So how does The Sun fill it’s back pages? With transfer rumours, that’s what!

And just think – if you’re nervous now, wait until Neil Ashton starts tweeting!

So let them write these ridiculous stories, and laugh at them. True or not, it’s not going to destroy our club if any of these transfers happen. Look at last season – did we crumble?

We need to get over the sensitivity. The thin skin we developed over the last summer still seems to be there, and we have to do our best to heal it. Nobody else is going to help us.

Enjoy summer, remember that we’re going to be bringing players in, as well as losing them, and try not to have a tantrum when things don’t go our way – which in some cases, they won’t.

There are only two certainties with players and managers – either you’ll get rid of them, or they’ll get a better offer. The sooner we all adjust to that reality, the better. If you want proof of how well a supposedly disastrous transfer window went, just look back to last year.

So buckle down, enjoy your summer, and stay strong Saints fans – all will be well in the end.

Southampton FC Summer Sale