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.