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.
He certainly did. Very professional on the pitch. Didn’t behave like a capt this season tho https://t.co/qsZXwuJeyB
— Matt Le Tissier (@mattletiss7) 31 January 2017
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.