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.

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