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.

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