Holding patterns, possessions and partnerships: ten games in

Shane Long vs Newcastle

Pic by Mark Watson

The first ten games of the season have passed here at Southampton FC, and now seems as good a time as any to run the rule over Pellegrino, and his initial impact here at Southampton.

That won’t take long.

I say that for two reasons – not to be glib, and not to be too judgemental of a boss who, once again, seems to have lost a few fans already.

Stepping into a job like Southampton at the moment is a role that, on paper, to a coach, seems incredibly attractive. We have fantastic facilities, a decent-sized stadium, and a good squad full of players who are at the right age, and seemingly with the right credentials to push on in the league.

That’s on the surface. Underneath, however, there are practical and psychological reasons why this job, for even the sturdiest of coaches, my currently be almost untenable.

Firstly – expectations. As fans, over the past ten or so seasons, we’ve had seven that have been packed with positive drama, upwards momentum, and some absolutely thrilling displays of football – regardless of the divisions we were in. It could be argued that the period beginning with the Johnstone Paint Trophy victories, and two successive promotions, were amongst some of the most thrilling seasons in the club’s recent history. A generation of fans grew up watching that – watching Lambert, Lallana, Fonte, Shaw, Schneiderlin, Mane, Pelle, etc., play a swashbuckling style of football that entertained, regardless of the results at times. On the whole though? 80% of our recent (10 years) history has been positive, following an upward trajectory, and full of daring football.

However – with football as with most things in life, a continued upward trajectory is nearly impossible to maintain – especially in a bloated, cash-rich league like the Premier League. If we had continued on our trajectory from previous seasons, we would probably have been champions of Europe by now. Should we expect that? Of course not. At some point, reality needs to set in.

We are not one of the teams that are going to be able to compete with the top six at the moment. Thanks to FFP, the entrenched historical and global success of well-marketed teams that, in all honesty, the people at the top levels of the Premier League, and in the media, would like to continue to be successful, gravity was bound to kick in at some point, and temper the club’s progress somewhat.

However, as with any broad fanbase, there seems to be a disconnection with some between the reality of the situation (we are competing in a league where Leicester’s title win is a blip) of playing in a league where the odds are stacked against us, and the thorny issue of what people define as ‘ambition’.

The question is, when you are in a position where you are treading water, do you thrash and kick wildly, or do you calmly continue to tread water? Kicking wildly (the Everton solution), is to spend A LOT of another person’s money (a rich backer with patience) on a load of seemingly ready-made managerial and playing appointments, in the hope that you can break the hegemony.

Continuing to tread water means a slow-and-steady approach, picking your battles, and perhaps choosing your moments to strengthen and to push a bit more carefully.

A fan’s expectation is to never tread water – it is, for the most part, a trade-off with the club in some way. You provide me with entertainment on a Saturday afternoon and give me something to be proud of, and I will, in return, give you my undying support. For the most part, all that’s really expected from the club’s side is the impression that an effort to progress is being made, and clarity on what the club wants to achieve season after season. What does the club aspire to?

Style of play is the second reason why it’s so confusing at the moment to be a Southampton fan at the moment. We are told week-in, week-out, that the club wants to play pressing, attacking football with a positive mentality. Then matchday comes around, and we’re met with either caution or pragmatism. The cognitive dissonance is beginning to become quite pronounced.

At the moment, we are a possession-based side. We like to play it safe, and believe that the opposition can’t hurt us if they can’t get the ball. Whilst that is true to a certain extent, it won’t be achieved by playing the deep-laying possession football which we witnessed against Brighton on Sunday.

The Spanish national side, and the death of ‘tiki-taka’ as an effective modern footballing style is a cautionary tale when it comes to discussing our fortunes over the past couple of seasons. Spain dominated world football for a spell between 2010 and 2013 with a style of possession football that relied on out-passing the opposition and using the possession to move up the pitch. Using possession as both the best form of attack and defence.

At times, that team looked unplayable. And then the rest of the footballing world caught up. In 2014, Spain were found out in an embarrassing manner on the global stage.

In words much more eloquent than mine, here is Barney Ronay of the Guardian summing up a style of play that sounds incredibly familiar to Southampton fans this season:

Against Chile and Holland, Spain had more possession. They had 15 shots to Chile’s seven, while Claudio Bravo made nine saves to Iker Casillas’ two. And yet they never at any stage looked like winning the game.

That was at international level. In a domestic, high-intensity league like the Premier League, it’s a downright dangerous way to play. We coach and play for speed over here. Counter-attacking and intense football is more than just the flavour of the month in the UK – we love watching it because it’s what we were raised on. Whilst change should be embraced at times, and pragmatism should be employed when we are playing teams capable of shredding us defensively, I really cannot see a reason why we are playing this style against teams on the same level as us.

The reason Barcelona are still successful as a possession-based team is simple – they have Leo Messi, Suarez, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique and Rakitic in their lineup. Messi alone would justify it. We don’t have that level of player, and I feel that we only have one player really comfortable with playing in that style – the La Masia-trained Oriol Romeu. And you can’t build an exciting team around a defensive midfielder.

The list of teams trying possession-based football in the Premier League and failing is growing. Manchester United under van Gaal were unsuccessful in terms relative to their size playing in this style. AvB has been unsuccessful twice trying to implement the same strategy. Are we following suit?

It’s difficult to watch as a fan. Having 60-70% of the possession during a game makes 0% difference if you do not a) make chances and b) convert chances. At the moment, it’s difficult to see where the link between midfield and attack is coming from. One of the most encouraging moments from pre-season, which proved to be somewhat of an aberration, was James Ward Prowse’s goal in our 3-0 victory over Saint Etienne.

The reason it was such a heartening goal was that it suggested that we would be looking to push more midfield players into the box to support attacks from our wide defenders. To dare. To hope. But where has that been this season? It seems to have been abandoned.

That being said, I am not a fan of a lot of the negativity being beamed from the stands onto the pitch at the moment. In particular, the abuse directed at Nathan Redmond just needs to stop. Booing a player as he comes on, regardless of your opinion of him, can hardly be the most productive way for fans to get a player psyched up to do his best. And the personal abuse that he is starting to get from fans in some quarters is starting to cross the line from constructive criticism to outright aggression and hatred. And yet, we’d all be jumping up and down if he scored the winning goal this weekend. And when he was 50% of the reason we made it to Wembley last season.

Whilst there have been poor individual performances so far this season, I don’t think the problem lies solely with the individuals. It’s more than that. Are we all to blame? It seems like a vicious circle at the moment.

I can, on a deeper level, understand why the boos are ringing out after games though, particularly at home. Whilst a pragmatic, safety first approach might serve you well in tight away games, at home, this is simply not the style of play Southampton fans want to see, and they are entitled to ask for something different, when we were told that Pellegrino was going to be playing in an attacking style. Are we seeing that at the moment? Definitely not.

In short: the majority of fans didn’t want Puel to leave because of his manner in interviews, etc. That was a symptom. The actual problem itself was the style of play. And ten games in, that doesn’t seem to have changed.

Looking around the mid-table in the Premier League, we are not the only fans with this problem. Fans of Stoke and West Brom, in particular, are expressing the same frustrations with their team.

This is what is known as ‘the Charlton conundrum’. In the early noughties, Charlton Athletic were a perennial, occasionally entertaining mid-table Premier League side. Every season, you could count on them finishing between 7th and 14th. Alan Curbishley, their manager at the time, was seen as a safe pair of hands. But a few seasons in, the fans wanted more. They wanted the club to ‘show ambition’ and ‘splash the cash’. Take risks. So they did. And they were promptly relegated. The past few years have not been kind to Charlton Athletic. And I wonder what their fans would sacrifice for a boring, mid-table Premier League finish now?

I can see the reasons why the club seems risk-averse at the moment. And in hindsight, I can see why they club were risk-averse last season. The club itself was in flux. We were in the process of a takeover (‘partnership’), and the club as an asset needed to be protected. ‘Don’t spend too much money, don’t take unnecessary risks,’ was probably the unspoken message that the fans weren’t privy to at the top echelons of the club.

Now? Our club is past that. We own our stadium outright. We have a new ownership structure. And we have a platform to build on. Now we can aspire, and set in motion a plan of where to go next. But we’ve had no mention of what we can expect this season from the club. And I think that whilst the new partners are settling in, the plan has been, and will be, stability and stasis. Les Reed used the dreaded phrase ‘strong and stable’ during close season. ‘Strong and stable’ isn’t an entertaining message to send to fans. Tell us what you want to achieve this season. Muted mutterings of ‘maybe Europe’ and ‘do well in the cups’, isn’t enough if you’re focusing on making up the numbers until you decide what to do next. It’s lip service. And fans can spot it straight away.

So give us a plan, Southampton FC: what do you want to achieve this season? How do you want to achieve it?

Nobody wants the club to go bankrupt chasing a dream. But that doesn’t mean that the club should deny the fans the opportunity to have dreams in the first place. Hope is what keeps fans of clubs like ours coming back. Being entertained keeps fans of clubs like ours coming back.

Give us something to dream about, and to hope about, Southampton FC. It’s confusing at the moment because you’re not telling us what you want, so we don’t know what to expect.

It’s time for a new chapter, and a new blueprint to be laid out clearly. And I hope that over the coming months, we’ll see that.

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