It’s a mystery. Toyah Wilcox said that. I’m saying it too. It really is a mystery.
This season, so far, has been an absolute car-crash for a variety of reasons. And the so much of it has been covered, and not changed in the slightest, that I do sometimes wonder to myself why I continue to write, to tweet, and to share views of just what is going on at our beloved club this season.
‘On paper’ is a phrase we hear a lot when we are talking about Southampton FC this season. ‘On paper’, we are too strong to be in this position. ‘On paper’ we have a top ten squad. ‘On paper’, we shouldn’t be struggling. But yet here we are – 18th place as I write this, with our least successful coach in recent memory at the helm of a chronically underperforming team.
Something seems to have changed pretty fundamentally at the club in the past two seasons. Some of this could be down to the coaches that we have selected, but an important point to make is: who selected these coaches? And why?
There has been a lot of smug musing in the press about us sacking Claude Puel, Leicester’s performance, and how we’ve replaced him with a worse coach. Whilst I liked Claude Puel, in all fairness to him, he was never going to be successful at Southampton for a number of reasons.
Firstly, he inherited a squad that was set up to play precisely the opposite style to which he liked to play – our team was set up to press, turn the ball over quickly, and attack, employing a high line and with a focus on utilising the pace of Mane and the physicality of Pelle. The team that we gave him was significantly weaker with the loss of both of these players, and to add to that, the replacements that we signed that season (Boufal, Pied, Redmond, Gabbiandini), were not the solutions that we needed. They all seemed to add something different to the team, but together, it seemed as if we lacked a clear identity. We were an attacking team playing deep-laying, possession-based football, trying to hit teams on the break. But when we did break clear, the players we had signed that summer either did not fit the style of play that we needed (Redmond had pace and skill, but pretty poor decision-making, Boufal needed a season to acclimatise himself, Gabbiadini is not that kind of player, and is not an out and out target man, and Pied can’t pass). Leicester were set up for a manager like Puel – his style is how they won the league, that’s why they are doing so well. I’m pleased for him.
It’s who we chose to replace him with which was the problem.
Pellegrino is a defensive coach who can’t organise and drill mistakes out of a back-line. The fact that he has an army of assistants to try and implement this means that he gets no pass and no quarter in my book for not sorting this out.
He builds his team around a reliable, but pedestrian player like Oriol Romeu. Oriol is a nice guy, and a good defensive midfielder, but slows down the play to fit his style. When the ball is played out through him, it normally results in a risk-averse, pedestrian passage of play – which is very easy to counter if you are not Manchester City or any other possession-based side in the top half of the table. We do not have a plan B for when teams park the bus in this manner. We are very easy to defend against, and our slow style leaves the players unable to rapidly respond or up the pace if the other team increases their tempo.
As a counter-point, look at how Mario Lemina brings the ball out from defensive positions. He is able to power forward, and use a turn of pace, skill and strength to drive the side forward from deep. The only problem is that when he does that, he’s often met with a wall of opposition shirts, and nobody around him showing for the ball. This is down to risk-averse management.
For me, the writing was on the wall with regards to Pellegrino when he suggested that he’d played the Brighton game at the AMEX wanting a draw – and whilst I do not want to criticise Romeu for speaking in defence of our manager, which is something he did for Puel as well, but it’s not hard to speak in favour of a manager who clearly rates you as his best midfield option.
I will always have a fundamental problem with any manager who approaches every game with a ‘must not lose’ attitude, rather than a ‘how can we win this?’ approach. Not losing is actually made a lot easier by creating and converting opportunities. The number of losses we’ve had by a one-goal margin speaks volumes. The amount of times we’ve sat on a lead that we know we are not good enough to hold, and promptly lost it, this season, is utterly staggering.
This is Pellegrino. This is his approach. A man who claims to be big on detail, yet slow to realise we are making the same old mistakes.
Why is he still in charge?
I’ve warned for a while, even during the good times, that the club’s increasing reluctance to communicate with the fans on anything beyond trivialities and banalities, which we can see straight through, will eventually harm the relationship between the club and the fans.
And yet. And yet. Nothing has changed. In fact, it’s got worse. Les Reed was at least expected to front up to supporters at the end of every transfer window and explain why things had gone/not gone to plan. Now he won’t even speak to dedicated local journalists like Adam Blackmore. Frankly, this gives the appearance that he doesn’t feel accountable to the supporters, and it looks to the fans as if he is only willing to speak to us when things are going well. It’s really easy to pop up when there’s a signing, beaming like a Cheshire cat. It’s much harder to justify as the most senior member of non-playing footballing staff at the club not fronting up when things go wrong.
Pellegrino has often been left to field questions regarding transfers during his weekly news conference. As far as I’m concerned, from the answers he gives, he knows about as much about our transfer dealings as he does about organising a back four. And as a coach, he shouldn’t be focusing on the former – the latter should 100% be his priority, especially when he’s shown just how cack-handed he is with it.
Les, or Ross Wilson, should be talking to journalists in an open and honest manner. Ralph Krueger, who is there purely to drive the commercial element of the business, shouldn’t be talking about the playing side. And he certainly shouldn’t be having lunch with the players and trying to figure out why they aren’t playing with any confidence or self-belief. This should be a question for the coach – who should be an outgoing coach.
We have 11 games left to salvage this season. Personally, I am not afraid of relegation. If we got relegated, yes, it would be a big hit for us financially and commercially, and we will lose a lot of players – some of which I’d happily wave off. What concerns me is the manner in which we are going down. I don’t believe that panic achieves anything, but the way it’s being approached – every utterance from the players, coach, staff (Barring Lemina), displays all of the passion of somebody announcing a platform alteration at Waterloo Station.
I believe that our coach needs to leave. And I believe that there does need to be a shakeup at the club in terms of structure. Whilst I know that out new ownership is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach in keeping with a lot of long-term investments, there are urgent issues that need to be dealt with. Top of the bill: Mauricio Pellegrino.
Mauricio Pellegrino: please leave our club now.
Southampton FC: If he won’t leave, please let him go. Now. This is the point of no return this season.
As fans, as supporters, we will always wish for the best for the club. We hope for the best outcome, even when we are staring the very worst outcome in the face. Just give us something to cheer in these last 11 games. Please. Show us that you’re listening. Give us a sign!