Season review 17/18: ups, nearly downs, Hughes smiles, Pellegrino frowns

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We all know that this was not how it was supposed to end.

We are safe. Yes. But are we happy? Far from it.

In past reviews of the season/previews of the summer, I’ve been lucky enough to reflect on seasons packed with a fair few highlights, even if they haven’t always borne fruit (European qualification and a cup final are both recent highlights). I’ve also been able to point to outstanding players, young players with a bright future, glistening gems that we may need to say goodbye to.

This season? I’m just pleased that it’s over.

I always try to be optimistic and take the long-view when talking about Southampton FC. I’m a big believer in long-term goals yielding incremental increases in overall quality. When things go wrong, I also try to examine all of the variables, as no one individual at a club is responsible for a disappointing season.

So I thought I’d break this down into chunks, and review each element. This might be a long blog, so apologies for that.

Here are the key factors for review:

  • The Manager(s)
  • The Players
  • The Board

So let’s begin.
The Manager(s)

Mauricio Pellegrino

When Mauricio Pellegrino was first appointed last summer, I was initially optimistic. We were painted as ‘naive’, ‘thick’ and ‘entitled’ for getting rid of Claude Puel (a decent man but a staggeringly uninspiring coach and manager) by elements of the media who think we have no right to demand entertainment from a sport that is, in short, meant to be entertaining. Pellegrino had a solid, albeit not especially exciting CV, but when he took over, the promise from him was to bring an attacking, energetic style to the club. Lots of finger-snapping, table banging and long analogies about football being like a dance.

But what did it translate into? Possibly some of the dullest, most risk-averse football we have ever seen at Southampton Football Club.

Whilst initially, Pellegrino won some friends amongst the fans with his outlook, stated approach, and willingness to make tough decisions (making a clearly-unfocused and disruptive Virgil van Dijk train with the U-23s), it soon became clear that what was being said, and what was being presented on the pitch, were not one and the same thing.

Whilst a dull 0-0 draw with Swansea at the start of the season could be written off as teething problems, the 1-1 away draw at Brighton, and subsequent comments from Oriol Romeu about the coach wanting players to focus on defending even when attacking (which would explain why players like Redmond and Tadic were running around like their internal GPS had been left in the sun for too long) revealed a manager that some felt would rather draw 0-0 than win 3-2.

Mauricio Pellegrino

The season continued. Things did not improve.

By January, we were firmly mired in the mid-to-lower reaches of the table. We were ‘still learning’ how to play, according to Pellegrino. Alarm bells were seriously ringing amongst fans. In a last roll of the dice, the board attempted to throw their support behind Pellegrino by abandoning their tight constraints, and allowing Pellegrino to roll the dice in a pretty disastrous fashion. Guido Carillo, to his credit, joined a club struggling for form and goals, so to be able to create the change required that quickly was a tall order. That said, even by those standards, I’ve never seen a striker hailed as a target man look so innefective in the air. No pace, not great with the ball at his feet, and easily bullied. A huge gamble that not only didn’t pay off, but also wasted the first chunk of money we received from the sale of VVD.

After the utter battering we received at the hands of Newcastle, the board finally (nearly too late) lost patience with Pellegrino, who had seemingly alienated his dressing room with the killer Puel combination of a lack of intensity in training (our players looked incredibly unfit in the final quarter of games – it’s little surprise that throughout the season, we conceded so many late goals by fair means or foul), and ineffective leadership and communication.

As with Puel, I have nothing against Pellegrino personally. He would never willingly leave a job that would provide him with a substantial pay-off if dismissed (and why should he? None of us would), and also, I’m sure he still believed that he could keep us in the Premier League. But to be quite frank – he just wasn’t good enough. Not good enough for this league, too risk-averse, and this was alluded to by players, and Ralph Krueger in his end-of-season interviews with Solent and The Daily Echo.

(As a side note – thank you once again to Adam Leitch, Adam Blackmore, Luke Osman and Dave Merrington for all of their excellent reporting this season.)

Appointing Mark Hughes at the point we did was another gamble, albeit one with slightly lower stakes. A lot of column-inches are written by journalists regarding the ‘managerial merry-go-round’ – a baffling process to some, in which some managers (SHOCK! HORROR!) get new jobs after leaving their previous job – but in my view, it was time for some realism and pragmatism in what had been a season of smoke and mirrors.

Mark Hughes, Southampton FC vs Newcastle

Hughes brought a pedigree that many other managers did not have who were available at the time, he was ready to step into a tough position, and he rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job. It was noticeable that he also began to build bridges with the club support – almost immediately in fact. This is part of a bigger strategy now by the club – one in which they have finally acknowledged what many supporters have said for a long time – that the club was becoming disconnected from it’s core supporters.

In addition to that, Hughes got stuck into the dressing room dynamics almost immediately, and identified players who either needed a bit of an arm around them (Lemina strikes me as that kind of player – he responds well to strong, yet supportive managers), or a kick up the arse, or a kick out the door (the mental image of Sofiane Boufal offering Mark Hughes out for a fight is one that still makes me chuckle).

It’s my view that Mark Hughes has done enough in his short tenure to warrant a three-year deal. He came in, did a job, re-energised a team, provides us with experience in the Premier League that we may need next season, and can provide a level of gravitas and credibility to the dressing room – not unlike Ronald Koeman.

People who want to win things like to play for winners. Hughes is a winner. And to people who say ‘yes, but look at what he’s done at other clubs?’ I say: sometimes managerial appointments just seem to click, sometimes they don’t. It’s tough to say at the time. On paper, Pellegrino and Puel must have checked a few of the boxes that we were looking for when it came to implementing ‘The Southampton Way’ – but that’s not the be-all and end-all. There is an element beyond that – the ability to run a changing room, to hold a player’s attention, to ensure professionalism and intensity is kept up. Maybe it didn’t work at other places for Mark. In some cases (QPR, Stoke City in his final season), it definitely didn’t. But it needs to be remembered that a coach or manager isn’t solely to blame for a situation (as I’ll allude to later in this blog) – there are many variables for an under-performing team, but the easiest person to sack is always the coach.

So, in my view, we deviate from our blueprint slightly and play it safe (!): keep Hughes.
The Players

A key factor in our underperformance last season was an easy one to spot on the pitch: the disconnect between our players, and the previous two coaches to Mark Hughes. This caused a variety of problems, but as I said earlier in this article, it’s easy to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Puel and Pellegrino. Once both of those coaches left, it became really clear that some players were not performing to the best of their abilities due to their own personal developmental issues.

In times of adversity, some of us front up and accept responsibility without question. Others hide. We’ve seen out on the pitch this season the players that have chosen to hide, but one thing I’d like to highlight is the attitude of two players who have never been fan favourites, and perhaps never will be: Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond.

I’ll start with Dusan.

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Nobody could ever deny that by his own standards, Dusan Tadic, until the very last few games, had a shocking season. A lack of goals, assists and confidence seemed to dog him for most of the season, making many people in the stands start to question his continued selection.

One thing that I tend to look out for during games however, isn’t the fact that a certain player has been in or out of form, or whether or not he’s scored goals or set them up. It’s the effort and commitment they show over the course of the campaign. Even in games where he has been dreadful, and in fairness, playing in a dreadful team, I’ve never seen his head drop once.

And since Mark Hughes has taken over, we ‘ve seen a very different Dusan to the one we’ve seen for the past few months. It seems that he’s been playing with a weight off of his shoulders, and as a result, he’s put in performances (the game against Bournemouth in particular) which have gone a long way to keeping us in the league this season.

The most frustrating thing for me when it comes to Dusan is that he seems to get very little leeway from fans when he does make an error. I think that people should bear in mind that an attacking midfielder, especially a creative one that is judged on assists, at the most will only be successful in 20% of the chances they attempt to create.

Once they also put a ball through for a striker, etc, it is then down to the striker to convert. It is not Dusan’s fault if he puts a player through and they do not finish. It is also not a punishable offense if he tries something that doesn’t work. As a creative midfielder, we are paying him to spend the game making an effort to make a difference in the top half of the pitch.

Yes, he does need to track back more, but I’ve been sat at games this season (including Bournemouth), where he has set up or scored goals, and people sat around me have carried on criticising him for every little mistake regardless. By all means, dig a player out for a lack of effort, or for consistent poor form, but don’t do it just because you don’t like them for some reason.

Which leads us on to Nathan Redmond. A baffling signing considering the first two managers he’d played under, Nathan is clearly a talented lad who needs a stronger coach at the helm.

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Having Puel, then Pellegrino manage him – two managers who seemed unable to get the best out of our attacking players – it’s been tough for Redmond to adapt. Granted, with his propensity for complaining at his colleagues whenever he misplaces a pass, and his subtle digs back at the boo-boys, he’s not endeared himself to the Southampton faithful. But on his day, as we saw against Everton this season and Liverpool in the League Cup last season, when the shackles are off, he’s capable of so much more.

I’m not apologising for his poor performances – there have been some awful performances from Redmond in a Southampton FC shirt – but I am giving some context as to why that may have been the case. I hope he has a much better season next time around, and we have many more reasons to cheer him next season.

It’s not been a vintage season for either of these players, or for any of the other attacking players at Southampton. But I have to say since Mark Hughes has entered the fray, we’ve seen a lot more endeavor from them, and a return to some of the more direct play we saw under Ronald Koeman.

Defensively, we’ve had to deal with an unfit, disorganised, unsettled back 4/5 for the majority of the season. I’ve had some harsh words for Wesley Hoedt. And I stand by many of them.

Whilst he is still young, and hasn’t been helped by being thrown in as our number one centre-back immediately, rather than having a more experienced pro beside him (Yoshida notwithstanding), he’s been presented with a steep learning curve to overcome, and we’ve seen it played out in so many games this season.

The mistakes have not only harmed his confidence, but also harmed the confidence of the players around him, who may at times feel like they are putting in an extra shift to dig him out of trouble. The problem with that being that Jack Stephens is still learning how to be a senior Premier League player, and Yoshida needs to focus fully on his own performance to be fully effective. Add to that the fact that Cedric seems to have sleep-walked his way through the season, having had a transfer request turned down, and Bertrand still performing, but with slightly less intensity given that he also has one eye on the exit sign, and you have a perfect storm in defence that means that we averaged about two catastrophic errors per-game for most of the season.

The bright spots defensively have been the introduction of Jan Bednarek and Alex McCarthy. Bednarek had a shaky start to life in English football, looking out of depth even in games against Brentford and in U23 outings. But as the season has progressed, his dedication on the training field and his attitude has started to translate into positive first team outings for us. His goal and performance against Chelsea, followed by his other performances in the closing games of the season, point to a bright future.

Alex McCarthy has come on in leaps and bounds since replacing a Fraser Forster, who thanks to ligament damage (he’s constantly stretching throughout every game to stop his legs from seizing up – i.e. he’s carrying an injury he’ll never get over), may never be the same again. Fans were clamouring for him to come into the starting lineup, and he’s justified those calls with a number of athletic, secure displays – keeping us in games at times that we would normally have lost. He has been a worthy addition to the starting XI, and should be considered as our number one for next season.

In midfield, we’ve seen another stop-start season for James Ward-Prowse. Whilst his contributions in dead-ball situations and his run of goals in January and February seemed to herald a new, more consistent JWP, we’ve seen him overlooked once again in recent weeks for a starting berth. It’s on him to figure out now. He needs to know what kind of player he is. Being a deadball specialist, but only an okay midfielder, isn’t enough at this level. That’s what he needs to consider this summer.

Honourable mentions this season for Mario Lemina, who has been word-class on occasion (when fully fit and focussed), and Steven Davis, who I think may be leaving us this summer for a return to his beloved Glasgow Rangers. Oriol Romeu has also performed to a decent standard this season, despite the chaos around him at times.

Boufal? I’m over talking about Boufal. His attitude is an utter disgrace, and whilst he undoubtedly has a lot of talent, he also has a lot of issues with his application, attitude, and opinion of himself.

With regards to strikers, we’ve had some awful luck (Charlie Austin’s injury), some awful finishing (Shane Long, nearly every chance he has), and some baffling omissions (Manolo Gabbiadini should have played more under Pellegrino, but it seemed that he just didn’t know what to do with a striker who could make clever runs and also poach goals – once again, that’s because he wasn’t a very good coach).

I have next-to-no opinion on Guido Carillo other than he looks like he can’t win aerial duels, is too slow for the Premier League, and can’t seem to finish the chances he’s presented with. An odd signing made to appease Pellegrino, I think we may see him leave this summer.

In terms of playing staff, it’s clear that our priority this summer has to be an experienced Centreback who can lead our defence. Ben Gibson has been linked early on in this window, and seems to fit this criteria. We may also see direct replacements for Cedric and Bertrand, Boufal and Carillo, and maybe a new goalkeeper to replace Stuart Taylor and provide extra competiton.

Our loan returnees (Harrison Reed, Matt Targett, Sam Gallagher), will have a full pre-season to convince Mark Hughes that they are ready for full first-team integration. If Targett steps up, we may only need cover for him in the transfer market, and if Reed is ready for first team rotation, then he should be considered after a good season at Norwich. If Gallagher is seen as surplus to requirements this pre-season, I expect we’ll see him move on in a permanent basis. Either way, it’s crunch time for many of these players. Out of the three, for me it’s critical we keep Matt Targett.
The Board, The Fans

This season, we’ve seen and heard too from Ralph and Les. Especially Les. This has frustrated many fans, who look to Les so that they can ask for a comment from him and then throw the comment they receive back into his face. Which, to be fair, is part of his job.

It’s not easy being in charge of a football club. You deal with a lot of complex situations, from the global aspect of the game (commercial elements, Ralph’s responsibility) to ensuring that the core reason for it existing (the team, the fans) are happy, and everything is either running smoothly, or better than smoothly. Those final factors are down to Les Reed and Ross Wilson.

But this season has been especially notable due to the change in tact we’ve seen from the team at the top. Following the takeover from our now majority partners The Gao family, rather than more communication coming out of St. Marys, we seem to have less communication coming out of St. Marys.

For this, I’m not going to blame the owners, or Katherina Liebherr, who in fairness, was just as private as the Gaos are with regards to making public statements. It is the job of the senior leadership team to guide communications at the club, and in this respect, my feeling is that whilst Ralph Krueger has stepped up at a couple of points this season to make comments or statements, it’s rarely the voice that the fans really want to hear.

What we’d all like to hear is some words from Les Reed. We know that the buck stops with him with regards to player recruitment. Whilst we know that he cannot control the amount of money he is given to spend by the owners, he is responsible, along with Ross Wilson, for the quality of the players that we bring into the club.

In my view, during Reed’s whole tenure at the club, the one element in player recruitment and contract negotiations he has got wrong seems to be the psychological element.

It’s beginning to get tiring to hear of players within our squad developing attitude problems, or not playing well with others. A football club is a very delicate eco-system, and the dressing room is the nerve centre of this. When a player who is respected, for either their ability or their seniority, starts to answer back or step out of line, it can warp a dressing room, and make a manager’s position difficult. Dropping extra players in there with questionable attitudes, and things get really messy. Sofiane Boufal and Virgil van Dijk are two prime examples of that. Both blessed with genuine ablility, they seemed to quickly down tools, or become petulant, when things did not go their way.

Boufal, for all of his undoubted talents, still looks like the boy you played football with at school, who beats everybody on the pitch seven times, but then knocks the ball out of play because he won’t pass it.

Virgil, and this will be the last I ever write about him, is a great player with a disgusting attitude. And I think Liverpool fans will find this in a couple of years time when Manchester United (who, despite what they may think, is a bigger club than them), Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid or PSG want to sign him. He’ll down tools, and act disrespectfully towards them too.

It’s a marked difference between them, and players like Cedric and Ryan Bertrand who – despite wanting to leave – did not actively down tools.

So, when Les (if it is still Les) is looking at signing players this summer, attitude needs to be near the top of the list of core requirements for a signing. I for one would rather have a very good player with a good attitude, than a disruptive great player. We’ve seen several times now how that effects the makeup of the team.

This is the window in which the board, and the new ownership, will be truly assessed. As many people have pointed out, many Chinese businesses, upon purchasing new assets, adopt a ‘wait and see’ strategy for the first year of ownership. So, with regards to a judgment of what they are looking to do, full judgment and assessment start now.

It’s been stated that infrastructure and stadium improvements are high on their agenda. Whilst having nicer hotdogs and a fan-zone isn’t my idea of a better stadium experience (a competitive team is my idea of a great stadium experience), it must be said that the stadium could do with a lick of paint and some modernisation.

With regards to the stated updates to the training facilities – in my opinion, investing in training and development infrastucture is always money well-spent. Better facilities attract the best young talent, attract players (who know they’ll be well looked-after with regards to facilities), and assist with the long-term fitness and development goals of the club.

Whilst some may retort that we are the 18th richest club in the world, and that we should be chucking money at new signings – we have a transfer model in place for a reason. It’s important that we maintain the sell-to-buy model. It helps us to maintain our position and makes the club a more attractive proposition to players.

As fans, we need to look at where we are in the global food-chain, and accept that there will always be clubs bigger than us for a variety of reasons. Historical success adds to the bottom line – which is why clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, etc., will always be bigger pulls than us.

Their legacies have generated a large global fanbase, with deep pockets, and it adds a significant amount to their bottom line. That allows them to pay higher wages, and higher fees for players. Additionally, these clubs are normally based in large, well-connected urban centres (Manchester, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London, and yes, even Liverpool), which are attractive to players and their families.

We are a small-ish city on the south coast. Unless we become a principality like Monaco any time soon and start to offer 0% tax-rates, we will always be hamstrung by that. These are things that we cannot change, so we have to adapt a different strategy to be successful.

Many of us may not like that, and feel that it diminishes the club somewhat. But for me, I would rather have a sustainable Premier League team with a focus on cups and top ten finishes, than a club that gambles it’s future on big signings.

The idea of speculating to accumulate is all well and good, but it should always be pointed out that many clubs that adopt this approach end up losing, and losing big eventually.

Our greatest moment is winning the FA Cup final in 1976. We were underdogs sticking our middle finger at the 1% that day. That, in my view, is what we should be aiming for even today, in the Premier League. Who wants to be the 1%? It’s much more fun to compete in cup tournaments and maintain in an utterly moribund league, than be fans of a team that complains even after winning the League and the FA Cup in successive seasons (hello, Chelsea fans).

A special mention to our fans this season – away support in particular. We’ve seen some terrible performances. But the fans have always continued to show up. Our support at Everton and Swansea, in particular, was utterly fantastic.

The club seems to have acknowledged the disconnect between the club, the players, and the fans, and have noticeably been reaching out more often, and trying to right that wrong. Whether that will continue past the fan’s forum we’ve been promised in August remains to be seen.

But for now? Let’s see what the summer brings. As we all know, there’s never a dull moment. And I don’t anticipate it getting any duller on the south coast anytime soon.

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