Following their narrow defeat to Fulham on Saturday, Southampton are sat precariously in 18th position, positioned ahead of their victorious opponents only by virtue of goal difference.
As Mark Hughes clings desperately to his role, the vast majority of fans are now calling for the Welshman’s head. Although the outpouring of frustration is understandable, should Southampton supporters’ dissatisfaction be directed elsewhere or do their expectations need tempering?
For many supporters, the halcyon days of Koeman and Pochettino feel a long and distant memory. Others have been nostalgically remembering Claude Puel’s brief tenure as manager and with the benefit of hindsight, some have even questioned whether the decision to remove the Frenchman was a rash one.
As it stands, Southampton’s current manager, the beleaguered Mark Hughes has the second lowest win ratio of any manager in the club’s time in the Premier League with just 3 wins in 21 league games. If social media is to be treated as a reliable gauge of public opinion, the time has now arrived for Hughes to be given his marching orders.
However, it is naïve to assume that the club’s woes stem solely from the managerial side of affairs and whilst a new manager seems a likely outcome, it is hard to see drastic change to Southampton’s fortunes without wholesale changes across the club. Whilst Les Reed and Martin Hunter have been relieved of their respective duties, key figures such as Ross Wilson and Ralph Krueger remain at the helm of club.
Hughes has been the obvious target for the supporters’ collective ire, especially given his team’s dismal start to the season. Questionable tactical decisions have included starting the gaffe prone Wesley Hoedt on a weekly basis, a reluctant use of his summer signings (most notably Stuart Armstrong who scored a brace at Craven Cottage) and a failure to decide upon a settled starting eleven and formation. Moreover, the inability to hold on to leads in 5 of 13 games this season has led to understandable questions about the mental fragility of the team under Hughes’ leadership.
That being said, it would be too simplistic to exclusively lay Southampton’s underachievement at Hughes’ door. There have been an amalgamation of different factors, which when married together, have led to a prolonged period of uncertainty and limited on-field success. In some respects, it may be worth examining the supporters’ expectations and assessing whether the fans are maintaining realistic ambitions for the club.
Under the stewardship of Nicola Cortese, the club thrived in terms of the on field success and supporters were united as the team successfully returned to top flight, following back to back promotions. Successful periods under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman were characterised by high tempo, attacking football, backed up by stingy defences well marshalled by Jose Fonte.
This enterprising style of football culminated in a top 6 finish in 2015/2016. Even the season spent under the more divisive tenure of Puel, where the club finished in a respectable 8th place and reached the League Cup final, could be regarded as successful compared to the recent spells of Pellegrino and Hughes.
Could it then be argued that the Southampton fanbase have got used to better things, leading to many fans harbouring unrealistic expectations? Or are the fans right to expect more from the club, both in terms of league position and the future ambitions of the executive team?
On balance, the answer probably lies in the middle ground. There needs to be some recognition from the fans that without significant financial investment, Southampton are unlikely to be able to compete with the likes of Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool. The club will remain for the time being, a stepping stone for many managers and players. Although this may not be an attractive proposition for many fans, it is still a situation which could be exploited by the club if managed shrewdly.
Whilst it is improbable to expect a club of Southampton’s stature to be achieving a top six finish on an annual basis, a comfortable mid-table finish sprinkled with the occasional cup run and sporadic European adventures would be a realistic and feasible ambition.
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It has been argued that there was an opportunity following the 6th place finish in 2015/2016, for the club to take the next step. Ensuring Koeman stayed on, an increased transfer budget for that summer and cultivating an environment where the top players were kept on rather than sold at a profit, could have heralded a new era for Southampton. Despite the questions raised about the way Cortese had steered the club in his stint as Chief Executive, it is fair to suggest that some of the ambition at St Mary’s departed along with Cortese in 2014.
The more PR savvy and commercially orientated approach of Ralph Krueger has not enamoured itself to many supporters. Whilst the majority of fans recognise the necessity of pursuing commercial interests, it is felt that this has often been at the cost of neglecting the immediate first team concerns.
Furthermore, the recent takeover by the relatively unknown Chinese businessman, Gao Jisheng has done little to dispel fears that there will be limited external investment in the club. Instead, Krueger and the now departed Les Reed have implied the transfer budget will be derived from reinvesting income received through transfer fees.
The underlying flaw with this approach is now that the “crown jewels” have all been sold off i.e. Van Dijk, Mane, Wanyama, Shaw etc, the club is heavily reliant on its recruitment policy paying dividends. Unfortunately, since the departure of Paul Mitchell in November 2014, very few diamonds in the rough have been unearthed via the heavily mythicized “black box”.
Moreover, the “rich vein of gold”, which was continually mined from the famed Southampton academy, appears to have been drained of its most valuable treasures, thus leaving a distinctly average set of youngsters on the periphery of the first team set up.
Whilst juniors such Hesketh, Obafemi and Slattery have showed some promise in the limited opportunities they have been afforded to shine, it is evident they are not of the calibre displayed by former Saints prodigies including Shaw, Walcott, Bale, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana. When coupled with the relatively mediocre standard of the current first team, it is hard to see where the next big transfer fee is likely to arrive from. Without significant investment from the board, the current model in place at the club appears unsustainable in the long run.
Given the position in the league currently, it is hardly surprising that Hughes’ position is under scrutiny and whilst he deserves credit for keeping Southampton up last season, the time seems right for a change of management. With attractive candidates such as Leonardo Jardim and Peter Bosz potentially obtainable, this could be the true test of the board’s ambition.
The most exciting choice available would necessitate loosening the purse strings and approaching Jardim, a man with a proven track record at Monaco, including with developing youngsters. Alternatively, the board may select a perceived safe option and go down the less inspiring route of bringing in “big” Sam Allardyce or David Moyes.
To their credit, they both offer Premier League experience and would be likely to keep the team up. That being said, Southampton need to ask whether staying up by the skin of their teeth is the depth of their ambition.
The reluctance surrounding acting too quickly is understandable, especially given the role overseeing all footballing operations remains unfilled following Les Reed’s recent dismissal. The future incumbent will undoubtedly want a say in the decision making process and there is also caution regarding the plethora of managers who have come and gone in the last ten years. There is also a feeling around the club that the hierarchy seek stability above all and given Krueger’s previously conservative approach, it is not implausible that managerial change is not forthcoming.
If a new manager comes in, the players will run out of excuses for the poor performances on the pitch. It has been relatively easy for them to deflect attention onto Pellegrino and more recently Hughes but given Southampton’s relatively high wage bill, it is time for the players to justify the faith put in them. Needless to say, carefully orchestrated soundbites about training hard and getting the rub of the green will fail to pacify an unsettled fanbase any longer.
Ultimately, relegation is looming unless the club acts quickly to unite the fanbase. Although a change in manager is imperative as is an upturn in the first team performances, the most significant change relates to the appointment of Les Reed’s replacement. This will shape the direction of the club moving forwards, signposting the level of ambition held by the board and Gao Jisheng. If the club are brave enough to appoint someone with vision and drive, there is no reason why the club could not get back to challenging for top seven in the foreseeable future.
A renewed sense of purpose set out in achievable, long term goals, (perhaps in a similar fashion to Cortese’s five year plan), paired with greater transparency and accountability could be vital in galvanising the fans. Crucially it could also help reverse the feeling of disconnect felt by many associated with the club and allow hope to re-materialize.