Dangerous things, pre-season predictions. As a man who picked Leicester to be relegated last August, I can sympathise with Jeremy Cross, James Horncastle, Graham Hunter and Dave Armitage, all of whom picked Southampton to suffer the same fate the previous season. Football writing is far easier when done with the benefit of technicolor hindsight.
Those harbingers of Southampton doom were probably more than a little unfair on both Southampton’s summer 2014 business and Ronald Koeman, but there were not many predicting that the Dutchman would lead his new club to seventh in the Premier League. Nobody made the same mistake twice last year, but few saw Southampton moving up to sixth. In Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino, chairman Ralph Krueger picked the perfect fit for the manager’s twice in succession. Not many can boast that record.
Unfortunately, below the top four places, Premier League success brings its own warped form of prize. Southampton’s reward for their highest league finish in 31 years was entry to the Europa League group stage and to have their manager poached by nouveau riche Everton. It’s like winning a competitive eating contest and being given a trophy sculpted enitrely out of a giant cheeseburger.
Koeman’s departure was at least partly due to the transfer budget and ambition at Everton, but also reflects a manager who knew that Southampton had reached their glass ceiling. Leicester may have smashed that concept during the last 12 months, but Southampton are a club who deal in sustainable steps forward rather than giant leaps. Koeman’s achievements in two seasons on the south coast were magnificent. The key to a successful managerial career is to maximise the opportunity afforded by magnificence, and eliminate the impact of failure. Just ask Jose Mourinho.
That leaves Claude Puel in an impossible position. The Frenchman is tasked with continuing progress despite eight consecutive seasons of league position improvement, but also with ensuring consistency despite upheaval; it even sounds oxymoronic. Only eight Premier League teams have achieved the 50-point mark in the last three seasons, and Chelsea and Stoke only managed 50 and 51 last year.
As Sarah Winterburn wrote in April: ‘Only one of those eight will have sold seven of their best players in two summers; only one of those eight consistent clubs are probably going to sell two more this summer’.
Sarah’s ‘probably’ became definitely in July, when Sadio Mane and Victor Wanyama left for teams above and below Southampton in the table. Throw in Graziano Pelle and their top two goalscorers, top dribbler and top tackler from last season have all departed.
The club have stuck to their principle of cashing in on their most valuable assets, replacing senior players with comparative youth in Nathan Redmond and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. Captain Jose Fonte has also been strongly linked with a move to Everton.
The concern is that Koeman enjoyed something of the perfect storm last year. Defeat to FC Midtjylland in a Europa League play-off and FA Cup third round exit caused short-term annoyance for supporters, but any cracks were filled in, sanded down and then papered over by league form. Southampton played 46 matches last season, of which eight (17%) were played in August. From the end of October onwards, they played just five non-weekend matches.
Where Koeman had rest (and will again enjoy that privilege at Everton), Puel is faced with travel and fatigue. Automatic Europa League group stage entry means that Southampton will play a minimum of 22 – and a maximum of 24 – games between August 13 and December 12. Puel’s squad is about to learn all about the rigours of Thursday-Sunday football. Fans may trade off league position for a strong run in Europe, but progression even to the last-16 in March can be forgotten by May.
It’s easy to detect the difference in Southampton’s transfer market activity this summer – or perhaps that should be inactivity. In 2014, the club sold Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert, but spent £65m bringing in Mane, Shane Long, Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic, Ryan Bertrand and Fraser Forster. Last season the loss of Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne was more than compensated for by the arrivals of Virgil van Dijk, Jordy Clasie and Cedric Soares.
This year, incoming business has been far slower to materialise. Of the 26 players to appear for Southampton in the league last season, eight have left the club. Only three outfield players have been signed, and one of those on a free transfer.
The biggest area of weakness in Southampton’s squad is in the final third. The loss of Mane, Pelle, and Wanyama means that 39% of the club’s league goals from last season are missing. Nathan Redmond might have been used as a striker in pre-season, but will never account for that shortfall. Shane Long scored ten times in 2015/16, but him, Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez do not a top-six strikeforce make.
There will never again be sweeping statements of Southampton negligence – not outside of Martin Samuel’s columns at any rate; they have earned the faith of their supporters and the wider world. ‘Doing a Southampton’ is now less about falling into administration and League One and more about sustainable development through a marvellous academy system. This is a club at which steps backward don’t cause the whole thing to topple over and smash.
Yet there is no doubt that Claude Puel has plenty on his plate as he begins his first managerial assignment outside of his native France. Even if chairman Krueger has pulled off another masterstroke, this is a season that will stretch the squad to the limit. For the third consecutive year, Southampton are facing the greatest test of their strategy. The first two didn’t go too badly.