“We operate on a feeling, and our feeling was that after last year something had to change,” Southampton chairman Ralph Krueger told the Daily Echo last week in an interview during which he offered his continued backing for Mauricio Pellegrino. Many things have changed at St Mary’s since last May, but the resulting sentiment among supporters is not one of support for the manager.
Kreuger also spoke of a club with “a plan”, but Pellegrino has been overseeing a team seemingly bereft of one for weeks. Nine games without a win had left Southampton hovering above the bottom three and many – perhaps even a majority – fans calling for the manager’s head.
The FA Cup trip to Craven Cottage was one Pellegrino could not afford to lose. Even if defeat might not have cost him his job, the “feeling” around that club that Kreuger views as so important would have turned toxic should they have suffered a third-round exit at the hands of weaker opposition.
Luckily for Pellegrino, anyone watching his players approach the banana skin in west London would have seen them sidestep potential calamity with a performance that suggests the dressing room has not yet given up on the manager. Even if a fair proportion of fans have.
Unlike many of his Premier League counterparts, Pellegrino took no risks with his team selection. Only two changes were made following the painful defeat at home to Crystal Palace on Tuesday and one of those was enforced, with Jan Bednarek replacing the crocked Jeremy Pied at right-back. In midfield, the steel and experience of Steven Davis was perhaps understandably preferred to Dusan Tadic, with the unpredictable – and as yet untrustworthy – Sofiane Boufal picked to provide the creative spark for Shane Long.
Against an in-form Fulham side who have enjoyed more possession this season than anyone else in the Championship, Southampton felt their way into proceedings, allowing their hosts possession but not in dangerous areas. The prodigious Ryan Sessegnon started in an advanced role but a couple of rookie errors from the 17-year-old spared Saints both times they were in danger of being breached. He first chose to turn back rather than shoot with his weaker right foot shortly before failing to control a lofted pass.
After that second let off, Southampton seized their chance to assert some authority. Long had already had a goal ruled out due to the narrowest of offside calls, though his finish showed the confidence you might expect of a striker who had days earlier ended a barren run of 34 games stretched over 11 months.
The goal brought another goal drought for another influential Saint to an end. James Ward-Prowse netted his first since April after a couple of lucky ricochets in the box – perhaps a sign their luck is turning.
That fortune and the resolve they displayed in the second half to keep Fulham at arm’s length will have to remain if the fans’ opinion is to change. After going ahead, the 5,000 travelling Saints greeted the lead with shock more than delight. “How sh*t must you be? We’re winning away!” they chanted, but any humour was absent when Pellegrino made his second substitution.
The offering of record signing Mario Lemina in place of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was not well received. “You don’t know what you’re doing?” was the message so loud from the away supporters that Pellegrino nor Krueger could have failed to hear it.
The chairman seems likely to ignore that sentiment – for now. Krueger will give Pellegrino the chance to spend some of the cash they raised by selling Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool, with Monaco striker Guido Carrillo being pursued. Having worked together at Estudiantes, you can take from their interest that it is safe to assume that Pellegrino is still being involved in recruitment decisions.
The chairman pinned the blame for Saints’ struggles so far this term on the van Dijk saga: “The first half of this season was under the shadow of a stand in principle. It emotionally threw off us balance.” It gave Pellegrino mitigation in the chairman’s eyes but no longer can it be used as an excuse. “That chapter closes now,” insisted Krueger. It is a warning Pellegrino must heed.
While he goes about trying to bolster his squad, Pellegrino must also tease more his players. Southampton have four huge league games – Watford, Tottenham, Brighton and West Brom – before a reunion with Van Dijk at St Mary’s next month. Three of those offer realistic opportunities to climb the table.
If Pellegrino wants to remain part of Krueger’s plan and transform the ill-feeling amongst fans, a first away win since September must represent a turned corner towards Premier League improvement.