Southampton are facing relegation by a thousand cuts in the face

Ian King
Theo Walcott of Southampton against Manchester City's Nathan Ake in the Premier League

Another home defeat seems to have convinced most people that Southampton will be ending their 11-year stay in the Premier League.

 

The most surprising thing about the boos that rang around St Mary’s at five to five on Saturday afternoon was that there was anyone left to be bellowing them out. Southampton had been outplayed by a Crystal Palace team that has had life breathed into it by that wily old dog Roy Hodgson. The Saints, on the other hand, look like a stone that is sinking fast.

There’s no way of sugar-coating Southampton’s season. Three teams have to drop at the end of this season, and while they remain a tantalising four points from the possibility of safety, it’s difficult to imagine now that they won’t make up one of those three. Even a relatively slender margin can start to look like something of a chasm when you haven’t won two straight games all season and you have Arsenal, Newcastle, Brighton and Liverpool making up just over 50% of your remaining fixtures.

Yet there has been no marked sense of ‘crisis’ at Southampton this season. They drifted towards the relegation places early on and have stayed there, now rooted to the foot of the table and staring up at the rest. They’ve burned through three managers this season, but even that isn’t particularly eyebrow-raising any more.

Ralph Hassenhuttl clung on until a week into November. Nathan Jones proved himself unable to stamp much identity on a team that wasn’t ‘playing as though their hair is on fire’ and consequently lasted three months in the job, recording one victory: a 2-1 win at Everton in January, by which time there already seemed to be a near-universal feeling that Southampton’s decision to hire him was a mistake.

And then there’s Ruben Selles, whose previous managerial experience is, well, varied, at least. He started out as a fitness coach with Aris Thessalonakis and Villarreal, and then had spells as assistant manager in Russia with Shinnik Yaroslavl, back in Greece with Aris, and in Azerbaijan with Neftchi Baku, before taking a two-year break to work as a data analyst in Norway with Stromsgodet. He then returned to assistant managership in Azerbaijan with Gurban Gurbanov, before going on to Aarhus in Denmark, serving as the under-18s manager of Valencia, and then moving back to Denmark, this time as assistant manager at FC Copenhagen.

He had, of course, started at Southampton as Hassenhuttl’s assistant and, when he stepped into the caretaker’s position following the cauterisation of Nathan Jones from the club, he took the team on a run of two wins and a draw from their next four games, their best run of the season since August. But that well didn’t take long to run dry and Southampton are now six games without a win. They’ve only won three Premier League matches since the middle of October.

It’s not that there wasn’t a case to hire Selles of any sort whatsoever. It’s more that it was difficult to see what in his record was the level of experience needed to take on a job of that scale, when the financial costs of getting it wrong would be astronomical. Somewhat surprisingly, for a club whose owners Sport Republic place so much faith in hard numbers and statistics, the eventual decision to give it to Selles until the end of the season felt more like a club run on vibes.

But after that short upturn, form seems to have returned to its mean. They came from two down to claim a 3-3 draw with Spurs, but since then three straight defeats have left them rooted to the bottom of the table, and with time now running out to save their season. Of those last three losses, we can probably give them a pass for losing 4-1 at home to Manchester City, but the other two matches were less excusable.

Defeat to West Ham United at the start of April was a tepid performance against a team itself shorn of confidence by recent form. And Saturday’s performance was more of the same. Ironically, Roy Hodgson is one of the few English managers to make a career from being a globetrotter himself, but he also has the advantage of decades of actual experience of managing a team. Selles managed to get the slightest spark of life into his team, but it didn’t take long for that flame to burn out, and there seems little likelihood now of relighting it.

The club’s financial position is hardly rosy, but isn’t exactly catastrophic by modern standards, either. Southampton lost £6m in the 2021/22 season, more than halving the previous year’s loss of £13.7m, while the club’s total debt had reduced slightly, from £91.6m to to £90.7m. But the cost of relegation is clear. Southampton’s turnover for the 2021/22 season was £150.6m. Over the same season, they made £115.2m in television and prize fund money. Considerable belt-tightening may be necessary after relegation.

It does seem like a strange way to be relegated, the way Southampton are doing it this season. There is obviously unhappiness among supporters at the way in which this has turned out, but it’s like there is an almost zen-like acceptance that this is how their 11-year stay in the Premier League comes to an end. The January transfer window should have been better managed, and the decision to appoint and then offload Nathan Jones was curious, while the same could be said for the decision to stick with Ralph Hassenhuttl until into November when his well of goodwill had run dry some time earlier.

The decision to hire Jones was a misstep, but its ramifications have been long-lasting. Southampton seem to have fired him without having dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s over who his replacement might be. They’re not the only club this season to have made the pretty fundamental mistake of having sacked their manager without having an improvement readily lined up.

But the troubling thing is that this is the end of their first full season of running the club, and the signs that they’ll be able to pull the club out of its current rut seem pretty scant at the moment too. Southampton supporters would be justified in asking when this drift is finally going to be arrested.