Southampton sacked Nathan Jones after 95 disastrous days in charge, but the people who chose him will also be those deciding who to replace him with.
In the end, the writing wasn’t written on the wall as much as it was smeared just anywhere you cared to look. No part of Southampton’s Saturday, from the almost comedic nature of their collapse against Wolves to the hopeless, non-committal post-match press conference after it, had given any indication whatsoever that this goose wasn’t essentially already overcooked.
Farewell, Nathan Jones. It doesn’t feel as though many of the club’s supporters will be considering you to have been ‘gone too long’ for the foreseeable future.
In the smouldering ruins of Jones’ 95 days at St Mary’s, it all seems so obvious. Southampton are a ‘Moneyball’ club nowadays, and they became too distracted by the data. There was a sense in which Jones was the ideal man for a club like this. Jones had been doing wonders on a shoestring budget at Luton Town. There was a case for saying that he deserved his chance in the Premier League, after having got Luton into the Championship play-offs last season and starting this campaign as though a repeat performance was on the cards.
But the numbers can only tell a part of the story. Jones had left Luton before, for Stoke City in 2019, but things hadn’t worked well at the bigger club and he was sacked after less than 10 months, with the team sitting in the Championship relegation zone. And while he had clearly been successful at Luton over the last couple of seasons, the environment in which he achieved this couldn’t have been much different to the hothouse that is the Premier League.
Can't think of a bigger act of self-harm that a top-flight club in the Premier League era has inflicted upon itself than Southampton's appointment of Nathan Jones.
— Nick Harris (@sportingintel) February 11, 2023
Furthermore, not only did Jones have no experience at this level as a manager, he didn’t have any as a player or coach either. There are plenty of times when this doesn’t really matter. New coaches arrive into the Premier League fairly regularly. But in this particular case, it didn’t seem particularly wise to take such a chance. When Jones was appointed into the job on November 10, Southampton were 18th in the Premier League, a precarious position to be in, with hundreds of millions pounds riding on the next appointment being able to keep them up.
They needed the tender care of a specialist. What they got was someone completely inexperienced in the Premier League, who found that the tactics that had brought him success with the underdogs of Luton in the Championship didn’t work in this more organised higher level, and who didn’t have any coherent alternative plan when this happened.
Southampton played eight Premier League matches under Jones and lost seven of them, with one league win coming in the middle of Everton’s extended Frank Lampard-related death rattle.
He never even picked up a point at St Mary’s in the league, and even the one bright spot in his short spell with the club, that 2-0 EFL Cup quarter-final win against Manchester City, doesn’t feel as valuable had it might have had Southampton surrendered without putting up much opposition over the two legs of their semi-final against Newcastle United. They’re still in the FA Cup, but that’s not the metric used to gauge the success or otherwise of a manager any more, and hasn’t been for decades.
In the end, the Jones era at Southampton ended in a fog of confusion and unhappiness. Southampton lined up in 5-3-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-2-1 and 3-1-4-2 formations in his eight matches in charge, which hinted that he simply didn’t know quite what to do with the players at his disposal, while his press conferences towards the end of his time suggested somebody who didn’t understand either how he should speak to the press when under pressure or just how serious the mess he’d found himself in was. That it should have ended with a home defeat against ten men after they’d taken the lead while a fan waved a cardboard P45 at him had an almost poetic finality about it.
But that was then and this is now, so where do Southampton go from here? The somewhat surprising answer to that question seems to be ‘Jesse Marsch’, who could end up swapping ‘Marsching on together’ for ‘When the Saints go Marsching in’ after his sacking by Leeds just a week ago.
Marsch was highly-rated by the Red Bull group of clubs for whom he worked at New York, Salzburg and Leipzig, but it’s difficult to picture what the Southampton owners might have seen in Leeds United this season to make them think, ‘Aha! Now that’s the man to lead us away from relegation!’.
If the field of suitable appointments looks a little barren at the moment, there’s a reason. It’s the start of February and the winter transfer window has just closed. Southampton have already rolled the dice once this season, in November, and bringing in a third manager for the season is not only a sign of how wrong-headed the appointment of the second one was, but also of the desperation to put it right. Jones was a gamble taken by a club who couldn’t afford to gamble, but whose owners seemed to believe that their statistical knowledge gave them an insight that others didn’t which allowed them to take it.
That gamble has absolutely, incontrovertibly failed, and the bottom line remains the bottom line. Three teams have to drop come the end of this season, and at the time of writing there are no worse teams in the Premier League than Southampton. Whoever comes in to replace Jones will have 16 Premier League games to turn things round. It can be done. The gap between bottom and safety is just four points. It remains tight at that end this season.
But that tightness is an exception rather than the rule in the Premier League, and as we approach the final third of a frenetic season, the likelihood is that these very narrow gaps will start to widen. Some teams will start to pick up some wins, as Wolves did on Saturday, and as the weeks pass those who do so will start to ease clear of serious danger.
Southampton couldn’t afford to get the first decision wrong but they did, and the only thing preventing the decision to sack Jones after just 95 days from seeming like a terrible idea was how dreadful results were with him in charge. It’s a position which may well reflect dreadfully on the former Southampton manager, but it doesn’t reflect much better on those running the club. Perhaps the biggest problem that Saints supporters face is that they’re still very much there and will be choosing his replacement.