Nathan Jones will ‘work religiously’ but Saints don’t seem to have a prayer or an identity
Nathan Jones’ first home Premier League game as Southampton manager turned out to be a bit of a disaster, and a reminder of how the club has stagnated.
It wasn’t just the result itself, though that was bad enough. If Southampton supporters were in a gloomy state of mind after their team’s 3-1 home defeat against Brighton, it was as much about the nature of the defeat as anything else.
Southampton vs Brighton isn’t the biggest local derby that either team faces. Southampton turn their ire westward towards Portsmouth while Brighton’s is reserved for Crystal Palace. But to lose this match was about more than three dropped points. Not only did a win for Wolves at Everton root Saints to the bottom of the Premier League table, it also said something quite profound about where Southampton find themselves.
The difference between the two teams was painfully evident in several different respects. Southampton were accident-prone, effectively gifting Brighton their first two goals, and identity-free. There was little discerning what the home side were actually trying to achieve, while the visitors had a plan and, even with World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister absent, the players to deliver it.
New manager Nathan Jones may well be concerned at the fact that there seemed no signs of his fingerprints upon Southampton despite having had a six-week break to work with.
Jones is plenty aware of the opportunity that the timing of the World Cup gave him, having said at his first press conference that: “It gives me an opportunity to work with the players and they get to know a lot about me and understand how I and my staff work.” But the first performance after that break offered so few signs of any significant improvement that some are already starting to ask whether it might have been a mistake to bring in a new manager with no Premier League experience to try and dig the team out of the relegation places.
And when people start to perceive such changes as being potential mistakes, attention will inevitably turn to those making those changes in the first place. Sport Republic are approaching their first anniversary as Southampton’s owners, and the results so far haven’t been particularly impressive. The team’s form for much of this season has essentially been an extension of how they finished the 2021/22 campaign. Having lost nine of their last 12 games – a run which saw the team drop from 9th place in the Premier League to a final position of 15th – there was considerable conjecture during the summer that Southampton would jettison Ralph Hassenhuttl.
But instead, the club chose to stick with the Austrian until such a point that it was untenable to continue with him, with a 4-1 home defeat by Newcastle at the start of November proving to be the push that turned into a shove. But the manager hasn’t been the only big change around the club. It has already been confirmed that both Director of Football Operations Matt Crocker and Chief Commercial Officer David Thomas will be leaving their positions at the end of this season, and perhaps the most troubling question about this for Southampton supporters is whether these departures are part of some form of restructuring, or if this is more a matter of a sinking ship being vacated.
These departures aren’t the only sign that things behind the scenes at Southampton might not be particularly rosey at the moment. At the end of November, the club had to accept a £10,000 fine and a six-month ban from signing new academy players, suspended for a year, after a Premier League investigation found them guilty of breaking rules when signing a player from another club’s academy. The suspension of the ban means that they can continue their youth-oriented transfer policy, but for a club for whom six of their 10 summer signings were under the age of 21 to be found guilty of breaking these rules – and it should be added that Southampton have strongly refuted the allegations made in the Premier League’s investigation – is at` least a worry.
The January transfer window is normally seen as an opportunity to refresh malfunctioning squads, but this is not a window in which Southampton have usually been that busy. Over the last three winter markets, Southampton have only brought in two players, Kyle Walker-Peters and Takumi Minamino, both on loan deals – although Walker-Peters’ signature was eventually made permanent.
Southampton desperately need a new striker. They haven’t scored more than a single goal in a Premier League game since beating Chelsea 2-1 at the end of August. The market for strikers is always likely to be congested and bringing in the sort of player that could be transformative is likely to be both expensive and a bit of a gamble. And for the upwardly mobile player with Premier League ambitions, making the case for them to join Southampton when they’re bottom of the table and putting in the sort of lifeless performance that they did against Brighton isn’t necessarily going to be easy.
Southampton were rumoured to be close to signing Cody Gakpo and/or Goncalo Ramos at the end of the summer transfer window, but neither ended up happening and, while it’s possible to make an argument that at least these names indicate the club’s scouting organisation is working just fine, all the scouting in the world isn’t worth a great deal should the eventual targets of that scouting end up plying their trade elsewhere. As Southampton flounder near the foot of the Premier League, Gakpo seems bound for Anfield and Ramos has been courted by Newcastle, Arsenal and others.
And while losing comprehensively at home to Brighton wasn’t a local derby defeat, it was a timely reminder that Brighton have taken a place in the top half of the Premier League that Southampton formerly occupied. Brighton have undergone a comprehensive asset-stripping from Chelsea since the summer, but after their brief post-Potter slump they’ve recovered to win three of their last four Premier League games and will go into the second half of the season with a realistic chance of qualifying for Europe – a position Southampton were in just six years ago.
In a rush to apportion blame, there’s every chance Jones could end up as a scapegoat for shortcomings that seem to run deeper than the door of the manager’s office. He certainly doesn’t seem to have imprinted much of an identity upon his squad over the six weeks since he took the job, and it certainly feels like a big risk for the club to have taken, to use their one roll of the managerial dice this season to bring in somebody with no managerial experience above the Championship.
By the closing stages of the Brighton game, the empty seats at St Mary’s were plenty visible as supporters made their decision that they had better things to do on a Boxing Day afternoon. In a game in which gaining momentum is all-important, it doesn’t feel much like Southampton have taken any at all from replacing their manager, and it remains the case that it’s difficult to identify three other Premier League clubs that are worse.
There remains time to set Southampton back on course, but windows of opportunity to do so are starting to close all around them. On the basis of everything we’ve seen, 2023 could turn out to be a difficult year for a club which has found itself denuded of much of its identity over the last few seasons.