Southampton Strive for Surer Footing After Calamitous Loss of Their Step
It is only just over two years since Southampton defeated a top European side, fighting back to beat Internazionale 2-1 in the Europa League at St Mary’s. How Saints have slipped since.
In that time three managers have been sacked, millions squandered on misfits and they have twice careered towards the relegation zone in which they are again entrenched. Saints, winless since September, have seemingly forgotten how to march and those heady European adventures feel long gone, though the targeting of Ralph Hasenhüttl goes some way to answering the question marks over whether there is sufficient appetite to restore them.
Near-misses or hard-luck stories could not ultimately hide a dire run of results under Hughes: one win in 14 league matches this season and only three since he took over in March. Hughes picked up a miserly eight points from eight games, ultimately enough to stave off relegation largely thanks to a priceless win at Swansea, another team who were once heralded as the model club that other teams should follow.
Giving Hughes the job on a permanent basis was the easy option for all parties. In the end Les Reed paid the price and the longstanding vice-chairman, as well as the technical director, Martin Hunter, were dispatched last month. Those departures left Hughes on borrowed time and his exit is the latest chapter in a long-overdue overhaul, a cull that should have taken place six months ago. After waves of sustained success helped the club bounce back from League One, Reed spoke of another five-year plan in 2014. This was surely not it. It all paints a sorry state of affairs, with fans pointing the finger at the ambitions of the chairman, Ralph Krueger, and the Chinese owner, Gao Jisheng.
The chaos runs deeper than the dugout. There are undoubtedly questions over the strength of a bloated squad, which Hughes alluded to after failing to hold on to a two-goal lead over Manchester United on Saturday. “The perception is that we should be doing better,” he said. “Is that realistic? I don’t know, because we were 17th last year.”
Too many signings have simply not worked, notably those of Guido Carrillo in January for a club-record £19.2m, the £18m Mario Lemina last year and the £16m Sofiane Boufal before that. Carrillo and Boufal were farmed out on loan in summer, when Jannik Vestergaard and Mohamed Elyounoussi were signed but are yet to bear fruit. Saints were once savvy but in the last couple of years they have ostensiblyoutsmarted themselves. They have tried to be too clever in the transfer market.
Individual players have disappointed, with Hughes unable to coax consistent performances out of them. Wesley Hoedt’s error in the defeat at Fulham typified the naivety that has swallowed Southampton, with the defender another costly addition yet to prove his worth on a regular basis.
By the end Hughes had lost patience in his more experienced players, opting to look to the green shoots of Yan Valery and Michael Obafemi as opposed to Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini. Fringe players such as Steven Davis, James Ward-Prowse and Matt Targett have been just that, while Fraser Forster is picking up in excess of £60,000 a week as the third-choice goalkeeper. A mental fragility also marred Hughes’ reign – Southampton dropped a league-high 20 points from winning positions in eight months.
It has been a worrying decline, one that has relieved Saints of their identity. “I think we’ve gone away a little from where we were,” admitted Kelvin Davis, the assistant first-team coach and former goalkeeper who will take charge of the team against Tottenham at Wembley on Wednesday.. “I don’t think we can deny that. We have been on an incredible journey in my time at the club and we’re sitting in a position now where everybody feels it’s time to go again, and push for that next level. I suppose it now comes down to trust.”
For Saints supporters redemption lies in the next move. If they can attract Hasenhüttl, the 51-year-old Austrian coach who did his coaching badges alongside Jürgen Klopp, and lure the former head of recruitment Paul Mitchell back from Leipzig, it would seem a promising piece of business. Comparisons with the Liverpool manager have earned Hasenhüttl the nickname of “Alpen Klopp” in Germany.
“I think no matter where I’ve worked, in Aalen, Ingolstadt or Leipzig, the stadiums have always been full as a result of how we played,” Hasenhüttl said in May. How Saints fans must crave to see St Mary’s rocking once more.
Yet it would be dangerous to forget the club’s soundbites regarding Claude Puel and even more so Mauricio Pellegrino when they arrived on the south coast, with both managers sold to apathetic fans as entertaining coaches ready to unleash a charismatic, high-intensity, attacking style. Neither lasted too long.
The Guardian Sport