Sunday, May 22, 2022

Problems Aplenty At Southampton But Can Hughes Turn The Ship Around?

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Dan Attwood
London based, Brighton fan.

Having been on the verge of European football and playing exciting, attacking football under Mauricio Pochettino; Southampton fans have had to realign their expectations to be content with a 17th placed finish. It’s not even unreasonable to suggest that they are now in a 3-way struggle with – historically lowly – Bournemouth and Brighton for south coast supremacy.

Over the past seasons, Southampton have had numerous elite level players on their books. They have received around £250m in revenue from selling the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and Luke Shaw. However, it is increasingly difficult to maintain a level of performance to sustain their league position. The quality of replacements has gradually dwindled in the past four years.

Season Out Replacement
14/15 Luke Shaw Ryan Bertrand
14/15 Adam Lallana Sadio Mane
14/15 Dejan Lovren Toby Alderweireld (loan)
15/16 Morgan Schneiderlin Oriol Romeu/Jordy Clasie
15/16 Nathaniel Clyne Cedric Soares
15/16 Toby Alderweireld Virgil van Dijk
16/17 Sadio Mane Sofiane Boufal
16/17 Victor Wanyama Pierre-Emil Hojbjerg
17/18 Virgil van Dijk Wesley Hoedt/Jan Vestergaard
18/19 Dusan Tadic Mohammed Elyounoussi

The table shows direct replacements for Southampton’s main player sales over the past four seasons. Any shown in green highlight can be considered successful.

It’s challenging to keep Champions League level players at a non-Champions League level club, and that is a fact. Virgil van Dijk was the last remaining elite player from the club’s recent pool of talent and in the end, the sale of the Dutchman was inevitable. The way that the team had been playing last season on top of the lack of quality amongst the squad, meant that van Dijk had no real footballing incentive to stay.

Whether the transfer fee is too high to turn down or the buying club is too appealing to keep the player focused on their current team; clubs who receive mega-money offers for their best players are faced with two options:

1. Take the money and gamble on replacing them with equally good player(s)

2. Keep their assets and commit to investing further to improve the current squad

The easy option for most clubs is to take the money – particularly for revenue driven owners, which we have seen at Southampton. The only way the second option can be availed is to ensure that the best players on the team are kept motivated by the players around them and see the team continue to rise in rank. After all, can you blame an elite player for wanting to test themselves at a level more suited to their ability?

Under Pochettino, Southampton supporters had lifted their expectations to target at least a top half finish and at the most challenge for a Europa League place. However, even after selling some of their star names, they still had the right to maintain their higher expectations, given that they reinvest the transfer fees from Mane and Lallana into other high calibre names. Despite some reinvestment, the same successes did not occur, which was the catalyst to producing Southampton’s 2017/18 season: a relegation dogfight, managerial change, and ongoing fan unrest.

Fans weren’t happy with the style of football deployed by Puel or Pellegrino during their tenures, which didn’t compliment their current squad and led to a lack of goals from players such as Manolo Gabbiadini who had a great goal-scoring record prior to his move. Before the eventual sacking of Pellegrino, the atmosphere at St Mary’s had become toxic, as they had expected their squad to be capable of competing in the Premier League’s top half.

It’s ultimately a missed opportunity to build their way towards the top six. Southampton now have to battle to retain their place in the Premier League’s bloated middle, with their fans’ expectations now much reduced.

Looking ahead, defensive improvement for Mark Hughes’ side is a must and despite a credible stalemate at home to Burnley, the omen from pre-season isn’t good after a 3-0 home defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach. Hughes would be hoping that new recruit Jan Vestergaard can fill a gaping ‘Virgil van Dijk shaped’ void and sure up Hughes’ defence in a way that Zouma, Martins Indi, and Wimmer couldn’t at Stoke. Whilst ex-Basel Elyounoussi and ex-Celtic Armstrong will need to replace last season’s star man Dusan Tadic and lessen the reliance upon Austin’s goals.

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