On Thursday afternoon the news that Southampton had sacked Claude Puel brought gasps from the football world – but is the decision to dismiss the Frenchman after just one, relatively successful, season in charge a bold move by the club or just an example of unrealistic expectations?
Puel was certainly not a failure. The 55-year-old stepped into the void left behind by Ronald Koeman’s departure to Everton and was able to secure a top-half finish in the Premier League, along with an appearance in the League Cup final. With the English top-flight becoming firmly segregated between the so-called ‘top six’ and ‘the rest’ an 8th place finish and a first appearance in a major final for 14 years would normally be considered as being a successful campaign for a club of Southampton’s stature.
You also have to consider that the club sold two of their star names before the season kicked off. The sale of Sadio Mane to Liverpool and Victor Wanyama to Tottenham Hotspur immediately left Puel with key gaps in his playing squad and was further compounded when captain Jose Fonte departed for West Ham United in January. Also throw in the fact that Charlie Austin, arguably Southampton’s only natural goal scorer, has missed large swathes of the year through injury and Puel’s debut season appears to be nothing short of a minor miracle.
The Frenchman also had a positive impact on a number of key players and has maintained the club’s philosophy of placing faith in home-grown academy graduates. A number of senior players have been rejuvenated with the likes of Oriol Romeu, James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond producing arguably the best seasons of their career, whilst a deluge of youngsters were handed first team opportunities, including Jack Stephens, Sam McQueen and Josh Sims.
Considering all of these factors it is understandable that Puel’s dismissal will make little sense to external observers. However, not everything was rosy in the Southampton garden.
On face value Southampton’s season was a success, but if you examine the fine details it becomes evident why Claude Puel’s position became threatened.
Despite finishing 8th in the Premier League The Saints had a relatively poor campaign, finishing two places lower when compared with the previous year and picked up 17 fewer points. They were only six points above 17th and were 15 points behind Everton in the final Europa League qualifying spot. In short, the club were closer to relegation than they were to securing European football.
This was further compounded by the style of play that Puel promoted. Although Southampton made a promising start to the campaign it became apparent that the longer the season went on the more cautious and dull the team became. Scoring goals became a defining issue. The Saints netted just 41 goals in 38 league fixtures – only the bottom five found the net on fewer occasions – and was highlighted when they failed to score in any of their final four home games.
A large section of the club’s fan base became disillusioned by the cautious nature of Puel’s team. On the closing day of the season the players were booed after the final whistle following a defeat at Saint Mary’s against Stoke City.
A bold move? Or an unnecessary gamble?
The overriding feeling is simply that Southampton could have done much better. The chaotic nature of last season’s Premier League campaign meant that a large portion of clubs situated in mid-table finished within close proximity of each other. This allowed The Saints secure a respectable top-half finish, despite picking up less points, scoring fewer goals and playing in a cautious style. The fine detail suggests that the club have actually regressed over the course of Claude Puel’s reign, something that was conveniently hidden by an 8th place finish that was facilitated by a lack of quality amongst mid-table opponents.
The end result is that Puel lost his job and Southampton are searching for a third manager in three years. For some, the move represents an unnecessary gamble, yet is it wrong to be critical of a club that is obviously showing ambition and attempting to better themselves?
The hierarchy at St Mary’s are no strangers to making bold moves when it comes to managerial appointments and dismissals. Nigel Adkins was ruthlessly sacked just months after he guided the club to promotion – although his replacement turned out to be an undoubted success. In fact, Southampton can fall back on a strong record of managerial appointments that has seen Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino start their careers in English football in recent years. It would be little surprise if the club found another little-known manager from the continent that turns out to be an unequivocal success.
It is clear that Southampton are determined to progress. Since their return to the Premier League, the club has been seen as a stepping stone for players and managers on the road to so-called superior teams. Each season there is a revolving door of star names that are sold on for large profits and low-profile figures who are developed and nurtured. If you were to draw up a list of players that the club has sold in the last decade then it would be one hell of a team.
The long-term solution is for the club to force their way amongst the elite. Securing European football on a consistent basis would make The Saints a more attractive proposition for new signings and provide more leverage as they attempt to retain star names.
Despite Claude Puel’s solitary season in English football not being a failure, neither was it a success. The Frenchman failed to convince either the hierarchy or supporters that he was building a team capable of fulfilling the club’s ambitions.
Can we really criticise a club for having ambition?
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