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Is Claude Puel’s sacking a bold move or an unnecessary gamble for Southampton?

Martyn Cooke

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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.

Falling short?

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.

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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?

Featured Image: All rights reserved Steve Constanty (Steve Constanty)

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

English Premier League

Southampton 0-2 Liverpool: Deadly Mohamed Salah in-form once again

Jake Jackman

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Liverpool

Liverpool consolidated their position in the top six with a comfortable win against Southampton. They were quick to take the lead through Roberto Firmino and that was followed up before half-time with another goal from Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian now has 22 Premier League goals for the season as he continues to prove that he is one of the leading players in the division. Although the home side didn’t look like a team in the relegation zone, their lack of quality in the final third was a concern. Here are three talking points from St Mary’s Stadium:

Liverpool’s attack is not missing Philippe Coutinho

It was a huge blow to lose Philippe Coutinho during the January transfer window, but the side have continued to impress and it looks like he wasn’t as important as many first thought. Since the sale of the Brazilian, the Reds have scored two or more goals in all but one of seven matches that they have played. Against Southampton, they were at their free-flowing best and it was two of their front three that shone.

Salah was regarded as a good signing when he joined from Roma, but his achievements will have surprised even his biggest advocates. The Egyptian forward is one of the favourites to win the Golden Boot come the end of the season. He currently trails Harry Kane by one goal. Considering that he isn’t a natural striker, his form in front of goal is massively impressive.

Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino continues to perform to a high standard. The 26-year-old has contributed 12 goals and six assists. That is a great return for the Brazilian.

Mauricio Pellegrino is under pressure

Southampton have been one of the best teams outside of the top six during recent seasons. During the last campaign, they finished in 8th position and reached the League Cup final. Despite those achievements, Claude Puel was given the sack due to his style of play. It was seen as dull in the stands, but their decline this season has shown that decision to be a mistake. On Sunday, they slipped back into the relegation zone and they are in huge danger of being relegated.

There is only one point that separates them from 17th, but it is a big mental barrier to be in the bottom three, as it leaves the team with no margin for error. A lot of the teams in the bottom half have changed their manager this season. There is no sign that Southampton are close to pulling the trigger, but it is an option that remains open to them if they want to try and give the club a boost in the relegation fight.

The Saints have a good run of fixtures to come in Burnley, Stoke City, Newcastle United and Swansea City. These matches will shape their season and Pellegrino hasn’t shown enough to suggest he can deliver the results required. If they struggle in the first couple, a change of manager is inevitable.

Virgil van Dijk was excellent on his return to St Mary’s

The Dutch international was always likely to be the focus of attention during the match, as he left Southampton to join Liverpool in January. His actions during the summer did little to warm him to the Saints’ supporters and they let their feelings known on Sunday. Van Dijk was roundly booed every time he touched the ball.

It is a huge test of a player to rise above the atmosphere, but Van Dijk did superbly and delivered an assured performance. He was one of the best performers on the South Coast and played a key part in the visitors keeping a clean sheet.

His aerial presence is known and it was evident on Sunday as he won five aerial duels. Defensively, he rarely put a foot wrong, as he completed four ball recoveries and made seven clearances. Van Dijk showed himself to be a leader as he regularly shouted instructions and made sure that the side remained organised. Liverpool lacked that at the beginning of the season and they look a lot more solid as a result.

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English Premier League

Will the signing of Virgil van Dijk make Liverpool title contenders?

Jake Jackman

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Van Dijk

Liverpool have finally completed the long-awaited signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton for a world record fee. They have agreed to pay £75 million for the Dutchman, which makes him the most expensive defender in the history of football. The last few months have seen the Reds’ defensive woes get worse and they are now willing to pay an extra £15 million to secure the services of their primary centre-back target. Saints deserve credit for holding strong and denying a sale in the summer, as they have made more money as a result. They have agreed to a sale at this early stage in order to give Mauricio Pellegrino the time to spend the money.

For Jurgen Klopp, it was imperative that they improved their defence in the January window. They already have one of the best attacks in Europe, but they can’t be relied on to keep goals out at the other end. Poor collapses against Sevilla and Arsenal have shown their limitations as a team. Van Dijk is unlikely to be the sole solution, but he will come in and improve the defence. His arrival could lead to the rest of the back-line upping their own game. If it does, the Reds could be a force to be reckoned with during the second half of the season.

Despite their failure to land Van Dijk in the summer, Liverpool didn’t drop their interest and that shows huge faith in the defender. He is clearly the player that Klopp wants in his defence and the 26-year-old’s own commitment to the move means there will be a great deal of trust on both sides. This turbulent saga could prove to be a good thing for the club in the long-term as both parties will be desperate for it to be a success. It would have been easier for the Reds to move on to other targets after escaping punishment for alleged tapping-up, but they didn’t and they have now been rewarded for their persistence.

Since the initial rumours surfaced, it became evident that Van Dijk wanted to move to Liverpool over other interested clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea. A lot of pundits have suggested that the defender is too good for the Reds, but he has been wooed by Jurgen Klopp and his comments after the transfer were announced reflect that. BBC Sport report the following quotes from the defender:

“Delighted and honoured to have agreed to become a Liverpool FC player. Today is a proud day for me and my family as I join one of the biggest clubs in world football.

“I can’t wait to pull on the famous red shirt for the first time in front of the Kop and will give everything I have to try and help this great club achieve something special in the years to come.

They may not be winning major honours at the time of writing, but Liverpool remain one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Van Dijk’s comments underline how attractive they are to potential targets and they are now beginning to build a team capable of living up to their standing. In the current game, the media and supporters alike can be obsessed with instant success. Pep Guardiola was criticised a lot during his first season, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and there are signs of development at Anfield.

At the age of 26, Van Dijk is approaching the peak years of his career and he has decided to join Liverpool. That is a huge backing of support for what Klopp is building at the club. They play attractive football and they are close to becoming a force once again. Van Dijk believes in the project and he is the perfect centre-half for the style of play that the Reds’ manager has implemented. He is excellent on the ball and excellent at launching attacks from deep. The Dutchman can be a playmaker from the heart of the defence and that will allow the team to play higher up the pitch.

A weakness for Liverpool this season has been their inability to deal with quick counter-attacks and set pieces. There have been too many occasions where Dejan Lovren has been left in a one-on-one situation and he isn’t good enough to come out on top. Van Dijk is a huge upgrade in this regard, as he is an intelligent reader of the game and is a physical beast. He is quick across the ground and capable of anticipating what the forward is going to do ahead of time, as shown by this season’s average of 2.61 interceptions per ninety minutes.

There are few better players in the air that Van Dijk. The 26-year-old has won an impressive 73.75% of his aerial duels this season. Liverpool have been regularly criticised for their lack of organisation and quality at defending set-pieces. The aerial presence of their new centre-back will go a long way in remedying that.

The signing of Virgil van Dijk alone will not solve the defensive woes of Liverpool. He is an excellent defender and he will improve the starting eleven hugely, but Klopp can’t see this as a sole solution. A new goalkeeper will need to be next on his transfer list as it has become clear that Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius are not good enough to start for a team with title ambitions.

The rest of defence has further problems, but there is potential and the addition of Van Dijk may accelerate their development. Joel Matip deserves the rest of the season alongside the Dutchman to see if he has the quality required. He has shown encouraging signs, but there have been problems. That said, he has played with players that aren’t good enough to start for Liverpool and that may have caused his struggles. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson will all benefit from the leadership of the Dutch international.

Van Dijk will be a great addition to the Liverpool starting eleven and it is commendable that the club have got a deal done quickly, but they need more additions in January to be considered a contender for major honours.

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Match Reaction

Tottenham 5-2 Southampton: Three talking points from Wembley

Rob Meech

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Tottenham
Photo: Reuters

Harry Kane rewrote the record books with his second hat-trick in three days as Tottenham Hotspur made light work of Southampton at Wembley Stadium. The 24-year-old needed just one goal to surpass Alan Shearer’s milestone, which he had set for Blackburn in 1995.

The magic moment came on 22 minutes and it was followed by two more as the prolific Kane finished 2017 as he had started it. Dele Alli and Son Heung-min added gloss to the victory for fifth-placed Spurs, while Sofiane Boufal and Dusan Tadic replied for Southampton, who are now just two points clear of the drop-zone. Here are three talking points…

Record-breaking Kane is in a league of his own

Until very recently, it looked like Kane would fall short in his quest to break Shearer’s long-standing record. But, as quick as a flash, two hat-tricks in a matter of days against Burnley and Southampton ensured there was clear daylight between him and the legendary England forward.

It really is an astonishing achievement. Kane has bagged 39 in 36 top-flight appearances this year, among which there have been no fewer than eight hat-tricks. But more than just domestically, the Tottenham striker now stands alone in Europe. With 56 goals in 52 outings in all competitions, Kane has outscored Lionel Messi in 2017.

Can we begin to speak about the Englishman in the same breath as the multi Ballon d’Or winner? The statistics say so. While he may not possess the artistry of Messi, there is no doubt Kane is one of the most valuable players in Europe and is as important to Spurs as the Argentinian is to Barcelona. Simply put, Kane is a phenomenon.

Pressure is mounting on Mauricio Pellegrino

It’s now seven games without a win for Southampton, who continue to tumble down the Premier League table at an alarming rate. Although they will not have been the first team to receive a Kane-inspired drubbing, boss Mauricio Pellegrino will have been extremely disappointed by his side’s lack of fight.

Without the injured Charlie Austin, Saints lacked any attacking threat while the game was still alive. But defensively they were all over the place too, allowing Kane two of the easiest goals he will score. It really was schoolboy stuff at times. Southampton’s 4-1 victory over Everton now seems a long time ago and Pellegrino’s position is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Once again, the want-away Virgil van Dijk was omitted from the match-day squad, suggesting he will be leaving when the January transfer window opens, amid reported interest from Liverpool and Manchester City. Could the manager also be following him out of the exit door at St Mary’s Stadium?

Alli shows his class in return to form

Understandably, the media will focus on Kane’s landmark afternoon. But it should not go unnoticed that Alli turned in one of his most impressive performances in a Tottenham shirt this campaign. His goal, a perfectly placed shot from the edge of the area that curled past Fraser Forster, added to three assists.

It’s no secret that Alli has struggled to replicate the form of last season that made him one of the hottest properties in Europe and he has cut a frustrated figure in many games, mirroring Spurs’ travails. But there were signs in the victory over Burnley at the weekend that he was getting back to his best and he continued that trend here with another assured display.

It’s a timely boost for boss Mauricio Pochettino, who had relied heavily on the Kane/Alli axis to provide the bulk of their goals as they finished runners-up last term. It’s also a positive sign for England manager Gareth Southgate, with the World Cup in Russia only months away.

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