Once it became clear that Ronald Koeman was on his way out at Southampton, rumours began to circulate about the identity of the Saints’ next manager. Some of the names thrown around were Unai Emery, Manuel Pellegrini, and Andre Villas-Boas, but the most obscure name in the pot was then Nice Manager Claude Puel. Puel was a journeyman manager from Ligue 1, and he didn’t appear to be the best option for a club trying to get to the next level of English football. Oh, how those doubters have been proven wrong. Puel’s ability to get the best out of his players, with his liberal use of Southampton’s academy, and his attractive style of play have proven his doubters wrong in the extreme.
After a one club career at Monaco, Puel was named their manager in 1999 and won the league and cup double in his first season. This Monaco team was the youngest ever to win Ligue 1 and was filled with future stars like Rafa Marquez, David Trezeguet, Fabian Barthez, and most of all, Thierry Henry. After departing once his contract ended, Puel went on to manage Lille, Lyon, and Nice where he developed players like Eden Hazard and Alexandre Lacazette and revived the career of Hatem Ben Arfa. With Nice, Puel took a team who were relegation candidates in his first season, to European Football in his third. This kind of improvement is nearly unprecedented in Europe’s top five leagues. This set the stage for Puel’s move to the premier league.
Initially, there were doubts about Southampton’s appointment of a relatively unheard of Frenchman, to a team that is forced to completely overhaul its squad every few years, but Puel knew what he wanted to do and did it. His shrewd signings of Jeremy Pied, Pierre Hojbjerg, and Nathan Redmond led up to the £18 million signing of Lille winger Sofiane Boufal. These signings showed Puel’s intent to continue Southampton’s recent trend of improving the club’s league position every year. While it will be difficult to improve on a sixth-place finish last year, Puel is laying the groundwork for a future world-beating squad.
The most impressive thing that Puel does as a manager is work with the players. He turned fringe player Oriol Romeu into the most influential midfielder in the squad, playing the ‘Makelele role’ to near perfection. Another player that Puel has sent to new levels is Dutch center-half Virgil Van Dijk. With Liverpool circling around for a proposed move in January, Puel will do well to persuade Van Dijk to stay on the south coast.
During Koeman’s reign as Saints’ boss, the club’s proud tradition of developing young talent faded away. This was further proven when youngster Josh Sims got the game-winning assist against Koeman’s Everton team earlier this year. After the game, Koeman claimed that he had never heard of Sims before.
Puel’s impressive record of the past speaks well for the future of Southampton, with the likes of Sam McQueen, Jake Hesketh, Josh Sims, Harrison Reed, and Jack Stephens all on the verge of becoming fixtures in the first team setup. The most important thing that Puel does to further the development of youngsters is put faith in them. When academy graduate Matt Targett was injured before a game away against Inter in the Europa League, Puel didn’t try and play a back-up center-back or anybody else out of position there; he chose to give 21-year-old Sam McQueen his full debut at the San Siro. While the Saints did lose, McQueen played well and impressed enough to be the full-time starter until the return of Ryan Bertrand.
While Puel may not be a young manager, he is still an exciting manager. His favoured 4-3-3 formation breeds a fast paced, counterattacking style that allows Southampton to go toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the world. The epitome of this was a comprehensive 2-0 win over Arsenal in the league cup. This was a game where Southampton played Puel’s counterattacking style to perfection. They only had 37% percent possession and fewer shots, but the result was never really in doubt. In the first half, Southampton was clinical with impressive team goals ending with strikes from Jordy Clasie and Ryan Bertrand. This performance showed just a glimpse of the potential that this Southampton squad has. If they can keep faith in Puel’s philosophy and continue to improve under his tutelage, they can make it into the Champions league in the next few years.
While the Saints’ current league position (9th at the time of writing) and uneventful exit from the Europa League in the group stage doesn’t exactly shower them with glory, Southampton is only two points away from seventh place, and their form is picking up. They are becoming more and more acquainted with Puel’s philosophy, and now that they are out of the Europa League they will be able to create a more regular starting eleven.
Altogether, these factors are priming Southampton for success now and in the future. Puel’s progressive style of play means that Southampton can compete with, and beat, the best. With a bright future ahead of them, in regards to both their academy and their continually impressive transfer business, the Saints have laid the foundation for a successful future.
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