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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

Tottenham should target Mario Lemina as long-term Mousa Dembele replacement

The Lilywhites should begin planning for life after the Belgian international.

Jake Jackman

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Mario Lemina
Photo: Getty Images

The upcoming summer is going to be important for every top-six team for different reasons and they will all be looking to compete for the title.

Tottenham have been on the brink of achieving something special under Mauricio Pochettino. They have established themselves as a regular Champions League team and have played some excellent football, but they have yet to deliver a title challenge from post to post and that is their next challenge.

Throughout his time in North London, Pochettino has been reluctant to spend big money on a ready-made world-class player. The Argentine prefers to sign potential and mould a player in his own image. This summer, he will need to strengthen his squad once again as he lacks depth in a couple of positions.

One area of the pitch that he will look to add reinforcements is central midfield. Mousa Dembele has been the star in that position, but he is now 30 and he can’t be expected to play every match across all competitions.

Meanwhile, Victor Wanyama has only played 14 times in the Premier League and seems out of favour with Pochettino. Eric Dier and Harry Winks are both good options, but neither have pushed on in the way that Tottenham would have hoped.

There is a lot of quality in the middle of the park at Tottenham, but there haven’t been two players to make the positions their own. The answer to their midfield problems could come from an unlikely place.

Southampton have been a good stepping stone club since their return to the Premier League and, despite their impending relegation, they could have one more jewel worth pursuing.

(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Mario Lemina has had a mixed first season in England, but there is no doubting his quality in midfield areas. The Gabon international arrived from Juventus and it was considered a coup at the time. He may not have thrived in the manner many expected, but it has been tough to shine in a team battling relegation.

He is a similar midfielder to Dembele in many aspects. Lemina is very effective at winning possession and he is comfortable with the ball at his feet. The 24-year-old averages 2.3 dribbles per game, which is only fractionally lower than the 2.5 managed by the Tottenham midfielder.

Considering Lemina is playing his first season in a new country, this is an encouraging stat and suggests he can become the powerful ball-carrier that Dembele has been in recent seasons. In terms of regaining possession, the Southampton man averages 2.1 tackles won and 1.48 interceptions per ninety minutes.

This is superior to Dembele, who averages 1.14 tackles won and 1.48 interceptions per ninety minutes. There are times when players are stained by a relegation, but the stats underline the impact that Lemina has had on games since arriving in England and in a better team, he could be a revelation.

Southampton are not going to be in a strong negotiating position if they are relegated, as expected. Despite their struggles this season, they have a lot of quality in their squad and there won’t be a shortage of takers for a lot of their players.

Lemina is the standout in their squad and his experience with Juventus means that he has the mentality to step up to one of the top six clubs. He looks a perfect fit for Tottenham and would be a great long-term replacement for Dembele.

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English Premier League

Southampton could be left looking foolish as Matt Targett pushes for promotion

The England under-21 international is hoping to win promotion with Fulham.

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Fulham are firmly in the fight for promotion to the Premier League. The Cottagers are chasing Cardiff City in the hunt for the automatic places and will have a shot at the play-offs if they do not make it into the top two. Fulham’s brilliant form has been largely down to the arrival of a loan signing from the Premier League. Despite Newcastle United’s own struggles, Aleksandar Mitrovic was sent to Craven Cottage to try and find some form. The Serbian has done just that, scoring goals for fun in West London. But the impact of another loanee cannot be understated.

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Matt Targett arrived from Southampton at the end of January and has gone on to become an integral member of the Fulham first-team. Targett has played 15 times since his move to the club, even finding the back of the net once.

The Saints man has been solid defensively and a threat going forward for Slavisa Jokanovic’s men.

For Southampton, loaning him out could prove to make them look foolish. Whilst Fulham are pushing for promotion, Southampton are desperately scrapping against relegation from the Premier League.

Whilst Ryan Bertrand may be the out-and-out first choice at left-back Mark Hughes’ recent switch to a back three could certainly have seen Targett playing a role in the matchday squad at St Mary’s once again.

(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

But above anything else, it will be the principle of the matter.

Mauricio Pellegrino was not a fan of Targett and therefore sent him on his way, but he should still be around the club and making an impact in the fight for survival. The fact Southampton, who are currently five points adrift of safety, could get relegated whilst a player they loaned out wins promotion is just bad PR – pure and simple.

It will certainly be interesting to see just where Targett ends up next season, and which division he will be playing in.

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Everton

Would Tottenham or Everton be the best move for Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand?

The 28-year-old has been linked with a move away from the south coast this summer.

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Photo: Getty Images

After being told by Southampton bosses that the club could not afford to lose both him and Virgil Van Dijk in the same season, this summer may finally see Ryan Bertrand depart Saint Mary’s.

The Sun report that Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton and Newcastle are among the clubs interested in a £25 million bid this summer, following on from Manchester City‘s attempts to lure him north last summer.

The 28-year-old has again shown himself to be a reliable Premier League defender this season but faces a tough choice on where to go next with a departure looking likely as the Saints struggle at the wrong end of the table.

With Tottenham and Everton leading the way, it may not be a simple choice for the versatile defender.

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

A move to Spurs would provide the ex-Chelsea man with a return to the Champions League, a competition he won whilst with the Blues, but would also face more of a challenge to walk straight into the first team.

Ben Davies has been performing well at left-back, with Danny Rose also still at the club despite injury problems, and so he may be forced into a less comfortable role on the left of a back three, a position which Jan Vertonghen has made his own.

At Goodison Park, Bertrand can see his role as a leader in the team right from day one. With Leighton Baines not getting any younger, the club is clearly on the look-out for a replacement and he could be that man.

The doubt over a move to the Toffees would be regarding the instability at the club. Sam Allardyce’s future is anything but certain and Bertrand’s loyalty to his previous two clubs may mean he seeks a long-term project and avoid adding to the list of expensive failures that Everton racked up last summer.

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