With relegation seeming like a likely possibility for Southampton with the season drawing to a disappointing close, even the most ardent of Saints fan seem to have lost hope of staying up in the Premier League.
It is a stark contrast to how things were three seasons ago. Finishing outside the top half of the table seemed like a far-fetched thing for a side that boasted of playing one of the best brands of football in the Premier League.
But it is a trend in Premier League football these days. You’ve got to learn from the experiences of the others and the Saints have not done that.
And it would be fair to say that Southampton have managed to stumble upon failure after multiple seasons of finding success with the same ways. It was coming.
There were times when many felt as to how they sustained their regular acts of selling their most prized players, only to make financial profits and better themselves every season despite that. Financial profits is one thing, but sustaining performances is something that matters more. And it certainly matters the most now.
Last summer, Jay Rodriguez was sent packing to West Bromwich Albion and as Virgil van Dijk’s transfer saga rumbled on, the Dutchman was sold to Liverpool for a record fee in the winter transfer window.
As for Rodriguez, the once-World Cup hopeful was not expected to be missed too much, but the fact that the Saints have scored only four more goals than West Brom shows that they would’ve made do with the Englishman.
Manolo Gabbiadini was signed from Napoli last season and the Italian impressed a lot in the second half of the season. It was presumed that the Charlie Austin, Shane Long and Gabbiadini will be enough to help the club get goals under the tutelage of Mauricio Pellegrino, but nothing of that sort happened.
Austin suffered a long term hamstring tear as soon when he looked in sublime form back in December. Long’s goalscoring form has never been reliable and Gabbiadini suffered a remarkable fall from grace.
As for Van Dijk though, the Saints would never have been able to replace him even if he had been gone in the summer. Jack Stephens, who had done well last season, was seen as the man to replace the outgoing Van Dijk, with Wesley Hoedt roped in from Lazio. Jan Bednarek was acquired from Lech Poznan, but the Pole has appeared only twice in the Premier League.
And the struggle to replace Van Dijk, internally or externally, has left the club in an absolute mess. The fact that the club has let in the second-highest amount of goals in the league- 53, makes them certain relegation contenders.
The club made a financial gain of 27 million pounds, but is stuck in the bottom three. And it is results that the club wants right now. It has been a one that has always relied on it, despite losing all of their prized players and despite not really batting an eye at the financial profits they make every season.
Southampton have always done exceptionally well by replacing their prized assets by not just signing effective replacements but by using their own players to perfection. But the summer of 2016 sparked it all when Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle were offloaded to make a profit of 42 million pounds.
After falling out with the club, Jose Fonte was on his way to Southampton in the January transfer window. It was Sofiane Boufal who was brought in from Lille to replace Mane and Oriol Romeu was seen as the replacement for the now Tottenham-star Wanyama.
Gabbiadini was brought in to replace Pelle, but the Italian’s performances and goals had started ebbing away in the last ten games of the previous season, despite the all-impressive start to life in the South of the country.
While Romeu became the club’s Player of the Season, Boufal has been a typical one in 15 games player indeed. The Algerian has a bundle of tricks up his sleeve, but has little final product and comes up with what is promised of him only once in fifteen games.
His stunning Ronaldo-esque goal against the Baggies this season is the perfect example. He has hardly been himself, let alone replacing Mane.
And when Claude Puel was sacked, it seemed very unnatural for a club like Southampton to do that. A club that believes in long-term building refused to believe in a long-term manager like Puel on the mere acquisition that the fans could never connect with him.
The football he played was not as attractive as how the club played under Ronald Koeman or Mauricio Pochettino, but Puel has always been a boss who builds for long-term successes.
Credited with making players like David Trezeguet, Thierry Henry and Eden Hazard into what they are today, the Saints board decided to break ties with the former Lyon and Monaco boss, which is rather unlike them.
Those were the first signs when it seemed that Southampton were stumbling upon failure with ways that have reaped them rewards so many times in the past.
And when a rather unknown manager in Mauricio Pellegrino was brought in, it seemed like an acquisition that oozed the trademark Southampton ability to bring in lesser known stars and make them world-renowned superstars. But it was a mismatch on paper.
However tactically versatile Pellegrino was at Alaves, the former Liverpool player had never earned a knack for playing attacking football. It was all too pragmatic and defensive minded.
While it did work out for a newly promoted minnow, it was never supposed to work out for a club that has thrived on playing attractive, high-tempo football since its arrival in the Premier League.
The labored ways in which Southampton attacked under Pellegrino was almost an indication that it was meant to be in the bottom three. And while the sacking was made, it would have made far more sense, if it were made a month before it was actually made.
It has been a gradual erosion of the Southampton ethos really, just like the kind of identity Swansea boasted of during the Michael Laudrup days and the way it has eroded after a two or three-year stay in the Premier League. And clubs of that size have to come across a period when they lose stability and as a result, lose their identity.
Swans chairman Huw Jenkins once told Sky Sports about the same. He said: “”When you get into the Premier League, you have a two-or three-year cycle, and then if you want to retain your players you’re upping their wages again.”
And it was coming. All it takes is a spark to set it off.
For Swansea, it started off when they oddly sacked Laudrup and for Southampton, it came a bit later- when they sacked a brilliant manager in Puel after just a single season. All that at a time when the club needed stability to stay in the top half and to learn from the experience of Swansea.
Long-term building brings in stability and for a club like the Saints, it seems like an influence of the modern-day ways- sacking managers early and there was little doubt the club was heading towards the bottom half.
And while Swansea have managed to hold on somehow, chances seem bleak for Southampton.
Sacking Pellegrino a month early would’ve saved them from this rather inevitable nosedive, but it’s a combination of factors. But refusing to learn from the experiences of others is the biggest one.
Written by Kaustubh Pandey
Follow Kaustubh on Twitter @Kaus_Pandey17
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