During Claude Puel’s year as Southampton manager he tended to speak so quietly in public that he was almost inaudible, so it is hardly surprising that no one has heard him laughing this season at his old club’s form. But that does not mean the Frenchman is not tittering away to himself at this very moment. And who could blame him if he is?
Puel was let go in June despite leading Southampton to their first major final for 14 years and an eighth-place finish in the Premier League. But apparently his style was too boring and some players and many fans disliked his method, so he had to go – fair enough but look at them now.
As they prepare for Sunday’s telling match with Newcastle, Southampton are 12th in the table and their new manager, Mauricio Pellegrino, has introduced such pizzazz that they have mustered five goals in seven league matches. Puel’s fate was sealed when his team failed to score in six of their final seven home games of last season. Hey presto, they have failed to score in four of their first five home games under Pellegrino, including the 2-0 defeat by Wolves that meant they were eliminated immediately from the EFL Cup in which they were runners-up last season, and by a Championship side. Puel may or may not be guffawing; season-ticket holders at St Mary’s are definitely still groaning.
Puel was not the problem, then. But nothing so far suggests that Pellegrino is the solution. The Argentinian has tended to play the same formation as his predecessor, made similar selections and substitutions and presided over a similar possession-based style. Yet Southampton still struggle to score. It is too early to conclude that Pellegrino will flop but is it unreasonable to have expected progress on the attacking front? Kind of, yes.
It is not a question of what has changed at the club so much as what else has remained the same. The answer, of course, is Southampton’s forwards. Last season the south coast club delivered more crosses (albeit of varying quality) than any other team but none of their strikers got close to a double-digit goal tally in the Premier League. Charlie Austin struck six before suffering an injury; Manolo Gabbiadini fired in four goals in his first three league matches but then he, too, was injured. The Italian has been back in action for months but his sharpness has not returned.
Austin is a natural finisher but not mobile enough to serve as a lone striker in the formation that both Puel and Pellegrino prefer, so he has not started a league game this season. Gabbiadini is also a classy finisher when at his best but he, too, has not been dynamic enough to be entrusted with a regular starting spot. Pellegrino has alternated between the Italian and Shane Long, who drags defences all over the place and gets much more involved in play (averaging 39 touches per match this season compared with 13 for Gabbiadini) but has never been a regular scorer.
Graziano Pellè used to endure barren patches but Southampton still miss the striker who left for China in July last year. Southampton spent a club record £18.1m in the summer on the tidy midfielder Mario Lemina, and the club’s chairman, Ralph Krueger, said that retaining Virgil van Dijk was “a statement we need to make” but, bearing in mind that they also signed the centreback Wesley Hoedt, a more important declaration of intent would have been to improve their firepower by buying a striker who can thrive in the system that they apparently want to play. Either that, or Pellegrino has to find another system, perhaps by playing with two strikers, which he has been reluctant to do.
The attackers behind the strikers remain no more reliable than the players in front of them. They shine in spells but there seems no way of knowing how they will ration their magic. Nathan Redmond, last season’s top scorer in the league with seven goals, has scored once this season and his ratio of good performances to bad is worsening. Dusan Tadic started this campaign glumly but has perked up recently. Sofiane Boufal has looked bright in a couple of appearances off the bench but not shown enough since his arrival in January to earn a regular start. Steve Davis had been a paragon of consistency for years until this season, stirring fears that, at 32, he is dwindling.
Other erstwhile stalwarts are also wavering. Southampton had two of the best full-backs in the league last season but Ryan Bertrand has been below par this season and Cédric Soares made an uncharacteristic lapse that led to Stoke’s winning goal in Southampton’s last outing. Fraser Forster has become fallible in goal and Van Dijk has been reintegrated into the team but to what effect remains unclear, other than pushing Jack Stephens to the margins.
Stephens’s emergence was one of the gains of Puel’s tenure. Now, with James Ward-Prowse’s form sagging, Southampton’s successful assimilation of homegrown players looks to be in jeopardy.
These are uncertain times for a club whose vision has been mostly true in recent years. Maybe Pellegrino will work out a way to coax more consistency from talented players, and maybe Gao Jisheng, the Chinese real estate tycoon who bought 80% of the club in August, will sanction investment in January. If not, a club that has earned the right to aspire to hobnobbing with European competitors could find itself brawling against relegation.
The Guardian Sport