It’s not often you’d expect a Premier League manager to be under pressure for an eighth place finish. However, Claude Puel is a worried man, after just one year in the job, his future as St Mary’s is in doubt.
On 11th July as star striker, Graziano Pelle was formalising his move away from St Mary’s to join relegation- struggles and Chinese moneybags Shandong Luneng; the new season was approaching with that familiar sinking feeling for Saints fans. Yet again, they had watched their much-loved manager walk away and this time he had chosen to join a club that had finished five places and a whopping 16 points behind the Saints. They had also waved off midfield-dynamo Victor Wanyama to Tottenham and the now inevitable sale to Liverpool was fan-favourite Sadio Mané. Three key players and a manager down would surely crush another club but Southampton have continually defied the odds since 2014 and have shown a remarkable ability to rise from the ashes and continue to move forward. The club having improved their league finish for three consecutive years prior to Puel’s arrival, despite the losses of Mauricio Pochettino and many key players.
This season they chose as their Lazarus Frenchman Claude Puel. A man who’d spent the entirety of his footballing career in France. He was a one-club man at Monaco, racking up over 500 appearances before going on to manage his boyhood side to the 1999-2000 Ligue 1 title. He then spent time at Lille, Lyon and Nice before arriving at Southampton with a reputation for building his sides with a keen eye on the youth academy, seemingly a perfect fit for Saints.
Puel again has managed to breathe life into a depleted Southampton squad. He has given the club a new Italian hero, just as fans were beginning to yearn for a striker of Graziano Pelle’s ilk, £14m signing Manolo Gabbiadini arrived in January. He hit the ground running immediately, becoming the first Saints player to score in each of his first four matches for the club, including two excellent goals in the League Cup final. Also arriving was Nathan Redmond in place of Sadio Mané and his performances this season have seen him finish as the club’s top goalscorer with 7 strikes; earning himself a place in the senior England squad for the first time in his career. A strong late showing against Germany has hinted it may not be the last time too.
In the midst of all of this speculation, Puel can rightly point to his record this season. In a league that broke into two mini-leagues, with 15 points separating 7th and 8th, it must be remembered that Southampton finished in 8th place; arguably the highest they could have hoped for and this was achieved without the services of Virgil van-Dijk and Charlie Austin for large periods. They were never likely to rival the top seven with many of the clubs finishing beneath them last season experiencing serious rejuvenations. Jurgen Klopp had settled into the job and led Liverpool back into the Champions League, Antonio Conte managed to completely reverse Chelsea’s fortunes to steer them to a second title in three years and most painfully, in the case of Everton, Ronald Koeman breathed fresh life into the Toffees after a disappointing season under Roberto Martinez. The argument is not that Southampton have gone backwards but others have moved forwards.
He also led his side to the League Cup final, one in which they were very unlucky to lose. If Manolo Gabbiadini’s early goal hadn’t been ruled out for offside, which looked clearly to be the wrong decision, then things could have been so different. As it turned out, the Saints showed great resilience to bounce back from that disappointment and going 2-0 down to level the scores but were undone by a piece of magic from Zlatan Ibrahimović in the 87th minute. A very unlucky game for the Saints and if things had worked out differently then Puel could well have ended the season with a trophy and European football for his efforts.
For all the success in the League Cup, there are plenty of factors that point to the fact that Southampton have not had a good season. After last year’s disappointment of losing in the Europa League playoff round, the Saints were looking as if they had put that to bed. However, after the high of beating European giants Inter Milan at St Mary’s had put them on course to progress from their group. They stumbled to defeat away at Sparta Prague and could only draw at home to Israeli side Hapeol Be’er Sheva to see a Last 32 spot slip through their fingers.
As for the Premier League, the club finished on 46 points, a whopping 17 down on last season’s total and instead of a respectable 8th, last season, that total would have only been good enough for a 12th place finish, just nine points above relegation. Last season’s 18 wins gave way to just 12 this, with five of those converted into defeats. Notable low points were the 3-0 losses to strugglers Hull and Crustal Palace as well as the evaporation of points against the top six sides. The Saints only claimed four out of a possible 36 points from these games, with no victories. With little to shout about in the league, it was a painful slide into mediocrity that was largely masked by the competitive nature of the league and the regression of others.
As for transfers, there were a lot of mystifying calls in the summer with most of the new recruits left struggling for game time. Jeremy Pied was robbed of almost the entirety of the season with a knee injury but reports in France suggest his signing was merely a nod to his familiarity with Puel rather than any footballing ability to play in the Premier League, time will have to tell on that one. As for the ones who made it onto the pitch, Pierre Højbjerg made just 14 league starts, record £16 signing Sofiane Boufal was given just 12 starts, while experienced Uruguayan centre-half Martin Cáceres was handed just one appearance following his February arrival at a club with serious problems in the position. As for the three goalkeepers brought in over the course of the season, neither Alex McCarthy, Mouez Hassan nor Stuart Taylor saw any minutes at all. Many fans were left wondering what the point of many of these big money signings were, a sentiment surely echoed by the player themselves and the money men on the club’s board.
This is where most of the complaints about Puel’s tenure emanate from. Puel came in with a reputation for pragmatic football and that has not gone down with the St Mary’s faithful. Goals have dried up at an alarming rate for the Saints. Last season saw the Saints score 59 league goals at an average of 1.55 goals a game match. Whereas, this season, the figure has fallen to just 41 league goals at 1.07 goals a game. The club failed to score in a frustrating 13 league matches this season and in an additional 12, they managed just the single goal. This baron run includes failing to score in six of the last seven homes games, including all of the last five. It is a damning indictment of Southampton’s striking woes that Charlie Austin, a man who missed five months of the season, finished as the club’s second highest scorer with six league goals.
His decision making has also frequently frustrated the St Mary’s faithful as jeers can often be heard around the time of substitutions. Particularly in the final game at home to Stoke, with the Saints trailing 1-0 with just five minutes to go, star-midfielder James Ward-Prowse was brought off for right-back Jeremy Pied, a man who had barely played all season. As too was the decision to make 11 changes to the side ahead of Arsenal’s visit in the FA Cup fourth round. The decision was seen as a complete surrender from Puel and predictably, Arsenal ran out easy 5-0 winners. All of this resulted in barely half of the 31,000 in attendance staying to applaud the team following the conclusion of the season.
This general apathy surrounding the team shines a light on the abject nature of many of Southampton’s performances, particularity at home. Many times, fans turn up and are greeted with insipid performances with little to no clear cut chances created. Southampton possess the 17th best home record, ahead of only Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Sunderland and it is this that Puel should be most concerned about. The persistence with a system that hasn’t working has cost his side this season and while he may point to league position and Cup final, this should not be allowed to cover over the cracks. On the whole, the transfers, bar a few hits, have not been good enough, the club failed to progress in a weak Europa League group and were propelled up the table by the fall of others rather than their own successes.
Should he be given next season to turn things around? Football is often criticised for being too harsh but this tim, it’s the way it has to be. Puel has not shown enough to convince fans he can turn the league form around next season. With reports suggesting St Étienne are interested in his services, I advise him to pursue this, as this season should be his one and only one in English football.