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Why Southampton should consider keeping Claude Puel

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It has all gone quiet at Southampton. But for how long?

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Media speculation has been rampant over the past few weeks that Claude Puel, Southampton’s first-year manager, would be shown the exit door at St Mary’s this summer amid fan unrest about the style of play and their regression from a team challenging for the top six.

But, even in these times where fans demand instant success and patience is severely lacking, is that really the right answer?

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Puel, 55, delivered an eighth place finish, the fourth-straight season Southampton have finished eighth or higher, which is the first time they’ve achieved that feat in club history.

Yet many supporters point to the fact that Southampton finished just five points above Swansea City who finished in 15th place, plus they complain about Puel’s dull demeanor in his press conference as he struggles to express himself in English. He is a figure which truly divides the fanbase between those wanting him fired and those wiling to give him another chance.

Saints are a club who finished in a higher league position in seven-straight seasons before this campaign, so perhaps the vast majority of the fanbase have become too accustomed to overachieving and this reality check was always on the horizon.

A top 10 finish and a cup run should always be a superb season for a club of Southampton’s size but fans want more. With talk of a potential Chinese takeover this summer, they want to dream that they can push for a top six finish and qualify for Europe each season and aren’t sure Puel is the right man to deliver it.

That’s fair enough, but when you dissect the entire season and the key stats which came from it, getting rid of Puel seems incredibly hasty. He had many unfortunate obstacles to overcome in his first season in England and it’s unlikely he’ll have so much to deal with next season, and possibly beyond.

Club captain Jose Fonte was sold midway through the season after a disagreement with directors, while leading scorer Charlie Austin (yes, he was out since December but still finished top scorer, with nine) was injured for five months in early December and star center back Virgil Van Dijk was also injured in January as it ended his season. Along with all of this Puel had to deal with Saints’ first-ever Europa League group stage campaign and the agony of missing out on the knockout stages by one goal.

The constant chopping and changing of the team dominated Puel’s reign in the early months as he made 97 lineup changes throughout the season. Only Manchester City and Manchester United made more in the PL in 2016-17. Perhaps one of the major criticisms was that he tinkered too much to try and keep his squad fresh as they pushed to qualify for the Europa League knockout stage, with the previous high-tempo style of play impossible to replicate across a 53 game season.

Hence the slower pace of play which frustrated many fans and perhaps failed to get the best out of a team built by Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman to play a fast, high-pressing style, which in turn led to reports of many senior players unhappy at the tactics deployed by the Frenchman.

Another big factor of the rotation was reaching the EFL Cup final where Saints, again, agonizingly came up short as they lost 3-2 to Manchester United at Wembley in a game which they should have won.

In the Premier League his team scored just 17 goals in 19 home games with no goals in any of their final five home games of the season which led to fans booing and plenty calling for Puel to be fired. But if you look a little deeper, the chances are being created but with Austin out, Manolo Gabbiadini‘s hot streak over after his initial burst and the duo of Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez failing to step up, Saints’ shot conversion rate was the lowest in the PL.

That’s right, Southampton converted just 7.47 percent of the 549 shots that had at goal, which was the seventh-highest number of shot attempts in the PL. Saints created chances but could Puel really do much about his players not converting them? It sounds simplistic, but think about it. With Austin back fit next season, plus Gabbiadini and Sofiane Boufal acclimatized to life in England, will this shot conversion rate really be this low again?

Saints also had two players in the PL’s top 18 in terms of chances created, Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond, and away from home they had the seventh best record but had the 17th best record at home, suggesting their prowess as a counter-attacking team. Had Saints scored penalty kicks against Hull City and Manchester United in two of their final three home games then they would have finished more comfortably in eighth place and had a much better home record.

Small margins.

Southampton also had the second youngest starting XI in the PL at 26 years and 169 days, with Redmond and James Ward-Prowse making their full England debuts, plus no PL club had more than Saints’ seven players in the full and U-21 England teams when they were announced at the end of the season.

As well as English talent like Sam McQueen, Ward-Prowse, Redmond and Jack Stephena improving drastically, Puel helped the likes of Oriol Romeu, Maya Yoshida and Cedric Soares reach new heights too. It shouldn’t be all doom and gloom and Puel is a man who can deliver steady progression at a club which lost its past two managers, Pochettino and Koeman, to bigger teams in the PL just when it appeared they were on the verge of great things at St Mary’s.

Another reason to keep the faith, for at least another season, is the fact that wherever Puel has been he has delivered improved results beyond his first season. There’s a hope he can do that at Southampton, especially without the extra rigors of European action next season.

He took charge of AS Monaco in January 1999 and they won the French title in May 2000. He took charge of Lille in 2002 and improved them from 14th to 10th to 2nd place finishes in his first three seasons at the club. Puel spent six seasons at Lille and helped the likes of Eden Hazard and Yohan Cabaye break into the team.

In 2008 he took charge of Lyon and in his second full season he took the French outfit to the UEFA Champions League semifinal for just the first time in club history, plus Hugo Lloris and others broke through under his guidance. In 2012 he took charge of Nice and in his first season he led them to fourth in Ligue 1 (their highest Ligue 1 finish since 1976), then did it once again in 2015-16 with 17th and 11th place finishes in-between. The Nice team he left behind last season just finished third in Ligue 1.

All of this proves that Puel can improve teams given time.

What is Saints’ alternative to Puel? Some reports suggest Marco Silva would be the main man but he appears to be joining Watford after impressing at Hull City, while the names of Slavisa Jokanovic and Alan Pardew have also been mentioned as potential replacements.

Do Southampton really want to become a club know for hiring and firing managers after a season which presented plenty of challenges but still ended up with a top half finish, a decent run in Europe and a EFL Cup final appearance?

If Saints put faith in Puel, he may just surprise everyone. Of course, like every manager, he needs a bit of luck to drop his way but fans calling for his head should think clearly about what the alternative would be.

Klopp reveals love for Anfield, Liverpool’s goal in victory

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With the Phillipe Coutinho situation compounded by shaky defensive displays, it hasn’t been too much fun for Liverpool fans recently.

Jurgen Klopp thanked Liverpool’s fans for delivering a fine atmosphere at Anfield to get a much-changed Liverpool side over the line against Crystal Palace.

[ MORE: Mourinho – “Let horses run freely” ]

With a UEFA Champions League playoff second leg against Hoffenheim on Wednesday coming up, also at Anfield, Klopp rested five players for the game against Palace.

Frank De Boer‘s side had won on their last three visits to Anfield in the Premier League and although former Liverpool striker Christian Benteke missed a glorious chance went it was 0-0, Sadio Mane score the game-winner in a dogged Liverpool display.

There was no doubt who was the hero for Klopp: “Anfield helps a lot I think today it was the difference.”

Getting into more depth about his teams display, Klopp was pleased with the defensive display and Liverpool’s patience as well as lauding the scrappy nature of their game-winner as substitute Dominic Solanke made an impact and Mane pounced.

“It was a hard job to do,” Klopp admitted. “I have no idea how much we had the ball but it was a lot. We need to be creative and we had our moments in the first half and we knew we had to be a little more patient and we have to switch the sides again because they were quite deep and defended well but we had the moment and didn’t score, but didn’t give a lot of counter attacks away. Second half we adjusted a little bit and did it better.

“The first part of the second half was really good but how it is, we’ve had games like this, against Crystal Palace already, where one counter attack kills you. We were really awake, concentrated in these situations and defender well. Then you have to… I loved the goal, to be honest. We could have scored more but I love the goal because it wasn’t a clear situation, it was a counter-pressing situation. Dom [Solanke] is awake to get his foot in so Sadio can score the easy goal in the end. We had other chances where we could have scored more often. It was difficult but I am completely happy with how the boys did the job today.”

Sadio Mane popped up when Liverpool needed him and with the Coutinho saga rumbling on — Liverpool turned down a $145 million bid from Barcelona on Friday — Liverpool proved they can not only continue to create chances in attack without Coutinho but also proved they can defend better than they have been with defenders Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno and Trent Alexander-Arnold all rested on Saturday.

Klopp will need another balanced display this week to get Liverpool past Hoffenheim and into the UCL group stage, and he will need another lively atmosphere from the Anfield faithful to help get his team over the line.

Brace-bagging Chicharito soured by officiating at St. Mary’s

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West Ham United nearly pulled off a stunning comeback with 10 men, a late concession making Javier Hernandez’s two-goal day a little less sunny.

The ex-Manchester United man scored in both halves for his first scoring match day in the Premier League since 2014.

[ RECAP: Saints 3-2 West Ham ]

The first came after teammate Marko Arnautovic was sent off for an elbow, while Chicharito’s second marker was followed by Southampton earning its second penalty kick of the match when Pablo Zabaleta interfered with Maya Yoshida‘s attempted header in the box.

Hernandez was not pleased that the Hammers’ game effort down a man went for nothing on the table. From the BBC:

“When you are running most of the game with 10 men, the penalty decision is harsh. We spoke about Marko Arnautovic’s sending off, it is not completely a red card.

“It shows the character of this team that we do not give up. You have to look at the positives and to look forward. It is hard with 11 men but with 10 men it is even harder. I gained motivation and confidence and happy I scored two but the result is what stays in your head.”

Both goals were classic Chicharito, as the relentless Mexican striker was on the scene to beat his marker to two rebounds. West Ham now sits bottom of the Premier League table through two matches.

Burnley 0-1 West Brom: Robson-Kanu scores, sent-off in win

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  • Robson-Kanu scores, sent off
  • Burnley outshoots WBA 18-8
  • Baggies complete just 100 passes

Hal Robson-Kanu‘s late goal helped West Bromwich Albion to a bit of smash-and-grab at Turf Moor, where the Baggies beat Burnley 1-0 on Saturday to improve to 2-0 on the young season.

Robson-Kanu did his best Cristiano Ronaldo, scoring as a substitute and then getting a red card to doom his team to 10 men.

Tony Pulis almost out-did his stingy self, as West Brom completed 253 less passes than the hosts.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Burnley was better early, middle, and late, as Sam Vokes cued up Johann Berg Gudmundsson for a shot that fizzed just wide, and then Gudmundsson was stopped by Foster moments later.

Matt Phillips helped set the table for Robson-Kanu’s goal, winning a 50-50 ball into the path of the Welsh striker.

Robson-Kanu then bodied the ball around some poor Burnley defending and then beat Tom Heaton on a ball he normally manages to handle well.

The striker was then sent-off in the 83rd minute for an elbow to the head Matt Lowton.

 

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Bournemouth 0-2 Watford: Hornets sting late to nab win

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  • Richarlison scores 1st Hornets goal
  • Capoue makes it 2-0
  • Hornets out-attempt AFCB 20-6

Two goals in the final quarter-hour, one from new signing Richarlison, helped Watford to a 2-0 win over hosts Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday.

Etienne Capoue scored Watford’s second goal with an 86th minute marker.

Bournemouth is one of four clubs so far to start with zero points through two matches. Watford has four points, ahead of Liverpool and Southampton on goal differential.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Watford’s Tom Cleverley had a chance early that Nathan Ake blocked, and then Benik Afobe‘s in-tight finish was blocked by a sliding Miguel Britos.

Andre Gray burst down the right of the box to cut left for Richarlison, and the Brazilian collected a second chance while prone to make it 1-0 to the Hornets.

Capoue made it 2-0 with a low rocket in the 86th minute, giving Marco Silva‘s men insurance after collecting Steve Cook‘s softly headed clearing attempt.

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