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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.

PL Sunday preview: Wayward Watford welcome woeful West Ham

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In a reversal of roles, based on preseason projections at least, Watford welcome West Ham United to Vicarage Road on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) for a clash of mid-table climbers and relegation fighters, respectively.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man Utd, Chelsea win big… so do Man City ]

Watford began the 2017-18 Premier League season in fine form, winning four of their first eight games and losing just one (to runaway leaders Manchester City, no less). In their last three games, however, the Hornets have conceded eight goals, while scoring just four themselves, and winning zero points. Coincidentally — nor not, perhaps — that three-game slide began at the same time Watford manager Marco Silva‘s name was linked with the vacant manager’s job at Everton. With Ronald Koeman fired almost four weeks ago now, Watford have rejected approach after approach from Everton owner Farhad Moshiri. Silva, for his first three months of efforts, has been roundly praised by the club’s supporters and players alike.

“Everybody could see he changed a lot of things in the team. We had quite a lot of the same players but we improved a lot,” defender Christian Kabasele said this week. “When you have somebody like this and other teams are looking for him it’s important that Watford try to do everything possible to keep him.”

West Ham, meanwhile, started the season poorly and have remained equally so in recent weeks. Slaven Bilic was subsequently fired two weeks and succeeded by David Moyes, who had been out of a job since guiding Sunderland to relegation at the end of last season. Sunday’s bout with Watford will see Moyes make his debut for West Ham, the fourth club to employ him since leaving Everton four and a half years ago. To make matters more difficult, the Hammers’ leading scorer, Javier Hernandez (4 goals), won’t be available after picking up an injury on international duty.

“It’s a clean slate for the entire squad,” Moyes said last week. “They’ve all worked very hard this week and responded in a positive manner to everything we’ve asked of them. It will obviously take time for the players to fully understand our style and methods but the initial signs are very encouraging — they’ve bought in what we are trying to do and that’s a good base for us to build on.”

INJURIES: Watford — OUT: Troy Deeney (suspension), Nathaniel Chalobah (knee), Isaac Success (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Younes Kaboul (hamstring), Sebastian Prodl (hamstring), Roberto Pereyra (hamstring) | West Ham — OUT: Javier Hernandez (hamstring), James Collins (ankle), Sam Byram (thigh), Jose Fonte (foot); QUESTIONABLE: Michail Antonio (ribs)

The 2 Robbies: North London Painted Red

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In today’s pod, the Robbies heap praise on Arsenal’s impressive performance in the North London Derby (00:30), analyze Manchester United’s 4-1 win against Newcastle on the back of Paul Pogba’s return (10:00), ask if this Man City side is the best Premier League side ever (18:25), debate where Kevin De Bruyne’s current form ranks in the league’s greatest ever players (23:45) and pick the best summer signing so far this season (27:15; hint, hint – he might be leading the league in scoring).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Draw in Madrid derby puts Barca 10 clear of capital rivals

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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid played to a scoreless draw in their first derby at the new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on Saturday, leaving both teams further away from Spanish league leader Barcelona.

Barcelona won at Leganes 3-0 earlier and ended the day 10 points in front of both Madrid clubs after 12 matches. The thriving Catalan club is seven points in front of second-place Valencia, which will try to extend its seven-game winning streak at Espanyol on Sunday.

The draw extended Atletico’s winless run at its new home to five matches. It drew three straight entering this weekend. Diego Simeone’s team has won only two of its last 10 games in all competitions.

Both teams will have to remain nearly perfect for the rest of the season to try to catch up to Barcelona, which has won 11 of its 12 league matches.

It was a tense between Real and Atletico from the start, with hard fouls from both sides.

Real had control for most of the game but was not able to create many significant chances.

Atletico had one of its best opportunities early when forward Angel Correa entered the area free from markers with only goalkeeper Kiko Casilla to beat but sent his shot wide.

Substitute Kevin Gameiro also came close in the second half, but his shot over Casilla was cleared by Real defender Raphael Varane in front of the goal-line.

Real threatened with a few runs by Isco and a couple of free kicks taken by Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was another tough night for Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann. Ronaldo has scored six times in the Champions league but only once in La Liga, while Griezmann has only three goals in 14 matches with Atletico in all competitions. The France forward was jeered when he was replaced by Fernando Torres near the end of the second half.

Luis Suarez scored twice to end a five-match scoring drought in Barcelona’s win.

The Uruguay striker found the net in each half and substitute midfielder Paulinho scored late to give the Catalan club its 11th win.

Leganes, ninth in the standings, had its chances early in southern Madrid but couldn’t beat Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Suarez opened the scoring in the 28th after Leganes goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar dropped the ball in front of the goal after a cross by Paco Alcacer. Suarez’s second in the 60th was a rebound shot after Cuellar parried a shot by Lionel Messi. Suarez hadn’t scored in more than a month.

“What mattered to me was that I was feeling good and was helping the team, and today the goals helped us get the three points against a difficult rival,” Suarez said. “We always try to play better, but it’s not always possible.”

Paulinho sealed the victory in the 90th after a pass by Messi, who was on the ground fighting for the ball when he tipped it back to the midfielder.

Leganes, playing only in its second season in the first division, wore a specially designed purple shirt to promote the fight against gender violence.

“We had our opportunities, but in the end we knew that we were playing against the best team in the world, and with very little they can score on you,” Leganes midfielder Ruben Perez said.

Sevilla recovered from its loss to Barcelona in the previous round by beating Celta Vigo 2-1 to move back to fifth place.

Celta got on the board first through Maxi Gomez, but the hosts rallied with goals by Luis Muriel in the first half and Nolito in the second.

It was the fourth win in five matches for Sevilla in all competitions.

Markel Bergara and Jorge Molina scored in the first 10 minutes to lead Getafe to a comfortable 4-1 win over Alaves at home.

It was the 10th league loss for Alaves, which remains in 18th place. Getafe is 10th.

“Our performance was embarrassing,” Alaves coach Gianni De Biasi said.

Bundesliga: Bayern running away (again) after slow start

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BERLIN (AP) Robert Lewandowski scored twice to help Bayern Munich stretch its lead in the Bundesliga to six points with a 3-0 defeat of Bavarian rival Augsburg on Saturday.

It was the 500th league win for Jupp Heynckes as a player or coach and extends the 72-year-old’s winning start to eight games across all competitions since he returned for his fourth stint.

“That’s a surprise for me. I don’t bother with statistics and numbers,” Heynckes said on being told about his winning landmark. “But it’s an impressive number (500). I had a long career as a player, and now as a coach. It wasn’t planned.”

Heynckes was coaxed out of retirement to take over from the fired Carlo Ancelotti on Oct. 5. Bayern was trailing then-leader Borussia Dortmund by five points at the time. Now the side is nine points ahead of Dortmund, which hasn’t won in the league since Sept. 30, and six ahead of Leipzig, held to a draw at Bayer Leverkusen.

Bayern midfielder Arturo Vidal broke the deadlock after half an hour, swiveling to fire home the rebound from a difficult angle after Mats Hummels’s effort was blocked and the ball ricocheted off Niklas Suele.

Vidal turned provider seven minutes later, playing Lewandowski through on a counterattack to shoot past Marwin Hitz.

The Poland striker claimed his league-leading 13th goal of the season early in the second half with a perfectly struck volley to Joshua Kimmich’s precise long cross from the right.

Vidal headed against the crossbar just afterward before Bayern conserved energy for Wednesday’s Champions League game at Anderlecht.

The win stretched the side’s unbeaten record to 28 games at home.

Winless Cologne’s terrible start to the league continued with its 10th defeat in 12 games, while the discussion over video assistance in the league will continue after two mistakes by referee Felix Brych.

Daniel Brosinski’s penalty before the break was enough for a 1-0 win for Mainz against Cologne, but how it came about will ensure the controversy over video assistance goes on.

Brych pointed to the spot when Pablo De Blasis fell under Frederik Sorensen’s challenge. He then consulted the video assistant, who had the benefit of studying replays in Cologne, and stood by the decision – despite television showing that Sorensen made hardly any contact with the Mainz player.

Brych later sent off Mainz’s Giulio Donati for what he perceived as striking Leon Bittencourt after a tussle between the two. However, Bittencourt’s foot struck Donati in the face beforehand. Donati, who was lying on the pitch clutching his face, brushed the Cologne player away when he went to lift him up.

Following controversial decisions in previous games, the German soccer federation said video assistants were only to step in when there was “a clear wrong decision.”

Ten-man Leverkusen came from behind to salvage a 2-2 draw at home against second-place Leipzig.

Timo Werner’s early penalty put the visitors in front before Leon Bailey equalized before the break.

The home side’s hopes took a blow when Benjamin Henrichs was sent off for handball on the line and Emil Forsberg scored the resulting penalty, but Kevin Volland equalized again with a quarter-hour remaining.

Wolfsburg defeated Freiburg 3-1 at home to give coach Martin Schmidt his first win after he started with seven draws.

On loan from Bayern, Serge Gnabry did brilliantly to set up Mark Uth for Hoffenheim’s injury-time equalizer in a 1-1 draw with visiting Eintracht Frankfurt.