PL Playback: Style over substance?

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STYLISTIC WAR TAKES CENTER STAGE

Do you just want to win? Or does it matter more about how you try to win?

With Manchester City taking on Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League in midweek and then Manchester United in the Premier League this Saturday (in case you’ve been living under a rock, a win for City against their crosstown rivals clinches the Premier League title), this topic is at the forefront of conversation.

Especially as Jose Mourinho (shock: he’s firmly in the substance camp) wants people to focus on which teams have the most points rather than how they play.

“We deserve to finish second no matter what the critics say. You all say the teams in third, fourth, fifth and sixth are all better than us, but they are not better than us. We have more points than them. We are going to fight in the seven matches we have left to go to finish second,” Mourinho said.

This argument of who is the “better” team has been a growing theme throughout this season and it is as divisive as it is confusing. You can go around in circles analyzing the team who has the most possession, creates the most chances and runs the furthest at the highest intensity. Every stat imaginable to understand if a team is good to watch or is more economical in winning.

But what does it all mean if you don’t win a trophy?

Defending his defensive, pragmatic tactics which have been hammered by United’s fans and pundits due to the talented attacking players at his disposal, Mourinho is fully aware that results over romance keep you in a managerial job longer.

Or do they?

When you look around the Premier League, specifically at the other teams in the top six, there’s a real argument to be had that teams and owners are now settling for a few seasons of up and down results if they’re going to stick with a manager and his ideology and build something sustainable, something which is admired across the globe and a style of play which is instantly recognizable.

Look at Guardiola. Look at Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. Look at Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. And, in a more extreme case, look at Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. They’re clever (or lucky) because they’re in situations where they are getting time to deliver and they continue to just give everyone enough hope that all of this sexy play will amount to a trophy, or a deep run in the Champions League or a title bid.

The aforementioned managers have all been afforded time, and in the case of Guardiola, Klopp and Wenger (to a certain extent), vast resources to build teams that not only win games but also entertain while they’re doing it.

That is still the key. You need to win. But it is now becoming more about how stylish you are than just grinding out victories.

Klopp and Pochettino are now three years and four years into their respective projects and only now is more pressure being applied to Liverpool and Tottenham needing to win something and have something sustainable to show for their high energy, fluid and highly entertaining brand of play. They have both turned their clubs into top four regulars who are competing at Europe’s too table and impressing.

But what is next? What happens when beautiful play doesn’t yield something tangible?

Wenger has been fighting with that for decades and no matter what you say about his recent seasons, Arsenal are still fun to watch most weeks with Mesut Ozil pulling the strings and a host of attack-minded players put in the same team.

Then on the other side of the coin you have Mourinho and his successor at Chelsea, Antonio Conte. Both have won a Premier League title in the last three years (both at Chelsea) but both are under pressure for defensive tactics and perhaps being too negative with the players they have at their disposal. At the current time Conte is on his way out at Chelsea and despite Mourinho having signed a new long-term deal at United, it doesn’t seem unlikely that next season may be his last at Old Trafford given his penchant for losing the plot in his third season pretty much wherever he goes.

This season Conte and Mourinho have been criticized publicly for their defensive, pragmatic approach but has it harmed their reputations? Will questions about the supposed lack of progress at United and Chelsea (their defeat to Tottenham accelerated this talk) stop them from getting jobs elsewhere?

Nope.

Conte and Mourinho have boatloads of trophies to back up their choices to build from the back and turn their backs on a risk-reward approach. That is why Conte will get another job easily at a top European club when his inevitable exit from Chelsea occurs in the next few months. Pochettino doesn’t have trophies. Klopp has two Bundesliga titles to his name but the last was almost six years ago.

Guardiola is a trophy winning machine and the outlier in all of this.

He plays attractive, easy to watch soccer and wins trophies too. City weren’t great to watch last season but they had a plan. City invested in Pep’s ideas and gave him the resources to make it happen as they chucked veteran defenders on the scrapheap after seeing if they could adapt and then allowed his project to take shape by signing players who could understand his masterplan.

Mourinho is now under more pressure at United because Guardiola is doing what he does (deliver trophies) in style. That will be in plain sight at the Etihad Stadium this weekend when the first and second place team collide with vastly different playing styles and 16 points separating the two.

In an age where we are fixated on not only winning but winning in the best way and being entertained, it is clear that winning is no longer good enough.

If being entertained on a weekly basis slows down the rate of winning but makes you go home with a smile on your face, is that better than grinding out a plethora of 1-0 victories in a season and being crowned champions? What happens if the success never arrives?

For the moment it seems that style is winning the battle over substance in the Premier League.


SHAMBOLIC SOUTHAMPTON “ASHAMED”

This is a clear case of players thinking they are too good to go down. Too talented to roll up their sleeves and scrap. Too egotistical to put the need of the team before their own ambitions.

We’ve all heard the term “they are too good to go down.”

Those teams never are and that is the main reason why Southampton are in a shambolic situation.

New Saints manager Mark Hughes looked shocked during his first Premier League game in charge as a team full of internationals lost 3-0 at West Ham United (they were 3-0 down at half time) to keep themselves in the relegation zone and two points from safety with seven games to go.

Dusan Tadic summed up the severity of the situation Saints find themselves in as they still have Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester, Everton and Man City to play and will probably need to win three more games.

“We feel ashamed. It is a very bad feeling and we have to take responsibility. It is just our mistakes, it is not the mistake of somebody else. We need to be men. We need to take responsibility and to know what kind of situation we are in. And we are in a tough situation,” Tadic said. “I have been here when we have had the best results of all time for Southampton and personally I feel very ashamed. I think this is one of the worst moments of my career and it is a tough moment. But we have to show we are men. We need to fight. Every game you play you try to win. But obviously something is wrong. By this I mean something with me and all the players. It is not the fault of the coach, it is not the fault of the fans. It is not the fault of anyone else. It is just our fault. We should be ashamed that we are in this kind of situation.”

Fair play to Tadic for fronting this up as two abject displays on the spin against relegation rivals (Saints lost 3-0 at Newcastle before the international break) were devoid of passion and desire at a pivotal stage of the season.

Sadly, this is no surprise. How much longer could Southampton’s policy of selling their best players each summer then replacing them with younger, cheaper, supposedly hungrier players go on? It couldn’t last forever and whispers around the South Coast club suggest that two of the big summer signings in Wesley Hoedt and Mario Lemina have upset the balance of the dressing room and sum up the newfound issues threatening to wreck eight years of incredible progress for Southampton.

It is unfair to point the finger of blame at just two players but the board, led by Les Reed on the sporting side, have to take a large chunk of the blame too. They have allowed this situation to develop and fester. By not keeping Claude Puel in charge last summer and not sacking Mauricio Pellegrino sooner than eight games of a season to go they have badly mismanaged this situation.

Mismanagement is not something you could label Southampton of for most of the last decade. Which is why this is so shocking and scream complacency.

Their journey from the bottom of the third tier in 2009 to four-straight top eight finishes in the Premier League, two Europa League campaigns back-to-back and a League Cup final defeat has been magnificent and shows how a strong academy and a detailed and persistent recruitment plan can lead to success. Before this season you would have said Saints were the poster boys of how to run a stable, profitable club. Now they’re in danger of slipping to the second tier and unless they spring some surprise results in the finals weeks of the season against Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City then they have to be the favorites for the drop along with West Brom (already gone, let’s be honest) and Stoke City (on their way down) as three bastions of midtable PL success will be lost to relegation.

With the wage bill said to have grown to over $130 million per season at Southampton, parachute payments aside, they will be in danger of having to sell off their entire squad and start against in the Championship if they go down.

Saints’ only saving grace is that other teams around them in the table have either played a game more than them or are bang out of form.

Southampton have not only entered the last chance saloon to save themselves. They’ve been wandering around it aimlessly for the past few months avoiding the obvious. It may be too late for them now.


JOSE MOURINHO JR. ON THE BENCH FOR UNITED

You may not have heard of Zuca. He was on the bench for Manchester United on Saturday during their 2-0 win against Swansea City.

Zuca is, of course, better known as Jose Mourinho Jr.

Mourinho’s son, 18, was spotted on United’s bench for the game at Old Trafford wearing a tracksuit which had the initial ZM on them as the 18-year-old undertook “work experience” as part of United’s staff.

Up until last season Zuca was in Fulham’s academy and although he has fallen out of the professional setup as a player, it is believed the goalkeeper could still have a future in the game.

Maybe it will be as an assistant to his father…


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Shambolic Southampton hurtling towards relegation

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For so long they’ve been the poster boys of how to run a Premier League club.

An academy envied around the globe. A sell high, buy low player recruitment policy which has worked superbly. Overachieving season after season. Plucking managerial gems from overseas to work wonders. Europa League campaigns. Cup runs. Everything they’ve done has gone smoothly with four-straight top eight finishes in the PL table.

Until now. With just one win in their last 18 Premier League games, Southampton are staring relegation in the face in one of the biggest surprises of the current Premier League campaign.

But when you look at Southampton right now, should we be this surprised?

The South Coast club are hurtling towards relegation as their increasingly shambolic season hit a new low on Saturday in the 3-0 defeat at West Ham with players not only looking out of their depth but also showing a distinct lack of desire in a pivotal moment.

With seven games to go Saints occupy the final relegation place and despite everything they’re just two points from safety. They may still get out of this but it will likely be down to the poor form of Crystal Palace, Huddersfield and Swansea rather than their own good form in the final months of the season as they face five of the current top nine in their remaining games.

In his first Premier League game in charge of Southampton, Mark Hughes saw his team roll over early on and lose 3-0. It was the second game in a row Southampton had lost 3-0 to direct relegation rivals and they are running out of chances to save themselves from being relegated from the Premier League for just the second time in club history.

On the face of it, their squad has the talent to easily be sitting in midtable but with 13 draws (the most in the PL this season) they’ve often seemed scared to be positive and take the game to their opponents. On paper they should be battling Leicester, Everton and Watford to finish in seventh or eighth place. But something isn’t right. They are a nice team to watch, at teams, with plenty of possession and sideways passes but there is not cutting edge, no drive and no real purpose to their player.

Too often it appears that their players are drifting, going through the motions and living off the success of the past few seasons when everyone exclaimed: “What a wonderful season from Southampton. How did they came doing this?”

This squad which has been so hungry for success over the past six years since Saints were promoted back to the Premier League seem to have suddenly lost their appetite. With long-term contracts dished out to Fraser Forster, Jack Stephens, Ryan Bertrand, Cedric Soares, Oriol Romeu and others, it appears this Saints team are in cruise control as huge deals were handed out mostly as a reward for performances in the past few seasons. The players must take most of the blame.

But the fans and board also have to take their share of their blame. Claude Puel was fired last season amid plenty of fan unrest for finishing in eighth place and reaching a cup final because his team were “too boring” to watch. How costly could that unrest prove?

Nothing changed under Puel’s replacement, Mauricio Pellegrino, who was fired at the start of this month after just five wins in 30 PL games. And nothing appears to be changing quickly under Hughes. You can question the desire of this group, but maybe they aren’t as good as we think. The sacking of two managers on the spin by the board in the expectation that some kind of miracle turnaround will occur must also be questioned.

Quite simply the culture of endlessly selling on their best players for huge profits, then replacing them with young, hungry players from elsewhere in Europe, has come back to bite them. Hard.

Nathan Redmond was supposed to be the direct replacement for Sadio Mane. He hasn’t been anywhere near Mane’s level. Wesley Hoedt came in as Virgil Van Dijk‘s replacement and has since lost his place in the Dutch squad for his shaky displays. Charlie Austin replaced Graziano Pelle but has been injured most of his time at Saints. Victor Wanyama was replaced by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Mario Lemina who were both at fault for the first two goals at West Ham.

When you start to add all of that up, it starts to make sense why Southampton are in the position they’re in. They no longer have a clear playing identity. Their recruitment team have stopped unearthing gems for relative peanuts. Their academy has stopped churning out ready-made internationals a la Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana.

Austin, Saints’ top scorer this season with six goals, returned from a three-month injury layoff on Saturday and looked stunned when speaking to the media after the defeat at West Ham.

“It just wasn’t good enough and we got what we deserved,” Austin said. “Seven games left, we’ve got to get out of this hole. We’ve given ourselves a massive mountain to climb now. We’ve got the players to do it but off that performance, we need to improve fast. We need to win and we need to win fast. That is it.”

Austin sounded hollow when he said he believed in this current set of players and the new management team to turn this around.

Saints have Arsenal away, Chelsea at home and Leicester away in their next three Premier League games, with the distraction of an FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea at Wembley on Apr. 22 also looming.

They simply have to cause upsets, just like they used to in the past at their tight, atmospheric home at the Dell as during the 1990s they pulled off great escape after great escape as one of the smallest clubs in the Premier League. Their current manager Hughes was part of some of those Saints teams and he needs to instill some kind of spirit, some kind of togetherness in a squad of international caliber players who seem to think they are too good to be playing in a team battling against relegation.

For Hughes, his first 45 minutes in charge of Saints in the Premier League was a horror show as he admitted the performance “surprised him greatly” given what he had seen in training since he took over.

“It maybe emphasized some of the problems the team has had of late in this season. We’re going to have to turn it around very quickly,” Hughes said. “We are running out of games. There has to be an understanding that we are in trouble here and we need to turn it around quickly.”

Among the players there doesn’t seem to be an understanding, or a realization, of the deep trouble they are in. Only games against Bournemouth and Swansea in their final seven outings represent realistic chances to gain points to save themselves.

The last time Southampton were relegated from the Premier League, in 2005, they spiraled into financial meltdown and almost went bust as they ended up at the bottom of the third tier on -10 points and were saved by a Swiss billionaire at the last moment. Their fall won’t be as dramatic this time around but these players don’t seem to have grasped the severity of the situation they’re in.

Under Chinese ownership since the start of this season, the Gao Family will not have expected to have bought 80 percent of Southampton for $294 million and see them struggling in the relegation zone.

Nobody did. And especially not the players. Not even now.

That is the biggest problem of them all and one that you can’t see Saints solving in the next seven games.

Southampton’s shambolic season has reached the pivotal juncture. It is now sink or swim time.

Right now you’d bet your mortgage on Saints sinking like a stone towards the second tier.

Ward-Prowse issues Saints rallying cry

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SOUTHAMPTON — James Ward-Prowse is a living, breathing embodiment of the Southampton Way.

Coming through their famed academy, he has been at the club since the age of eight and has now been a key part of their first team since they were promoted back to the Premier League in 2012-13, as well as going on to become a full England international and being the long-time captain of the Three Lions’ U-21 side.

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But the current Southampton Way could soon include relegation from the Premier League with Saints two points from safety with eight games to go as new manager Mark Hughes prepares for an almighty scrap against the drop.

The first of those pivotal games comes at relegation rivals West Ham this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com) with the Hammers just one place and two points above Southampton.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk, Ward-Prowse, 23, knows that this match at the London Stadium falls into the category of a “six-pointer” as Saints are running out of games against direct relegation rivals.

“This is a game that we need to win, for sure,” Ward-Prowse said. “We can’t afford to lose games or draw games because ultimately that’s going to cost us. It may not necessarily be a game of good football or who can play the best football, it is about who can win the game. That doesn’t matter if it’s a scrappy 89th minute goal or a blitzing 4-0 win. We have to win the game and make sure we are solid throughout.”

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Ward-Prowse was speaking at the launch of a Saints exhibition at Southampton’s SeaCity Museum, as a history of the club “We March On: Then and Now” was unveiled as past legends Matt Le Tissier, Mick Channon and others reminisced about the good old times. There was an FA Cup trophy on show and plenty of reminders about Southampton’s remarkable journey back through the leagues as they rose from third-tier of English soccer in a journey which started in 2009, bankrolled by the Libeherr family.

With Saints now securing fourth-straight top eight finishes in the Premier League, plus reaching the League Cup final last season and European action in each of the last two campaigns, Ward-Prowse knows that staying in England’s top-flight is the only thing they can focus on.

However they do it, Saints must stay up.

“It is game by game but we just need to be in the Premier League next season,” Ward-Prowse said. “It doesn’t matter how it comes and we want to play nice football, of course, but we find ourselves in a situation that we are in and we have to reevaluate where we are, where we need to be and what we have to do to get there. We are confident with the manager and the players we have that we can do that.”

As for the new boss, Hughes’ arrival already seems to have had a positive impact on the squad. They beat Wigan Athletic in a FA Cup quarterfinal in his first game in charge and will now play Chelsea in the semi at Wembley next month to try and book a spot in a second major cup final in as many years.

What has been the key message from Hughes so far?

“To be a bit more positive,” Ward-Prowse explained. “For us, we are a good team, and confidence wise over the last few weeks we’ve maybe not been at it but he’s encouraged us to take risks and he has reminded us of the quality that we have got. The training sessions have been intense, they’ve been sharp and there’s been a purpose. It is very exciting looking forward for us.”

With 13 draws this season, the most in the Premier League, Southampton seemed negative and sometimes scared to attack under former manager Mauricio Pellegrino who was replaced with Hughes earlier this month.

Aside from a relegation battle, Ward-Prowse revealed the FA Cup run to the final four has been a welcome distraction for the team.

After losing narrowly to Manchester United in the League Cup final last season, Ward-Prowse, stood close to the only major trophy Southampton have ever won (upsetting United as a second-tier team in the 1976 FA Cup final) is eyeing another trip to a final.

“It is. It gives us something to look forward to. It’s not been a great season so far for us but this gives us a bit of excitement and it is a great distraction. We are all very excited to play our part in what will hopefully be a successful cup run,” Ward-Prowse smiled. “It’s not a game based on three points and it is the magic of the FA Cup. Anything can happen. It’s a game that hopefully we can win to give our fans yet another day out at Wembley. You’ve seen some teams go on great cup runs throughout the years and we can take confidence from last year, the way we applied ourselves in the cup run against Arsenal away and Liverpool away and home particularly, we dominated those games. We can take that going forward.”

But the focus remains fully on staying up. Ward-Prowse, more than most, is well aware of what relegation from the Premier League means and that could perhaps point to his improved form in the opening months of 2018 after a self-confessed slow start to the current campaign.

Ward-Prowse has scored four goals and added two assists since the turn of the year (he hadn’t scored this season before Jan. 6), contributing to more goals than any other Southampton player in that span as he aims to dig them out of the relegation battle they’re in and also has one eye on sneaking into the full England squad for the World Cup this summer.

The local lad has seen how relegation impacts the people in the City of Southampton and those working for the club, and when Ward-Prowse was a youngster in the academy the club went into administration and started the 2009-10 season on -10 points in the third-tier of English soccer.

Back then they almost fell off the face of the earth before the Liebherr family saved Saints and started their journey back to the top-flight. The impact of relegation surely won’t be as drastic this time around, if it happens, but it is unsure how the new Chinese owners of the club, the Gao family, would respond to Southampton suddenly becoming a second-tier club.

Although wary of what relegation would bring, Ward-Prowse revealed his past experiences of struggle at Southampton spur him on to make sure the club doesn’t go through it again.

“You always have to be wary of those sort of things but those feelings spur us on as players to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Ward-Prowse said. “I’ve seen that happen here and I’m even more determined to play my part to make sure that doesn’t happen. The quality of the players we have got should get us out of the trouble we are in… I’ve got a bit  more of an emotional attachment to the club with the journey I’ve been on. I’ve seen the lows and the highs, I am desperate to play my part and I’m sure they [other players] are as well. If we can do that collectively then we will be fine.”

Hughes defiant after debut win as Saints boss

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Mark Hughes got off to the perfect start at Southampton as the new manager led his team to the FA Cup semifinals.

Saints beat third-tier Wigan 2-0 at the DW Stadium on Sunday to reach the last four of the FA Cup for the first time in 15 years. They are in the relegation zone in the Premier League but are two points from safety with a game in hand.

Second half goals from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Cedric did the job for Southampton as Hughes’ side weathered and early Wigan storm. Speaking to the BBC after the game, Hughes, who was sacked by Stoke in January, was in a defiant mood.

“People have questioned this group before I arrived and maybe questioned my appointment as well. It is only a start but a statement of intent,” Hughes said. “We have work to do in the Premier League but we will enjoy this moment. A Wembley semifinal which will be a great experience for our fans.”

Hughes’ side did what Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City couldn’t in knocking Wigan out of the FA Cup as Paul Cook’s team fairytale run was ended.

In truth Saints could’ve won by a more comfortable scoreline in the second half as Manolo Gabbiadini had a penalty kick brilliantly saved by Christian Walton, but given Wigan’s dominance in the first half, 2-0 was a fine result. Saints looked more dangerous in a 4-4-2 formation and Hughes knows there is plenty more work to do but confidence will perhaps grow with a trip to Wembley coming up.

When it comes to Hughes’ future at Saints he only has a deal until the end of this season. He has eight games to turn their fortunes around following Mauricio Pellegrino‘s firing earlier this week after just five wins in 30 PL games this season.

It appears that Hughes believes he can not only get the Saints out of trouble but also make some waves in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley next month.

“It has been a difficult week for the guys,” Hughes said. “I am really pleased with the amount of talent I have to work with with this group.”

LIVE, FA Cup: Wigan v. Southampton in quarterfinal

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The Mark Hughes era begins at Southampton with upset alerts ringing loudly in the background.

[ LIVE: Wigan v. Saints ]

Premier League side Saints travel to third-tier Wigan on Sunday (9:30 a.m. ET) in the FA Cup quarterfinal knowing that the hosts have already knocked out Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City during their incredible run to the last eight.

Paul Cook’s men will fancy their chances of upsetting a fourth Premier League team in a row to reach the FA Cup semis at Wembley next month, as Southampton sit in the bottom three of the PL table and sacked Mauricio Pellegrino as their manager earlier this week after just five wins in 30 league games.

With Tottenham and Manchester United booking their spot in the last four on Saturday, Wigan remain the lowest ranked team left in the competition.

In team news Hughes starts with Manolo Gabbiadini and Guido Carrillo up top in a 4-4-2 formation.

Wigan bring in Gary Roberts for Nick Powell.

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