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 times, with plenty of possession and sideways passes but there is not cutting edge, no drive and no real purpose to their play.
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 do they carry on 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. 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.