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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?

[ MORE: Saints’ fans take over Milan ]

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 campaign after a disagreement with directors over his future, while leading scorer Charlie Austin (yes, he was out since December but still finished top scorer, with nine) was injured for five months 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 Stephens 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, if he’s 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.

Southampton’s victory made sweeter after Liverpool’s cherry-picking

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LIVERPOOL — Southampton’s fans were ecstatic to reach their first final of a major competition since 2003.

Reaching the 2016-17 final of the EFL Cup tasted even sweeter because it came at the expense of Liverpool.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

In the last three seasons Southampton have sold five star players to Liverpool, racking up $115 million in transfer fees. Although that has obviously boosted Saints’ finances considerably and they chose to sell the players, the fact the likes of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne and now Sadio Mane all left for Anfield left a sour taste in the mouth for Southampton’s fans.

Liverpool have been nicknamed “Liverhampton” by many Saints fans such has been the level of their pilfering in recent seasons. Players and managers have left Saints for Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham, but the way Liverpool cherry-picks Saints’ top talent each summer leaves many of their fans sick to the stomach.

On Wednesday Saints showed they’d not only plugged the gaps after selling stars but they’d beaten Liverpool fair and square over two legs, reaching the League Cup final for just the second time in their history and securing another long-stated goal of reaching the final of a domestic cup competition.

“It’s not bad, eh?” manager Claude Puel joked post-game. “It’s fantastic. I am happy for all the squad because they work very hard since the beginning of the season and play all these games every three days which is very difficult. Often they can do fantastic work on the pitch without the good reward and today I think it’s fantastic to win this game, to see the qualify for Wembley and to have all this for the staff, the player and our fans.

“We have fantastic fans, Inter Milan away with 8,000 fans was fantastic and every time and every game they come and it’s a fantastic reward for all the good work. It’s not finished now. It’s interesting of course to go to Wembley and it’s not just to participate but to win this game. We have time to prepare this game.”

Puel will go down in folklore for leading Saints to a final and they put in the perfect gameplan against a Liverpool side renowned for their pressing and harrying. Yet, they’ve done very well against Liverpool since Klopp arrived, losing just one of their six games against the German coach with a 3-1-2 record.

It’s like they have something extra to prove…

Over the two legs Saints sat back, soaked up pressure and hit Liverpool on the counter. They did it so well their manager Jurgen Klopp congratulated them for their victory, then questioned why they don’t play on the counter all the time. He’s got a point.

Puel’s tactics usually see Saints dominant possession and then spurn chances. Their inconsistent form in the Premier League and early exit from the UEFA Europa League attest to the struggles they’ve had adapting to the Frenchman’s tactics in his first season in England.

However, he is just the third manager since 1976 to lead Saints to a major final. The man they called “the dog” in his playing days for his rugged style of play has transferred that spirit to his team as they’ve now kept clean sheets in all five of their EFL Cup games on the road to Wembley, knocking off Premier League opponents Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Arsenal and now Liverpool. Oriol Romeu was a warrior in midfield and Shane Long delivered the hammer blow in stoppage time by finishing off one final devastating counter attack.

As for Liverpool, those who switched St Mary’s for Anfield probably won’t be regretting their move. They left for one of the most famous clubs on the planet plus their bank balances have swelled considerably. Yet, just a part of them may have been a little jealous to not help Saints complete their remarkable journey from winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley in 2010 as a third-tier club to reaching the famous arch for the EFL Cup final in 2017.

After a shaky start to the 2016-17 season, Saints are in the ascendancy once again. Having to rebuild time and time again will eventually catch up with you and arguably that has happened to Saints this season as goals have dried up. Their young team came of age at Anfield and this was a significant moment in their development.

Meanwhile Liverpool’s slump of one win in seven games in January is indicative of Klopp’s methods wearing his players down. The pressure of slipping up in the title race (they could trail Chelsea by 13 points if they lose to them at Anfield on Tuesday) is weighing heavy on their shoulders and although they managed to create chances, they never looked like getting in-behind a makeshift Saints backline.

With young Jack Stephens stepping in for the injured talisman Virgil Van Dijk, he put in a fine display to show that Saints’ academy is still churning out stars. Whenever a Saints youngster comes through the ranks now and plays well, the first joke you see emanate on social media is something along the lines of “Welcome to Liverpool, Josh Sims/Sam McQueen/Jack Stephens.”

The conveyor belt from St Mary’s to Anfield may carry on.

Southampton’s fans won’t care about that too much right now after the magical night at Anfield. They celebrated wildly at the full time whistle and so did their players on the pitch and in the dressing room.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk if reaching the final not only presented a chance to win a trophy but also get back to Europe, Puel admitted the motivation to make up for their early European exit this season is strong.

“Yes. It’s an important big game, not just to play this final but perhaps to see another qualification for the European games,” Puel said. “It will be important for the squad to continue the work, to improve, and know the possibilities to play European games. All the information when they improve it’s important to put all this experience for next year in European games. It will be important to qualify.”

For now, Saints’ fans will savor a special night for everyone connected with the club.

Their march goes on. Without the stars who left for Liverpool.

Southampton 1-2 West Brom: Baggies beat sorry Saints

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  • Long gave Saints lead
  • Phillips, Robson-Kanu strike
  • Van Dijk shown red card late on

West Bromwich Albion came from behind to beat Southampton 2-1 at St Mary’s on New Year’s Eve.

Shane Long had put the home side ahead but just over a minute later Matt Phillips equalized as the first half finished frantically. At the start of the second half Hal Robson-Kanu scored a screamer to make it 2-1 and that’s how it finish.

Saints finished the game with 10-men after Virgil Van Dijk was given a second yellow card with Claude Puel‘s side losing two games in a row over the festive period to stay on 24 points, while West Brom move above them in the table as they have 26 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Saints dominated early proceedings and Sofiane Boufal flashed an effort across goal which just went wide of the far post with no forwards attacking the area.

A set piece situation soon after saw the ball fall to Sam McQueen and the local lad dragged an effort inches wide.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Four minutes before half time the opening goal arrived as Dusan Tadic‘s corner was headed home by Long for his first goal of the season for Southampton in his 22nd appearance. 1-0 to Saints.

Just two minutes later it was 1-1 as Phillips was found in the box and he slotted home a low effort into to corner. Saints almost went back in front before the break but Ben Foster denied two efforts from close range.

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Five minutes into the second half West Brom went ahead in stunning fashion. Phillips played in Robson-Kanu and he was forced wide on the angle by Van Dijk but the Welsh international rifled a shot into the top corner from a seemingly impossible angle to put his side ahead.

2-1 to the Baggies who turned the game on its head.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

Boufal curled a shot just wide as Saints looked to get level and then Jay Rodriguez was brought on to try and force the issue.

James Morrison‘s header was then well-saved by Fraser Forster, but at the other end Saints huffed and puffed and never really looked like equalizing.

To make matters worse Van Dijk was shown a second yellow card for a tackle on Salomon Rondon late on, as Southampton finished the game with 10-men.

That summed up a miserable festive period for the Saints.

Arsenal 0-2 Southampton: Saints reach semis for first time in 30 years

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LONDON — Southampton dominated a woeful Arsenal side at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday to seal a comfortable 2-0 win in their EFL Cup quarterfinal.

First half goals from Jordy Clasie and Ryan Bertrand did the damage but in truth Saints, who themselves made eight changes to the team which beat Everton at the weekend, should’ve scored more against an under-strength Arsenal outfit.

The victory sends Saints into the semifinals for the first time in 30 years, while Arsenal have now failed to make it past the quarterfinal stage for the sixth-straight season.

[ MORE: EFL Cup scoreboard ]

After 13 minutes Saints took the lead as Sofiane Boufal‘s shot from Bertrand’s cross was blocked and the ball fell to Clasie who drilled home his goal for the club.

Southampton deservedly led 1-0.

Saints continued to look dangerous on the break with Shane Long using his pace and even though Arsenal had plenty of possession, they were reduced to long shots in the first half with Lucas Perez isolated up top.

Just before half time Saints doubled their lead with Boufal cutting in from the left flank and teeing up Bertrand on the edge of the box. The left back had plenty to do but controlled his low shot beautifully into the bottom corner. 2-0 to Southampton.

Granit Xhaka replaced the injured Mohamed Elneny before the break but Arsenal had it all to do to keep themselves in the EFL Cup.

At the start of the second half Saints had two half chances as Cuco Martina‘s cross found Long but his header looped over and moments later the Republic of Ireland international sent in a low shot which caused Emiliano Martinez problems as he saved down low.

Following that the chances kept coming for Saints as Boufal dribbled into the box but his shot was deflected wide and from the resulting corner the ball dropped to Sam McQueen but his effort squirmed just wide.

Arsenal huffed and puffed as they tried to get back into the game with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain injecting some life from the bench but in truth Saints looked the more likely to score in the closing stages as they went close through Steven Davis and Long.

Oxlade-Chamberlain skied an effort over the bar with 10 minutes to go with Arsenal pushing forward at every opportunity but Maya Yoshida and Long blocked goalbound efforts late on and there was even time for Saints’ 19-year-old winger Josh Sims to have a shot saved and then tee up McQueen who had his shot cleared off the line.

In the end, two was enough for Saints as they booked their first trip to the League Cup semifinals since the 1986-87 season.

Southampton prove they’re just fine without Koeman

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SOUTHAMPTON — Ronald Koeman‘s departure from Southampton this summer was meant to signal a lack of ambition.

It was supposed to be a sign that Saints would not be marching on any further and their fans were furious that Koeman, who had previously signaled his intent on multiple occasions that he would stay for one more season at least, left them for Everton.

[ MORE: Saints dominate Everton ]

On his first return to St Mary’s there were boos and jeers for Koeman, with Saints’ fans eager to point out his u-turn in their chants but there was soon a lack of intensity in the animosity after Charlie Austin‘s goal after 41 seconds set Saints on their way to a first Premier League win in five games and moved them on to 17 points, just two behind Everton.

After Southampton’s convincing 1-0 win on Sunday at St Mary’s, — don’t let the scoreline deceive you, despite recent up and down displays, Saints deserved this win — they proved that under new manager Claude Puel they’ve moved on and they’ll be just fine without Koeman at the helm. Of course, one win against a former manager doesn’t mean Saints will continue to march on.

[ MORE: How Koeman’s time at Saints unraveled ]

But getting one over their former boss certainly helped. One fan screamed “redemption!” as he walked out of St Mary’s and past the press conference room during Puel’s interview.

Speaking after the game, Koeman was reflective when asked about the home fans’ overall reaction to his return.

“Everybody is free. We live in a social life. Anybody can give his reactions,” Koeman said. “I know from the players of Southampton, how they react today, the staff, in general, of Southampton appreciate a lot what we did together. That is for me the most important. The rest… okay, that’s football. That is life.”

There were no special mentions or thanks for Koeman in the matchday magazine from Southampton. Simply an acknowledgement from both the new manager Puel and captain Jose Fonte that Koeman would be coming back. That was it.

When the Dutchman left in the summer, it was seen as a major letdown by fans, players and many behind-the-scenes. With a two-year  contract extension all but agreed, Koeman then changed is agent and soon he was demanding to leave for Everton. He was handed a reported $7.5 million per season deal with the Toffees.

Some Saints fans understand that if that kind of money is being offered up, it must be taken. Koeman led them to the UEFA Europa League and a seventh and sixth place finish in each of the last two seasons, their best-ever finishes in the Premier League. They’ve been on the up for seven-straight seasons since being in the third-tier in 2009 and they have always planned ahead with their own philosophy in mind.

Now is no different.

Plus, it’s not like Southampton hasn’t lost players (Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren, Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne) or managers (Mauricio Pochettino) to so-called “bigger clubs” before in the past. They are used to waving goodbye to people and spending the huge profits they’ve made wisely.

Yet, it was the way Koeman went about it which really irked a lot of Southampton supporters. They let Koeman know how they felt but didn’t go overboard. Southampton’s dominance over Koeman’s new side Everton probably helped.

Midway through the first half Koeman sat in his seat with his head slumped downwards and his hands held together. He did that a lot on Sunday.

Then after Everton’s full backs were once again carved apart by Southampton’s wingers, he walked back to his seat shaking his head. The first half was not what he hoped for. At all. It didn’t get much better in the second half either. His team were outplayed and even though they had two or three good chances to score, Saints had many more.

There was also an added layer on his return, which perhaps shed a light on why Saints’ executive director of football Les Reed was finally okay to let Koeman leave in the summer.

Southampton is a club which is proud of its youth academy and bringing players through. Shaw, Lallana, Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are the main names to make it big.

19-year-old Josh Sims is the latest to come through. He made his Premier League debut on Sunday and put in a man of the match display, getting a standing ovation as he was subbed out late on. Koeman spoke scathingly about Saints’ academy and about some of the players not being good enough last January when he was still in charge at St Mary’s. That upset many.

Sims spoke about his debut and his display and he’s proof, along with the man who replaced him, Sam McQueen, that there’s plenty more to look forward to from Saints’ famed academy. No matter what Koeman said.

“I’m delighted for how I performed today. I found out I was in the squad just before kick off and as soon as I knew, the lads were just giving me advice, telling me to just do what I do best – the whole thing was a great experience,” Sims said. “It was a mixture of nerves and excitement before starting but It’s everything you wish for as a kid. I’ve come through the academy here so having the fans sing my name and give me a standing ovation on my debut is a dream come true.”

Even some Everton fans at St Mary’s understood why Koeman’s departure from St Mary’s was met with such animosity but agreed that ultimately it was all about one thing: money.

“It is the nature of the beast.  Money talks,” said Everton fan Gareth Hughes from Porthmadog, who also rated Southampton’s current squad and manager highly. He thinks they will do just fine without Koeman.

But how would Everton’s fans feel if Koeman left them for a bigger team, say his beloved Barcelona, if things went well at Goodison Park over the next few years?

“Nobody is bigger than the club,” Hughes said.

Alex James, also an Evertonian, agreed with that sentiment.

“The club will always be there. Players and managers come and go. In a few weeks after a few wins, everyone will forget about him,” Hughes added.

This win, and performance, will go a long way to doing that for Southampton’s fans. Koeman is now firmly a part of their past as Saints’ well-oiled machine continues to march on no matter which players or managers are at the club.

Sunday’s display from Southampton proved they have well and truly moved on from Koeman.