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Southampton's slump has been a long time coming

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Despite the continual progression they've enjoyed before now, years of selling off its stars has finally caught up with the Saints. But, should Southampton fans alter their expectations of a team that's chopped and changed so often?

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Without wanting to state the obvious, Southampton's inability to hold onto their best players has finally caught up with them.

The worrying slump in form. Weeks of abject performances on the pitch. Discontent among Saints fans. It was always going to happen at some point, wasn't it?

Southampton have enjoyed nothing but continual progression since they dropped into League One - the third tier of the English footballing pyramid.

Their first season in League One saw the Saints miss out on the playoffs but that season saw Alan Pardew's side lift the beautifully-named Johnstone's Paint Trophy in front of 40,000+ rabid Southampton fans at Wembley.

Then Nigel Adkins stepped in, earning promotion to the Championship in his first season at the club with them finishing second in the league behind Gus Poyet's Brighton.

A year later, Adkins guided his side to a second promotion in two years as Southampton earned another promotion from the Championship to the Premier League.

With Southampton not falling below second in the table all season and a ridiculous Reading winning streak pipping Saints to the post, the only disappointment Saints fans could have over those two full seasons under Adkins is that they had no silverware to show for those great years under his tenure.

Next was the Premier League journey. Former Saints chairman had said he wanted the club to make it to the Premier League within five years of him taking overall leadership of the club and they did it in three. His ambition told as Adkins was sacked shortly after an impressive come-from-behind 2-2 draw away at Chelsea.

But, Cortese's next managerial appointment in Mauricio Pochettino proved a successful one as the Argentine coach helped steer Saints well clear of relegation from the Premier League, finishing the season comfortably in midtable at 14th.

Pochettino's only full season at Southampton lead the club to an impressive eighth in the Premier League - and this was a season with obstacles as Cortese was removed from his position as club chairman during the middle of the season. However, Pochettino then went onto leave for Tottenham Hotspur while stars Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and one Dejan Lovren left for Manchester United and Liverpool respectively.

After a summer of doom and gloom as well as media scrutiny, new Saints coach Ronald Koeman defied the skeptics and lead Southampton to a record Premier League position of 7th, as well as earning the club's highest ever Premier League points haul of 60 - beating Pochettino's record set the season before. This was after a summer of madness which saw four of the previous season's best players leave for pastures new while being replaced for cheap, foreign alternatives.

This brings us to the present: the 2015-16 Premier League season. What Koeman achieved in 2014-15 cannot be ignored and he remains a beloved figure among 99.9% of Southampton fans. But, after another summer of losing three more Saints stars in Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne and Toby Alderweireld (yes, he counts), something has got to give at some point, surely?

Well it appears it has. The above isn't Koeman's fault. But, the club can't continually sell off its best players and replace them with cheaper alternatives and expect those signings to automatically perform to the level Southampton previously enjoyed.

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This begs the question: what is Southampton's present ambitions as a football club? The continual progression was always going to come to a halt at some point. But, this season has been uninspiring to say the least.

Maybe it's us fans who need their ambitions reined in? Personally, I wanted a realistic, comfortable place in the top half of the table, a good go in the Europa League and a good run in the League Cup. While the first goal is still attainable with the unpredictable and inconsistency in the league so far this season, the other two ambitions were both dealt cruel blows.

The latter came to a sudden 6-1 home loss halt against Liverpool, while the former turned out to be a damp squib as FC Midtjylland knocked Saints out of the Europe League in the driving Danish rain before the competition had even begun proper. Thank god I managed to get out to Arnhem before that happened.

Despite Koeman leading his men to a record-high seventh place in the 2014-15 Premier League standings, there had been plenty of frustrating displays that season which were early indicators of what Saints fans are experiencing now.

The abject home performance as Saints lost at home to Swansea. The way the season petered out with poor away showings against Stoke City, Leicester City and Sunderland. Those latter performances are akin to what Southampton fans are enduring week in, week out right now.

While you can point to the two home games when we beat Sunderland and Aston Villa, which were won 8-0 and 6-1 respectively, Southampton continually struggled to find a cutting edge for much of the 2014-15 league campaign.

If you were to replace those scores with two 2-0 home wins, Southampton's goals haul would be reduced from 54 goals to 44 - only a slightly better tally than six other Premier League sides hovering around that year's relegation zone.

However, that year Southampton had the league's second best defence which was what the team's great season was largely based upon - strong, solid, unforgiving defending.

But, as mentioned above, Southampton lost three key defensive components in Schneiderlin, Clyne and Alderweireld (he still counts) to those same culprits again - United, Liverpool and Spurs.

For a team so reliant on its defence last season, why was it so easy for those three players to leave in the summer? What we're left with now is the same attack which at times struggled to find the net in 2014-15 with a defence which is considerably more porous than last year's.

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I don't have the answers as to how Southampton can keep their best talents. But, up until their struggles this season, Swansea City were seen as club at a similar level to the Saints and have managed to keep most of their best players in South Wales apart from the Manchester City-bound Wilfried Bony over the last few seasons.

Stoke City similarly have impressive ball-players and defensive units who stay comfortably within Mark Hughes' grasp, well away from the agent-led media speculation every summer.

Perhaps Southampton Football Club is a victim of its own success? Ever since enjoying promotion in 2012, the media has been full of feel-good stories about Southampton about how well-run a club it is, the youth academy, et al. The amount of patronising "Southampton are such a great club" stuff I heard from fans of other clubs was near nauseating.

But, that media attention has brought an unwanted spotlight to the club's best players. A spotlight that hasn't been enjoyed by any other "smaller" club until current Premier League table-toppers Leicester City. That attention has undoubtedly had a lot of influence in Saints' transfer activities as clubs become more aware of the diamonds gathered after years of good coaching and solid scouting on the South Coast.

Plenty of Southampton fans seethe when the media "DON'T GIVE THE ATTENTION OUR BOYS DESERVE" or when Roy Hodgson has "LEFT THE BOYS OUT OF THE ENGLAND SQUAD BECAUSE HE'S BLOODY CLUELESS." To that I say GOOD! Let the media focus on other teams and Saints will keep plugging away, winning matches like they did throughout the 2009/10, 2010/11, 2011/12, 2012/2013 seasons without the "help" of the press or the national team.

I bet the Saints fans campaigning for Lambert, Lallana and Shaw to get into England's World Cup squad are rueful now.

I digress. After losing seven key players in the space of two seasons, it's unrealistic to expect the same upward momentum enjoyed over the five footballing years. But, I feel a sense that Saints have lost their way somewhat since two summers of transfer overhaul.

Where are the young English talents we're producing? Either our current youth teams aren't good enough to make the step up to senior football or Koeman simply doesn't rate them. Barring a decrepit Kelvin Davis, we have now lost all but one member of the League One/Championship days in captain Jose Fonte. Something seems to be missing with this current team.

It's easy to say this now with the benefit of hindsight with almost half of the season gone. But, looking back, I do feel it was naive of the Southampton board to allow three key defensive players to leave at once. I know it's easier said than done to keep a middling club's stars, but there should be a better contingency plan in place than what was the case this summer.

It's unforgivable for Southampton fans to get on Ronald Koeman's back after such a great season enjoyed last year. Do you not think he would have wanted to retain the services of Schneirderlin, Clyne and Alderweireld? Also, crowd hostility towards the team is toxic and will not help Southampton as their slump in form sees the club near the scrap for Premier League survival.

There is certain to be a change in personnel in the upcoming January transfer window. However, perhaps it's us Saints fans who should be changing our ambitions and expectations as to what this current team can achieve going forward? After all, we have been spoiled by the meteoric rise enjoyed by the club since 2009.