Southampton's season is close to falling apart. A third round FA Cup exit at the hands of a manager sacked under former Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese, combined with a gutting 6-1 loss to Liverpool (of all teams) and nine losses in eleven games, has seen some fans start to turn on current manager Ronald Koeman.
While placing our current struggles into the context of where we have been in the last decade should calm Saints fans a little, it is no reason to just accept the recent troubles on the field or, perhaps, those behind the scenes.
Ronald Koeman has done a superb job since arriving as Southampton manager, but there is a growing feeling that something is not right and the Dutch legend has recently appeared frustrated in the media for various reasons.
Yet, despite the dreadful form and occasionally questionable tactics, some reactions by supporters - particularly on social media - are downright embarrassing. Everyone has a right to criticise their team - that's a given - but the #RonaldOut brigade and those bashing the board in direct tweets should think twice about what they are achieving by doing that.
And that's before we get to Tweeters and stadium booers who criticise players, week in, week out. The latest example being the abuse directed at Matt Targett, which I for one believe to be some of the most idiotic vitriol ever spouted by Saints fans (and there has been a lot over recent years).
While frustrations are understandable and shared by all who have followed our team of late, some fans need to get a grip. Yes, the board need to invest in a couple of players and yes, Ronald has got a few things wrong this season, but the constant perpetuating of... myths... lets call them, is grating, nonsensical and counter-productive when directed at the squad and manager.
With that in mind, here is my take on a few of the popular opinions being voiced by supporters recently.
Ronald Koeman has to go: Our manager is undoubtedly under pressure for both performances and results. The team are only able to string together patches of good football rather than dominate matches - the Arsenal game aside. Given the constant turnover of players, the lack of cohesion at times must be understandable but Ronald has performed miracles in the past, albeit not at the moment.
A closer inspection of our troubles reveals that our inability to take our chances is the fundamental problem - this weekend's late rally against Crystal Palace should have resulted in at least a draw but, predictably, we lost. Again. Koeman has publicly stated that he has had the team on shooting practice in training, as well as telling the board that he needs a striker and shifted formation in recent times to try to find answers.
Yet for some fans this isn't good enough. Against Palace, Koeman went with the same three at the back formation that trounced Everton last autumn but had also been deployed in our awful exit from the Europa League. The fact that supporters viewed this as five, rather than three, defenders speaks volumes - formations shift depending on whether the team is attacking or defending, so both are right but the negative comments of fans are short sighted given how frustratingly one dimensional we were under Pochettino. At least the manager is trying something different - which is great to see given the recent injury to Pelle and our present woes in front of goal. Good on Ronald for pro-actively looking for solutions, and he even changed it at half time in an attempt to wrestle back the result.
The squad isn't good enough: The classic response to our inability to hold on to English players leaving to chase their dreams of success: "we've sold the silverware, replaced with cheap foreign tat".This is a claim that I just don't buy, with the following players highlighting why.
Jordy Clasie has been a bright light recently, although obviously not as good as Schneiderlin was for two main reasons. 1) He is adapting B) he is a different type of player. Yes, both are defensive midfielders, but while Schneiderlin is a ball winner in the mould of Coquelin, Clasie is a creator, more like a Cazorla. Some of Clasie's passing is fantastic, and that he isn't as effective a hustler as the Frenchman is fine because we have Wanyama and Romeu to do that job, so people should consider this before haranguing the newbie.
Hearing fans boo Graziano Pelle at St Mary's in his early Southampton days was embarrassing for the same 'settling' reasons as with Clasie. Beyond that, Pelle gets labelled an 'immobile, useless lump' every week. Sorry, but the Italian has a great deal more fluency to his play than Ricky Lambert ever did, although the Liverpudlian was a lot more clinical in front of goal. For me, Pelle is one of the best forwards in the league in terms of his hold up play and has a decent goals to game ratio. Clearly, he could be more ruthless (as could all our players), but as the lone 'proper' centre forward in a team not blessed with super star creators. The man is an over relied-upon, yet a very good player. While his constant gesturing to team mates is annoying at times, at least the guy has passion; lay off Pelle!
Recent abuse of Matt Targett is, for me, the biggest indictment of our fans losing grip of reality. A fantastic, developing talent, that has played well 90% of the occasions in which I have seen him play. A local academy graduate who epitomises much of what has given us reason to be so proud in recent years. Yet, some are calling him out as crap online! Unbelievable! We call for more academy players to be given a chance and then roast them when results disappoint. Shame on you, those who do this because that is not what Southampton fans should be about, much less supporters of a football club; turn the blinkers off and give the kid a break! Likewise: James Ward-Prowse.
Finally in this category of the new Guly-shaped scapegoat we have Maya Yoshida. A squad player who is given far too many minutes, many of them in an unfamiliar right back position, and has made far too many mistakes to warrant his consistent selection. Fine, no one can argue with any of that and one of the frustrating things is that Koeman keeps faith with him. Yet, however, is the abuse on social media, on club forums and in the stands helpful? Clearly not. Knocking the guy's confidence is only more likely to lead to more jittery performances and chip away at Maya's self belief. For a rotation player (no doubt paid accordingly) who gives 100% each game, he at least deserves praise for when he performs well (which is more often than many give him credit for) as he does derision for the times he makes costly errors.
Ronald has lost the dressing room: This claim is as hard to prove as it is to disprove, but the body language from players and staff recently certainly gives reason to be concerned. Recent form, however, should at least give provide fans with an alternative theory; that the highly competitive athletes are gutted! While I suspect that Ron has one or two dressing room issues, I struggle to comprehend what he could do to address them.
Our transfer policy and current position in the pecking order depresses me as much as any Saints fan - so why should it be different for our key players and staff? That we are lacking in team spirit at the moment and a couple of players are apparently agitating for moves away is probably at the heart of that. Personally, Ronald's promises to let the players rot in the stands should they not behave themselves - which must have board approval - are perfect responses befitting the authority that endeared the Dutchman to us from the onset of his reign as manager. Certain players are harder to motivate than others, and, generally speaking, superstars have bigger egos and are harder to manage than others; looking at the players who appear to be demotivated would back up this theory.
So what, apart from laying down the law, punishing players and dropping them, can Ronald do? More to the point, what would another manager do that would have different results?
The board have lost the plot: Finally, perhaps the most popular complaints among fans involve the board's apparent lack of vision, passion, and ambition. This one would need a whole blog of its own to dissect fully, but suffice to say that, for me, it comes down to two things:
A) Player retention. Clearly we have sold too many players - particularly English, academy graduates, and this has affected the club in a number of ways. While this is hard to swallow, and fans shouldn't be expected to just accept this is part of the modern game, it is difficult to see how the board can prevent it - current 'bad apple' issues proving how want-away players can negatively affect morale, motivation and the like. All the board can do is ensure that we get a good price for them - which they have considering remaining contract lengths - and find suitable replacements, which I think they have also done. In a timely and cost-effective manor too, I would argue.
I do not believe for one second that the likes of Cedric is an awful player as many believe, for example. Nathaniel Clyne was a questionable defender for a long time as evidenced by how Calum Chambers was often preferred in games against top attackers, and Clyne still can't head a ball... Similarly, Oriol Romeu has been here for five minutes and looks to have some weaknesses in his game, but can you really expect him to be instantly be as dominating as Morgan Schneiderlin - a player who developed through eight years at the club through League 1, The Championship, the lower and higher echelons Premier League, surrounded by players he had known for years? Obviously not. Give the new guys time and understand that to expect instant results, as happened last season, is a rare thing. Even our best players do not hit the ground running, they developed into those players at a club that does that better than any - fans would do good to remember that now.
B) Wage structure and purchasing. This is one area in which I am somewhat critical of the board; how can we expect to push on while paying so little in wages? While this one is particularly complicated, with Financial Fair Play, the club's minuscule commercial income and various other things in mind. Being among the lowest paying clubs in the league is worrying and bound to have an effect particularly when these figures are public knowledge with players and their agents looking to secure their fortunes fast. And who can blame them in today's world where we are taught that such self preservation is absolutely correct?
While it pains me to appear on the sides of the players, rather than the fans in this instance, you have to be realistic in assessing this issue in the light of our constant trouble to prevent player losses and in buying proven Premier League proven replacements. What I would like, more than anything else, is for the club to go out and buy Charlie Austin tomorrow thereby proving their ambition and giving Ronald and his team a much needed lift. He could even be given a relegation release clause to alleviate any concerns that the board might have although I do not think that we are in danger of going down yet (although we are drifting dangerously close to that, as Ronald has said).
So, the way forward as far as I am concerned consists of this. The board backing Ronald in the short term with a quality striker to alleviate the pressure on the team. I do not for one second believe that we can't afford it with our net spend being what it has been in the last couple of seasons. Only then will the Dutchman consider a contract extension which I am positive is the way forward - who, realistically, could we get with the same gravitas and managerial ability as Ronald? Secondly, I would challenge the fans who are (understandably) upset at the lack of loyalty on display in the modern game to ask themselves if such loyalty should not be reciprocated to Ronald and to the players they consistently deride and single out.
We all have a right to be upset, but there have to better ways to display our fandom than booing people at the stadium, criticising online or telling people they are $h!t on Twitter - as if behaving like some Aston Villa fans have yesterday will have anything other than an abhorrent affect on team morale. To criticise players for not doing their jobs properly, we as fans should at least be playing our part in supporting our team. And don't even get me started on the St Mary's atmosphere...
To borrow a phrase from others on Southampton forums, keep the faith in Ronald, in the board, and in our players both young or new to the team.