After weeks and months of speculation and rumour, the final decision has been made official. The Claude Puel era at Southampton is over and despite discontent from outside, there seems to be an overwhelming feeling of relief.
For the best part of three months, the Frenchman’s days at St Mary’s have been numbered. The fans have wanted him gone, the players have wanted him gone, and it is now clear the board would have made it an unwelcome hat-trick for Puel, were it not for numerous rumours of his family being unhappy in England too.
The suggestion has been from the press closely linked to Saints, in a rather sad state of affairs, that Puel would only keep his job if the decision-makers could not find a replacement. His position was untenable but if he had started preseason with the three major Saints factions wanting change, Puel’s position would have been made even weaker than ever.
The fact Saints have now made the termination of his contract official does now send out another message. The football hierarchy at St Mary’s are notorious for a long-term approach with an almost hatred for short-term panic decisions; they would not have pressed the trapdoor switch unless there was a replacement waiting in the wings.
It is hard to not feel somewhat sorry for Puel, considering the former Nice boss guided the club to 8th place and their first major cup final since 2003 in his first job outside of his native France. That he done so with a weaker squad than what Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman were able to call upon makes the decision to sack Puel perplexing for outsiders.
But it is not about what Puel achieved this season, but how he achieved it. Saints had the 17th best home record and their 17 league goals at St Mary’s ranked them second-bottom only above relegated Sunderland in the home goals scored column.
I'd like to thank Claude Puel for his confidence and faith in me during the last season. I wish you luck for the future. pic.twitter.com/jpIh4jZsfU— Oriol Romeu (@OriolRomeu) June 15, 2017
Dig a little deeper and the picture gets even worse; nine of that figure came against Leicester, Burnley and Crystal Palace, which leaves eight goals shared between 16 games. It is little wonder the fans would turn when entertainment was thin on the ground.
Puel favoured a possession-based style but it was far too sterile, as players felt far too restricted and it ended up with a blunt attack. Charlie Austin ended up as the season’s top goalscorer despite missing all but the very last game of the campaign since December illustrates that point.
The lack of goals proved costly in Europe, as a 10,000 mile round trip saw Saints fail to score on their travels to Israel, Italy and the Czech Republic. Had they scored on just one of those trips, Puel’s side would have got out of the group and who knows where the European tour would have ended up.
It would be far too callous to blame Puel solely for Southampton’s disappointing season. By and large the players have underwhelmed, with Fraser Forster, Ryan Bertrand, Shane Long and Dusan Tadic all far from their personal form in the previous season.
The Frenchman was also unlucky on the recruitment side of things, with only Nathan Redmond and Manolo Gabbiadini performing near expectations. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg started well but fizzled out somewhat, whilst record signing Sofiane Boufal shown only flashes of his talent as injuries and poor decisions led him to having a poor campaign.
The aforementioned Gabbiadini only arrived in January, and Saints paid the price for a lack of firepower in the first half of the season. By the time the Italian arrived, Virgil Van Dijk was ruled out for the rest of the season and instead the goals were not just lacking but leaking too.
He also took Saints to Wembley, something his more credited predecessors failed to do. On the big stage the club performed brilliantly, both the fans off the pitch and the players on it, but ultimately it was Man Utd who lifted the trophy.
But Puel has to take the blame for a lot of the problems. The fall-outs often stemmed from rotation that saw goalscorers dropped, with Jordy Clasie not seen since a very good display at West Brom where the Dutchman scored the winner a prime example, and it meant in particular the forward players could never gain momentum and confidence.
One of the positives cited for Puel is his improvement of players, yet that is arguable. It cannot be denied that Oriol Romeu, Cedric and Maya Yoshida all enjoyed better seasons under the Frenchman compared to Ronald Koeman, but was that down to the manager or down to the fact they received far more regular game time?
It got to a point where Puel may have been quite right to ask for better resources and more time, but it felt as though the dominoes were never going to fall into place and neither was the situation going to recover.
Outsiders looking in will have seen this as a ludicrous decision, another example of the modern football era where time is short and patience is thin. But the simple fact is this is not a gamble but a decision Southampton simply needed to make.