Originally published on January 8th.
“We are Southampton, a club build on faith from the very beginning. A faith in ourselves. A faith in each other. We have our beliefs, our own way of doing things that guide everything we do. We don’t just buy success, we breed it. We don’t take shortcuts, we earn it. Every second of every minute of every day. We’ve been to the edge of the abyss and have come back stronger, because whatever the pressure, however great the temptation, we never stop, we never lose faith, we keep moving forwards. We are the saints, it’s not just a name, it’s who we are. We will be in that number, we march on”.
“As a group of staff we wanted to put the ‘Southampton Way’ down on paper. What do we expect of players? What’s our coaching and teaching style?” - Matt Hale, Saints academy director.
There has been much talk this season about the need for Saints to re-establish an identity, with fans arguing amongst themselves over whether “The Southampton Way” is anything more than a slogan. I’m not sure if it still is, but a visit to the YouTube channel of a collective by the name of The Coaching Manual suggests it certainly used to be. There you can find coaching sessions from former Saints academy coaches Terry Moore and Antony Limbrick, often featuring kids who have gone on to play in the Southampton senior team. These are actual video evidence of how Saints academy players were taught to press high and play quickly out from the back and through the thirds.
There is also evidence in the way players like James Ward-Prowse, Jack Stephens, Harrison Reed, Sam McQueen, Matt Targett (who can actually be seen, aged perhaps 15 or 16, in some of the clips linked above) and Jake Hesketh play. Watch them closely- their first instinct is to put pressure on the ball and, when taking possession, play forward, taking out as many opponents as possible with their pass. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to suspect that the presence of similar habits in Pierre-Emile Hojberg’s game informed his recruitment.
Southampton’s first team may not thus far have quite arrived at the high-pressing, forward-passing ideal. The way Mauricio Pochettino’s Saints team dismantled Fulham in the second half at Craven Cottage in 2014 is as close as I can remember to them reaching it, and as a fan of both the club and good football, it certainly felt like a sort of nirvana at the time. Though, the sense always persisted how the side lacked the vision to pass as purposefully as Pochettino’s Tottenham side would subsequently do. Where Spurs have Dele Alli, an attacking midfielder with the advantage of being unafraid of losing the ball, Pochettino’s Saints would dominate possession in almost every game but lacked the kind of clinical vision Alli offers, instead relying heavily on Adam Lallana’s trickery and Rickie Lambert’s heft, touch and under-acknowledged subtlety.
Pochettino’s successor was arch pragmatist Ronald Koeman, and while under his management Southampton’s team continued to flourish “The Southampton Way” remained no more than an aspiration. Koeman pretty much did away with Pochettino’s trademark ultra-high press, although the team did become more incisive- partly thanks to the arrival of Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane, but also perhaps due to Koeman’s preferred approach of sitting deep and hoping to score through quick, direct counter-attacks. If the opposition take up the invitation to attack, it generally means they offer you space to exploit. Unlike Pellegrino or, for that matter, his predecessor Claude Puel, both of whom like to defend with ten or even eleven players goal-side of the ball, Koeman was prepared to leave more than one player forward when defending- sometimes the second striker, sometimes one or both wingers, with Koeman moving away from Pochettino’s method of playing with inside forwards.
Unlike some fans, I do not believe that I “could do a better job than Pellegrino”. In fact, like most other amateur coaches I’ve spoken to, my experience of coaching even at a much lower level has provided me with an insight into just how difficult the job must be. Being a football manager requires a rare combination of disparate skills. This is probably why so many excellent coaches fall short of excellence when they try management. Being able to put on excellent training sessions doesn’t mean a person has the interpersonal skills necessary to relate to, motivate or discipline elite professional athletes, their accompanying parasitic agents, and – often - their accompanying gargantuan egos. Even top-class coaches often lack the necessary appreciation of patterns of play- from pitch level, remember - required for effective in-game management. They may not have the imagination required to assemble a team from its constituent parts and get it to cohere. Pep Guardiola is great because he is part auteur director, part systems analyst and part inspirational teacher. This combination of characteristics is uncommon, and considering that football clubs still recruit football managers almost exclusively from the ranks of former footballers, this is unsurprising. Albert Camus said “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football,” but 25 years of playing football doesn’t always seem to develop the kind of emotional intelligence, patience and self-awareness Guardiola exhibits at his best, nor his balance of curiosity and single-mindedness.
Being a good manager is hard, which means there aren’t many of them. Which means it’s hard to recruit one, and hard to keep one if they do well. If you want someone who already has experience of managing in a top league, you are already browsing a vanishing and small talent pool.
Regarding Southampton’s last two appointments, there has been a sort of constipated fury directed at Saints Executive Director of Football Les Reed. This may stem from Saints fans having forgotten that the club remain underdogs- the transfer and wage budgets are almost certainly not set by Reed, and are dwarfed by those of the seven clubs who finished above Southampton last season. He can’t brandish a blank cheque and ask his ideal targets to name their price and promise a huge outlay on players. The owners and their accountants simply wouldn’t allow that - certainly not after former CEO Nicola Cortese took out the football equivalent of pay day loans to finance marquee signings who flopped spectacularly. Objectively, Southampton under Reed’s guidance have done rather better than most when it comes to identifying competent managers, in that two of them have left of their own volition having been headhunted by bigger clubs. How many other clubs of a similar size boast a comparable record over the last decade? Probably only Swansea, who had success under Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers before losing them to Liverpool and Everton respectively. West Brom lost Roy Hodgson to England. Everton lost David Moyes to Manchester United. Further up the food chain, Daniel Levy seems to have sacked pretty much every manager he’s appointed at Spurs until now after they failed to meet expectations, and the “Dildo Brothers” at West Ham have fared little better.
That’s not to say Reed hasn’t made mistakes - it’s to say that he has made fewer than most officials responsible for appointing managers. Maurcio Pochettino has established himself as one of the most highly regarded coaches in the game, and Ronald Koeman was (somewhat ridiculously, admittedly) touted as a future Barcelona manager before his disastrous spell at Everton. There are those who believe that Cortese, and not Reed, was responsible for spotting Pochettino’s promise (Cortese claims it was him, Reed says Cortese sent him to watch Phillipe Coutinho play for Pochettino’s Espanyol, whose high-energy style he was immediately struck by), but my sense is that part of the agenda of the “Cortese was the real mastermind” truthers is that if a Swiss-Italian banker with no football experience was a football visionary then anyone with a Twitter account could be too. There’s also an element of what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher called “Capitalist Realism” to this - the belief that strategies successful in the world of business will necessarily be successful in football (as well as health and education).
The argument from these fans is often as follows: Pellegrino is useless and should be sacked, and Reed should be sacked because he appointed Pellegrino. What they seem to be forgetting is that Reed was appointed by the beloved Cortese. Everyone, it seems, makes mistakes.
Returning to the argument over Reed’s supposed mistakes, incumbent manager Mauricio Pellegrino is looking increasingly like he will struggle to escape that category. The squad Pellegrino has at his disposal is packed with highly thought of international players. Whatever the mitigating factors, being outside the relegation zone only on goal difference looks like a regression from this time last season.
Philosophically, it hasn’t always been easy to see what Pellegrino’s core beliefs are. He seems to value caution both in and out of possession, with the team set up to defend deep and the retention of the ball highly valued. There are few obvious templates for this in modern football, but perhaps the most natural assumption is that Pellegrino was heavily influenced by the methods of Rafael Benítez during his spell as manager of the Valencia team that Pellegrino played in. That side won the Spanish league title in 2001/02 but scored just 51 goals in 38 games as they did so. When Benítez has enjoyed long spells at a club he has focussed first on defence, before allowing his players to be gradually more proactive once he is confident that they understand the system. It seems likely that Pellegrino borrows heavily from this cautious approach, and some recent comments about how Saints “can be more competitive little by little” seemed to bear this out.
It certainly seems that Pellegrino’s current squad have neither the trust of the new manager nor the desired understanding of his tactics, but they probably have a valid excuse; Pellegrino makes significant changes to personnel, shape and even mode of play for almost every fixture. Over the course of December alone we have seen the team pressing high in a 4-2-3-1 in the second half of the 1-1 draw at Bournemouth, sitting deep in an unusual hybrid of 4-5-1 and 5-4-1 at home to Arsenal, attempting to implement a demented 4-2-4 against Leicester at St. Mary’s, before returning to variants of 4-2-3-1 for the games against Huddersfield and Pochettino’s Spurs. At no point has the starting XI remained the same, and the style has veered from short passing to long ball and back again.
What is particularly odd about this is that Pellegrino’s assistant coach Xavier Tamarit (who was also with him at Valencia) has written a book - What is Tactical Periodization? - in which he repeatedly emphasises the importance of what he calls a “tactical supra-dimension”- an idealised model of play which is aspired to, and which informs every training session. This might seem obvious, but football can be very conservative. A few years ago (within the last decade) I was on a coaching course with a then-active player who had just left Saints and told me that pre-season training the previous summer had involved jogging around the New Forest. The manager in charge of those training sessions is still working at a high level of English football.
Tamarit’s book contains little that could be considered controversial, but the abstract is that the coach must - from day one - have a clear idea of how he wants the team to play, and that everything that happens in training should be working towards that playing model. They might make minor adjustments based on context, but although there has to be an acceptance that the team might never be the way you envisage it, you’re always working with that goal in mind. If Tamarit’s employers at Southampton were aware of the book (it would be a bit odd if they weren’t: if someone you’re thinking of hiring has written a book it makes sense that you’d find time to read it), its contents were probably very appealing to them. Reassuring even - here was the manager elect’s right hand man demonstrating an intrinsic understanding of the process of developing a playing identity. Yet the author’s boss recently told the media “I don’t have an ideal”. Pellegrino, it seems, rejects the idea that a “supra-dimension” is necessary.
Yet Saints, theoretically, already had a supra-dimension; press high and pass forward.
Last season I came to a realisation that football, to some extent, is a matter of taste. After our home games against Swansea and Burnley I left the ground feeling pretty elated. I had enjoyed the intricate passing football, especially the combination play in wide areas. Against Swansea, Tadic had been so mesmerising that the referee stopped him to shake his hand as he was being substituted. We only won each game by relatively small margins, but as I left the ground I didn’t just feel relief at the team having got three points; I felt a satisfaction at having seen my team play what I considered to be excellent football. But then, as my mate Łukasz has said “You are a tiki-taka fan!”. This is only partially true, but having spent years watching Spanish and Italian football has probably conditioned the way I consume football as a spectator.
When I listened to BBC Radio Solent on my way home, I was startled to discover that most of the fans who had contacted the station had seemingly been appalled by what they’d witnessed. They perceived keeping the ball to be negative and dull, and they wanted the ball played forward or crossed earlier. What I found - and continue to find - most curious was the perception that Saints had played ‘attacking football’ under Koeman, when I at the time had considered Koeman to be broadly reactive and not especially progressive. Obviously, being a football fan, my first instinct was that these people were a) wrong and b) idiots. Then I wondered if they might simply have different beliefs about how the game should be played. Then it dawned on me that it was less a question of values, and more a simple matter of taste, as subjective as whether you prefer Beethoven or the Wu-Tang Clan. Neither is bad, both can be good, but there might not be much overlap between their fanbases.
One of the biggest problem fans have with Pellegrino is that it’s often difficult to see what his taste in football might be, or even what he’s trying to get the team to do beyond avoiding defeat. It may be that he has been experimenting in a bid to find a playing model that works and suits the players he has, but surely a good coach can’t believe there’s such a thing as a magic formula. Tamarit knows it’s about high quality coaching and training helping players to gradually improve both as individuals and as a team, through practice. Pellegrino has himself said that it will take time, but constant deviation from whatever his paradigm might be will only lengthen the time it will take.
Perhaps Pellegrino simply doesn’t see himself as a coach, so much as an organiser who expects players at an elite level to be adaptable enough to follow his instructions, no matter how much they change from game to game (Koeman was probably the same). The infamous Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen makes a distinction between “teachers” and “managers”, saying that “young and inexperienced players often find it pleasant when a trainer sets a clear framework in the first phase”, while the other type - the manager - is “suitable for older players who already have experience and a vision themselves”.
Might this insight offer an explanation as to why Puel was reputedly unpopular with senior players but publicly thanked by Ward-Prowse, McQueen and Romeu when he left? Pellegrino, by comparison, has been defended by experienced England international Ryan Bertrand, but spoken of less enthusiastically by Romeu.
The latest we have heard from the club is that, according to chairman Ralph Krueger, “Mauricio Pellegrino from the get-go has completely embraced the way we operate here.” But what does that look like in practice? We certainly haven’t seen the attacking football we were promised. The narrative being not so subtly plotted by the club is that everything they have done has been disrupted by the admittedly tiresome Virgil van Dijk transfer epic, but how exactly? How has Van Dijk’s dissatisfaction with life at Staplewood prevented the coach from implementing a playing model consistent with the club’s ethos and what was promised to supporters? It seems like what Krueger appreciates about Pellegrino is his willingness to operate within the club’s infrastructure, as opposed to any deeply held convictions about how football should be played. There are, of course, facets of Pellegrino that are unknowable to fans; how he operates day-to-day, his man-management, whether the players respect him, whether they like him, whether they understand his instructions, whether his training sessions are effective. It is also important to accept that some degree of player rotation is probably necessary in order to prevent fatigue. There’s no shortage of fans who think professional players should be immune to tiredness, but they do so in defiance of medical science. Southampton pride themselves on injury prevention, soliciting advice from experts like Swedish academic Jan Ekstrand, and presumably using the kind of cutting edge technology they have at their expensively built training campus to monitor players and make sure they don’t sustain overuse injuries (some physiologists now believe that pushing players past the brink of exhaustion can lead to not just muscle tears but ligament and tendon ruptures as well). That said, Pellegrino has continued to select midfielder Mario Lemina, who recently took to social media to apologise for below par recent performances, which he claimed are a result of an ankle problem.
In fairness to Pellegrino, his success at Alaves last season came thanks to his flexibility and expedient use of a disparate band of players, most of whom were on loan. Or perhaps simply sees Saints not as a long-term project but as a stepping stone to bigger things. Koeman was constantly fiddling with his team and left with his reputation enhanced. No manager will imagine a stint at Southampton will be the highlight of their career, and Pellegrino is no different. Plus, football managers tend to be (perhaps necessarily) egotistical. Simply being “a departmental head like any other”, to quote Cortese’s line about the way he envisaged the role, will not be enough for an aspiring dictator, and merely implementing a prescribed system, no matter how adeptly, may not, in the mind of an ambitious manager, be enough to impress. At times Saints have been portrayed almost as a club so well-run that managers are barely relevant. That would feel diminishing for many. I’m not implying that Pellegrino is a narcissist, more that if he wanted his team to be an avatar for him, rather than an extension of the club’s brand, he’d hardly be unique, and middle managers prioritising career advancement certainly isn’t unique to football. A scene in labyrinthine crime drama series The Wire springs to mind; veteran detective Lester Freamon is trying to persuade his lieutenant, Cedric Daniels, to take on a challenging investigation:
“And put my ass in the air with 14 open homicides that might never clear?” says Daniels, incredulously.
“The bosses wouldn’t blame you for that,” replies Freamon.
“I wouldn’t shine either,” Daniels complains. “I’m trying to use what we do with this detail to get a major case squad going.”
Saints may not represent a major case squad to Pellegrino, or any manager that matter, but where Pochettino made his name at Saints by getting a largely youthful group to play in a way that the Premier League had never seen before, and fit well with what the club’s youth policy had been seeking to deliver, Pellegrino seems to believe that he will build his own reputation by being flexible and showing the sort of “imagination” he admires in Benitez.
Unfortunately for all concerned, a squad full of players coached from childhood and/or specifically recruited with a broad playing model based on aggression and positivity both with and without the ball have seemingly found Pellegrino’s typically more conservative tactics confusing. Romeu has spoken of the difficulty of balancing his own inclination to attack with his manager’s caution:
“He’s always telling me when we’re attacking we need to be closer to their strikers because if we lose the ball and they’re free it’s easier for them to be free and run and get that counterattack… to break the lines without a doubt you have to play forward and that’s the one of the things we need to get.
“We score one but we have to go for the second and keep going. Even if we lose we have to keep going for the same and the style of play must always be the same.”
Objectively, the team’s style is not the same from game to game. Romeu’s comments hint at the difficulties the players might be experiencing. Footballers - at every level - moan about the manager behind his back, so if a player is prepared to even imply criticism in public, what must be being said between players in private?
There are fans who blame the apparent philosophical disconnect between squad and manager on Southampton’s transfer strategy, which according to Reed gives the incumbent manager the final say on transfers in but - the odd sop to a popular and successful head coach aside - usually seeks to identify players who will be effective even if the manager leaves and takes his ideas with him. The criticism includes the accusation that the board impose a system on the manager, but this seems like little more than a conspiracy theory; Koeman played 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 without any apparent objection from above. The club’s philosophy doesn’t seem to be anything like as dogmatic as some seem to think it is. Les Reed and technical director Martin Hunter have both downplayed the importance of formations. Reed, while explaining that Southampton’s academy teams play 4-3-3 has specifically said that they do so at age group level to aid player development, and “not because it’s the winning formula,” but because it encourages flexibility. Hunter has gone further, saying that the age group teams “play a very flexible 4-3-3 from 15 upwards. The only time you can see it’s 4-3-3 is when it’s kick-off,” before mentioning that Stephens and then-teammate Jordan Turnbull were playing in a back three while on loan at Swindon “but it’s not an issue. They can play any system. That’s what the best players can do.”
Where criticism of Reed is valid is in respect of the decision (presumably taken in consultation with Krueger and other board members) to appoint a tactical changeling (and possibly a bit of a show-off) with no obvious track record of implementing the kind(s) of football that suit the club and that the fans have been conditioned to enjoy. The playing style, after all, was why so many fans wanted Puel to be removed. How have the club ended up with an even more timid tactician? We may never know, but it seems a fair assumption that the economic factors affecting the price of, demand for, and availability of a commodity - in this case a good manager - will have played a part. Saints were heavily linked with German ideologue Roger Schmidt, a favourite of Guardiola and aesthetically similar to Jurgen Klopp, whose “heavy metal football” at Borussia Dortmund might almost have been a template for “The Southampton Way.” Yet rather than pitching up at St. Mary’s, Schmidt moved to China, no doubt for an absolutely obscene salary. This is what Saints are up against literally every time they look to recruit a manager or player. This is why they put so much faith into the ‘Black Box’ scouting tool, which is derided by many fans. While the word “ambition” has become shorthand for clubs spending money they don’t have, the reality is that Saints are still limited to recruiting personnel who the richer clubs either don’t want or don’t know about. See Koeman’s ‘success’ of free-spending at Everton for demonstrable evidence of the disaster which can ensue when all transfer power is handed to the manager.
Yes, this time Reed has hired a man who, though he may not be entirely incompetent (remember Alaves), is pretty clearly incompatible with the club. This perhaps could be an error in judgement as Pellegrino was hired while the club was mired in uncertainty due to Jisheng Gao’s takeover. He has, however, still appointed at least two more good managers than most of his contemporaries.
Reed has also been criticised for bowing to supporter pressure to sack Puel, but again, we need to acknowledge economic reality. Whether we like it or not, to some people football is little more than a way to keep their kids entertained at the weekend. If Saints want to fill the ground and sell replica tops, they need these people, and they’re not going to bring their families every week if there’s some maniac screaming expletives at the manager.
Unless you’re one of the growing number of clubs that have become part of the entertainment wing of the oil industry, it’s very difficult to compete financially, and clubs like Southampton need to generate their own incomes. Krueger’s recent comments about new owner Gao’s plans to refurbish the stadium have enraged many fans, but without some oligarch with more money than God, Saints need to generate alternative revenue streams. Let’s say Gao turns the area around St. Mary’s into a hub of cafes and bars which leads to fans socialising there before and after games, instead of around Oxford Street or in the Rockstone. It generates extra income and increases the value of the club, so Gao can eventually sell at a profit. Yes, Cortese might have genuinely thought he could win the Premier League with Southampton, but fans still furious at the club’s player sales since his departure might remind themselves why these sales were necessary - Cortese had run out of Liebherr money and borrowed from a bank instead. The risk inherent in that sort of approach can be summarised using just three letters – QPR - yet an example with more resonance might be the club’s local rivals. A decade ago, while Saints languished in the Championship, many Portsmouth fans gleefully boasted of their club’s “ambition” and the various star players they had bought for big fees on huge salaries. This didn’t end well.
So has the “Southampton Way” simply been quietly abandoned? Maybe, maybe not. As already discussed, the first team don’t play with an easily identifiable style. Further down, although the club review the coaching practice at academy level every six weeks, conversations with coaches who work both with the club’s charity coaching project, the Saints Foundation (which follows the same syllabus as the academy) and with age group teams in the academy itself, confirm that their coaching objectives are essentially the same now as they have been for years. The academy probably recruits more from further afield now, partly due to relaxed rules brought in with the FA’s Elite Player Performance Plan, and partly, perhaps, because of the club’s enhanced reputation for promoting youth.
Whether this reputation can be sustained is currently doubtful. While it is logical that it should be more difficult for youngsters to break into the team now the club have been established in the Premier League for several years than when they were newly promoted (where Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse were able to dislodge Danny Fox and Dean Hammond, Jake Hesketh is competing against Steven Davis and Dusan Tadic), this season is yet to yield a single debut for an academy graduate.
It seems that the club has been gradually deviating more and more from its stated aims for some time now. The summer of 2015 may have been the beginning. With Saints challenging for Europe towards the end of the 2014/15 season, Les Reed talked about how the club could cope with the extra fixtures by using academy graduates to pad out the squad. The club won the Premier League U21 Cup that season with a team featuring Matt Targett and Sam McQueen as well as Hesketh, Ryan Seager and Sam Gallagher. Between then and the start of the following season, something seemed to change. The signings of Jordy Clasie - a favourite of Ronald Koeman’s from their days together at Feyenoord - and Cuco Martina, who had played under Koeman’s brother Erwin at RKC Waalwijk, seem in retrospect to constitute a small but significant change in strategy. Buying old favourites of the coaching staff seemed a tad old fashioned, but Saints had already profited from signing another of the elder Koeman’s former Feyenoord colleagues in Graziano Pellè, who was slightly older than most of the club’s recent recruits. Perhaps Koeman major had proved himself a savvy enough operator in the transfer market for the club to trust his instincts.
It’s perfectly possible that the club already had plenty of information on both Clasie and Martina, or that they carried out due diligence after the Koeman brothers mentioned their names and decided to proceed, but the club nonetheless recruited other players who played in the same positions. Cedric Soares and Oriol Romeu also arrived, but in the event were often kept out of the team by the players the Koemans already knew. A season and a half later, Cedric and Romeu have established themselves as quality Premier League players, whereas Clasie has disappeared to Bruges and Martina soon fell out of favour at Everton once the Koemans had been dismissed.
As well as the strange business of buying two sets of players to fill the same roles, Saints had blocked their own self-mythologised ‘pathway’. They already had the aforementioned Harrison Reed - an almost identical player to Clasie - and versatile defensive player Jack Stephens. Clasie was slightly older and more technically accomplished than the pugnacious Reed, but not acclimatised to either the club nor English football in general, and as he struggled to impose himself his continued selection ahead of not just Reed but also the clearly superior Romeu looked like cronyism. Martina, meanwhile, came to be thought of as a sort of millennial Francis Benali - beyond reproach in terms of effort but a figure of fun who, while held in affection, was often found wanting technically. Stephens would later blossom into an accomplished and popular squad member in his absence. He has his shortcomings (even in modern football, central defenders who dislike aerial duels are a rarity), but despite having been recruited from Plymouth’s fecund and under-appreciated academy at 16, Stephens was clearly brilliantly schooled in line with the playing principles at Staplewood - he plays with his head up and passes with precision and intent.
At the time though, all this was barely questioned. Koeman’s management had guided the team into Europe, and even if the transfer dealings were an attempt to keep the Dutch legend sweet, few fans would have objected - he had become hugely popular, mainly through doing a good job but also through his charisma and largesse when it came to acknowledging fans. The following January Koeman grumbled about needing another striker. Young striker Seager had been prolific in successive seasons in the developmental leagues and was included among the first team subs but never got onto the pitch. Instead, Saints eventually bought Charlie Austin - a player with a suspect injury record and a reputedly suspect attitude, but a knack of being in the right place at the right time. Austin scored once then vanished. Seager was sent on loan to Crewe, where he suffered a serious knee injury minutes after scoring his first senior goal, and hasn’t been seen since.
When Reed spoke about the late Markus Liebherr a few years ago, he spoke of his vision of the club being secure in the top half of the Premier League, playing entertaining football with half the team made up of academy players.
For clarity on this issue, we all need to shelve our prejudices. As someone whose politics are to the left of Leon Trotsky, it’s hard for me to uncritically endorse a Davos billionaire, but the fact is it was not Les Reed or Nicola Cortese who rescued Southampton Football Club and the community that exists around it from oblivion. That was the late Markus Liebherr. So perhaps the Southampton Way should reflect his wishes. Les Reed recalls his very first meeting with Liebherr: “He had an affinity with the area through his business. He was big on community, and he liked to watch good football. When I arrived at the club [in 2010], he asked ‘Can we be top half in the Premier League playing good football, and can we do that with 50% of our team having come through our youth team?’
That was our saviour’s aspiration, but we are further away from it now than we have been since returning to the Premier League.
Do the first team still play “good football”, or even with an easily recognisable style that matched the stated philosophy of the club? No. While we have established that there is no “right” way of playing, no team playing good football could be 17th in the league and averaging under a goal a game.
Do we still promote excellent young players to the first team? Not really. Where before we might field a starting XI featuring as many as four home-grown teenagers, we now loan out or simply ignore players of 21 or older who have already indicated that they can excel against Premier League opposition.
Do we still recruit players with great potential who fit with our playing philosophy? We should find out in the coming weeks.
No one is suggesting that the club stick dogmatically to some prescribed doctrine, but closer adherence to old principles might at least produce football that is more coherent and more entertaining.
There are times when supporters need to hold their club accountable, and this feels like such a time. They can only do this, though, by having reasonable demands and asking sensible questions. Demanding that the club spends money it doesn’t have isn’t reasonable. Expecting the team to finish above richer clubs year in, year out probably isn’t either. Wanting accountability and transparency is fine, but the club are not going to tell fans what their transfer budget is, nor should they (think about the disadvantage this would put them at in the transfer market).
Questions that - if respectfully phrased - we might reasonably expect the club to answer might include but not be limited to the following:
Why were Matt Crocker, Anthony Limbrick and Terry Moore (former assistant academy manager) allowed to leave when the academy had been so successful?
Is the academy still producing enough quality? If so, why isn’t it in the first team? If not, what are we doing about it?
Is having 50% of the first team made up of academy products still an aspiration?
Who is ultimately responsible for the management of the U23s? Is it Radhi Jaidi or Martin Hunter?
Could we recruit or promote from within an outstanding young coach to manage the U23s, with a view to one day taking over the first team thereby creating continuity?
We have seen a lot of squad rotation in recent years. Would the medical team ever prevent a manager from picking a player on the basis of injury prevention?
Were players consulted regarding the departure of Claude Puel?
What exactly did Virgil van Dijk do that has affected Pellegrino’s ability to do his job?
Does the club have a playing model that is agreed with the first team manager before they are appointed?
Is there a new “Five Year Plan” and what are its goals?
It is answers to questions like these - not trophies, a huge outlay on players or the opportunity to insult board members to their faces - that we as fans are entitled to.
Football clubs are strange entities. They are businesses, yes, but also seats of learning, social clubs, avatars for civic identity and so on. They aspire to make money, but don’t exist solely to do so. They aspire to win trophies, but hardly any of them do. In Football in Neo-Liberal Times, David and Peter Kennedy describe football clubs as “quasi-capitalist”, as clubs’ relationships with their fans prohibit them from making decisions purely on the basis of profit (Southampton’s eventual refusal to sell Morgan Schneiderlin in 2014 was a good example of this). We have some power as fans, in that without us as a collective, the club would cease to exist in a meaningful way. What we should use that power to push for is the same thing that Southampton’s board should be aiming for- a club that aims to finish as far up the table as possible, while playing enjoyable football and not being going the way of Pompey.