Considering how a short time in England was a blot on his respectable playing careerbook in Spain and Argentina, you would think Mauricio Pellegrino might have had some reservations about coming to the Premier League as a coach.
Rafa Benitez ended the Argentinian’s six months at Liverpool in 2005 rather begrudgingly, after they enjoyed plenty of success together at Valencia, but the way the now-Newcastle manager finished his protégé’s Southampton career was nothing short of ruthless.
The clinical nature of Saints’ 3-0 defeat at St. James Park comes in stark contrast to how Pellegrino’s time on the South Coast was ended by his own employers; his CV may show eight months in the Premier League, but for at least half of that the Argentinian has been a dead man walking in the eyes of Southampton fans.
The first ‘Pellegrino Out’ thread was started on the biggest Southampton fans forum SaintsWeb in mid-October, but in truth, the former Alaves manager has never truly convinced the supporters he was going to be a success, even in the few moments of victory.
The 3-2 win over West Ham came with a 90th minute winner from the penalty spot, despite Saints going ahead 2-0 against their opponents, who played for an hour with ten men. Meanwhile, the turgid win in October over a West Brom side struggling in the final days of Tony Pulis was only settled by a wonder-goal from Sofiane Boufal.
It is ironic that the goal is likely to be the most memorable of the Pellegrino era, as the Moroccan’s flair and risk-taking style comes in complete contrast to the sterile death by possession style favoured by the recently-departed manager; his game-time reflected that and his passionate celebration in front of the manager after the Baggies wonder-goal left no-one uncertain of what Boufal thought about that.
Pellegrino’s promise of ‘exciting, attacking football, taking the game to the opponent by playing a high-intensity game’ on his arrival has become well highlighted on social media as he delivered nothing of the sort. With ex-Saints manager Claude Puel sacked after finishing eighth and reaching a cup final in difficult circumstances, it is incredible that his successor was given so much time and faith.
The absurd amount of trust in Pellegrino - despite minimal signs of it being warranted - was best summed up in a season-defining January transfer window. After selling Virgil Van Dijk for £75m, a very good fee for a player who was very vocal about wanting to go even after missing nine months through injury, bringing in goals and pace in attack was not so much hoped for but expected.
Instead, fans watched as former Southampton youth product Theo Walcott chose Everton over a romantic return to his boyhood club and Quincy Promes stayed in Russia as Spartak Moscow played hardball. The only signing was Guido Carrillo at an over-inflated £19m and was Pellegrino’s pick. Even with the striker he wanted, results haven’t changed and ex-Monaco forward Carrillo has not threatened breaking his duck of zero goals for his new team.
Yet as much as Carrillo’s struggles in front of goal can’t all be pinned on his failings, neither can Pellegrino’s struggles in the dugout. The Saints recruitment team headed by Les Reed and Ross Wilson saw the club struggle in front of goal last season under Puel; their solution was to sign two centre backs and a defensive midfielder.
While midfielder Mario Lemina has been one of the top performers when fit, the jury is still very much out on Wesley Hoedt and Jan Bednarek has struggled to impress for the under-23s, never mind challenge for a first team spot, despite being recruited for a eyebrow-raising £7m from Lech Poznan.
But Pellegrino would be foolish to point to others’ failings too heavily, as the poor recruitment that has dogged the club for the past two seasons involves his own appointment. If Puel was sacked for a lack of entertaining football despite finishing eighth and reaching a cup final, then bringing in someone who got Alaves to ninth in La Liga and a cup final through pretty dreary football probably isn’t the best bet for change.
It feels like Southampton have wanted the new Mauricio Pochettino since Koeman left: the model head coach who brings through players from the academy and plays high-pressing, attacking football that is easy on the eye. Saints have discovered that task to be a lot harder than just bringing in an manager from Argentina called Mauricio and MP plastered on a tracksuit.
The next man into the St Mary’s hotseat appears to be Mark Hughes. Despite a poor season at Stoke, Hughes did get the Potters three consecutive ninth-placed finishes. At Southampton, he would enter a job with a squad that should be doing far better than scrapping to stay up.
With the bottom half so tightly packed together, a few positive results could be all it takes to finish outside the bottom three, and with three weeks to prepare for the relegation six-pointer against West Ham that could make or break the season, Monday night seems to have been the last chance to roll the dice.
The dice should have been rolled a few months back, given how the Newcastle performance was almost a carbon copy of the shambles against Tottenham on Boxing Day. There is a cruel twist that by being so cautious, so fearful not just of losing but of winning, Pellegrino has put Southampton into a dangerous situation the club could have avoided if he had been a little more brave.
Having to gamble with nine games left and so few points left to play for would suggest Reed and co. should have thought twice about bringing the Argentine back to the Premier League.