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Assessing the legacy left by Ralph Krueger’s Southampton chairmanship

Saints’ departing chairman Ralph Krueger is set to leave his post, but what does the club look like after his six-season run in charge?

Southampton chairman Ralph Krueger, who is set to leave his post Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Read @shirleymush’s thoughts Saints’ soon-departing chairman Ralph Krueger.

On Ralph Krueger

Southampton’s direction of travel under Ralph Krueger tenure as chairman didn’t make sense for owners or supporters, and led to the club being owned by a man of very questionable morals.

It’s hard to judge Krueger’s time at Southampton fairly, because no one really seems to know what he did. It’s also hard to establish what his philosophy was, or what his legacy might be, because what he said and what the club subsequently did were often different things.

Bullshit Bingo

Krueger was infamous for his incoherent interviews, and was at his least intelligible when asked to explain what his role entailed. He would often talk in vague terms about providing ‘accountability’- a managerial buzzword that is becoming increasingly prevalent in every sphere of life. Yet he outlasted three managers appointed on his watch as Saints drifted to the brink of relegation.

Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes were the ones ultimately held accountable for Saints’ slide down the Premier League, along with former director of football Les Reed. Apparently when things went wrong, Krueger was less keen on being held accountable.

Krueger was appointed shortly before the tumultuous summer of 2014, when Southampton seemed intent on selling every highly-rated player they had. The club subsequently embarked on what was often referred to by the football media as a “logic-defying” season in which they improved by one place the 8th place finish under Mauricio Pochettino in 2013/14, with stellar contributions from the players brought in to replace those sold.

Under Ronald Koeman, Southampton improved on their league position from the season previous under Mauricio Pochettino. Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Whether the change in strategy was Krueger’s brainchild or that of the bean counters, it was very well executed. Dusan Tadic, Sadio Mane and Toby Alderweireld were all brought to the club that summer. Now, they are excelling for some of Europe’s best teams.

I’ve argued in the past that Southampton’s performances that season made a certain amount of sense. They weren’t trading down as such, just taking the decision that it wasn’t feasible to pay the kind of salaries offered to Adam Lallana and co. by Liverpool while also attracting the calibre of player required to match their ambitions and keep pushing the team up the table. They bought some of the best players they’d been able to attract since Kevin Keegan emerged from behind a curtain at the Potter’s Heron, even if they had to cash in on players who’d already impressed in the Premier League in order to afford them.

Given Katharaina Liebherr’s lack of enthusiasm for pumping money into the club, it was a perfectly sound strategy on paper, and, for the time being and in practice, Krueger bought into it with gusto. Gradually, he reframed the club’s “Potential into excellence” ethos to be mainly about recruiting players with great potential, where previously it had been about developing it in-house.

It made sense for Krueger to embrace this model; even if it wasn’t his idea, it was a subtle yet clear shift that had occurred under his management, and it had been successful. Gradually, player trading seemed to become fundamental to Southampton’s strategy. But it reckoned without the caprice of the transfer market, which would eventually come to torment the club.

“Deepening the roster”

When he was an ice hockey coach, Krueger was apparently keen to work with big squads if players who he’d rotate over the course of the season, and on his watch Saints shifted in this direction, having previously maintained a relatively small squad of senior players and relied on academy graduates for reinforcements.

Ralph Krueger coached Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

This small c conservatism may, in retrospect, have been the result of Katharina Liebherr’s desire to sell the club; the received wisdom has generally held that there’s an inherent risk in picking young, inexperienced players, and Krueger will have been reluctant to gamble when Southampton’s status as an established Premier League club made them a far more valuable asset than if they were in the lower reaches of the top flight, or relegated to the second tier.

What they failed to recognise was that buying a player is a much bigger risk than picking one from the youth team. Youth team players who fail to deliver go back to the youth team, getting paid relatively meagre wages until they find a level at which they can make a living from the game. Multi-million pound signings hang around until you can find another club naive enough to pay them 60 grand a week.

Over several years, “deepening the roster” led to an increasingly bloated squad, with promising academy graduates parked at lower league clubs or left to tread water in the under-23s and millions of pounds’ worth expensive flops exiled to other European leagues.

Synergies

In the summer of 2016, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Krueger say some things that I considered to be very sensible.

After two summers of upheaval, he announced, Saints would be less active in the transfer market and would instead look to renew contracts of key players in order to “build synergies”.

This seemed like a good plan: Michael Cox of Zonal Marking was extolling the virtues of Tottenham’s zen approach to the transfer window on the basis that it allowed the players they already had to build partnerships and be moulded by the coach. I agreed, and was looking forward to something similar happening with Virgil Van Dijk, Ryan Bertrand et al.

A couple of years later, Krueger was blaming the club’s decline on the decision to not swiftly flog every highly-rated player we had as soon as they attracted interest (and remember, Saints still sold Sadio Mane in 2016). Even Chukka Umunna might have struggled to get away with this kind of a u-turn, but it was barely commented on.

We’ve got Van Dijk

I have, in the past, likened what happened around Christmas 2017 with an Adam Curtis film, in which surreal events are documented and barely adequately explained, because that was how it felt at the time, and how it still feels in retrospect.

Then-Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk taking on current club Liverpool Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Months previously, Saints had resisted overtures from (of course) Liverpool towards their star central defender Virgil van Dijk. Now, after a sustained period of truculence and lackadaisical performances from the Dutchman, they decided they wanted to sell. They also decided that they would blame him for everything that had gone wrong that season.

Like a centrist dad desperate to blame Jeremy Corbyn for Brexit, Krueger seemed to want to blame all of Southampton’s problems on van Dijk: poor results, under-performing signings, a flailing manager, crap football. Like the centrist dad though, he was unable to do so in a way that made any sense in any sort of verifiable reality.

Krueger’s Independent Traders

This, as much as anything else, can probably be considered the defining trait of Krueger’s stewardship: his steadfast belief that the way forward was through player trading.

Despite acting on behalf of risk-averse owners, it never seemed to occur to him that total reliance on effectively gambling millions of pounds on players might not make total sense. Even at the recent fans forum, Krueger was still waffling about the strength of the club’s recruitment, brazenly claiming Yan Valery and Michael Obafemi (both of whom spent time in the club’s academy) as triumphs of that model.

Southampton FC v Manchester City - Premier League

Some fans point to the appointment of the excellent Ralph Hasenhuttl as a Krueger triumph, but I’ve contended elsewhere that this was more a tacit acceptance from Krueger - with his brass neck finally on the chopping block - that finding diamonds in the rough is only profitable if you’ve got someone who’s good at polishing them up.

Hasenhuttl has set about trying to prove Soccernomics (a book that theorises that managers make little difference to a club’s league position) wrong, coaxing vital contributions from Staplewood alumni who seemed to be drifting into obscurity, as well as recruits hitherto seen as expensive mistakes. He has also been fairly forthright in arguing against having the kind of large squad Krueger advocated, while also talking about the importance of the academy as a source of first-team players and as an economic multiplier.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to buy good players, but money should be invested in an attempt to meet the needs of the team, rather than with a view to creating surplus value.

Compare the signings of, say, Charlie Austin or Jordie Clasie with that of Nathan Redmond. Austin and Clasie were bought despite Saints being relatively well furnished in their positions, presumably because they were relatively cheap and the club felt they could make a profit on them. Both will probably leave for little or nothing, while Redmond, who has belatedly come good having been bought to replace Sadio Mane, will most likely be sold for a sizeable fee, because he has use value.

Redmond, incidentally, was bought in 2016, which has been widely cited as the year Saints began to make mistakes in the transfer market, yet two acquisitions that summer - Redmond and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg - are now leading contenders for the club’s player of the season award.

It seems like it wasn’t that Saints recruited particularly badly, but that they adopted, whether at Krueger’s behest or someone else’s, a deeply flawed holistic approach that was almost entirely transactional.

Legacy

The fact is that during in Krueger’s spell at the helm, Saints went from 8th to 17th. It seems highly unlikely that this had nothing to do with him.

Before Hasenhuttl arrived, Saints had become a club like any other, trying to buy and sell their way to whatever it is they see as success, and deluding themselves that they were a) still different and b) still recruits par excellence despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Adam Leitch recently wrote that Krueger did a good job on behalf of the two owners he served, but I’d argue that this is only true up to a point. The move away from putting trust in academy graduates has cost millions, and the club must surely be less appealing commercially now it’s fighting relegation instead of flirting with the Champions League places.

Ralph Krueger with Gao Jisheng, Southampton majority shareholder and owner. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

From a supporter’s perspective though, this is barely relevant.

Perhaps the most important thing for Saints fans to remember about Ralph Krueger is that he delivered our club - the hub of our community - into the hands of a man who has been proved to be corrupt and whose testimony against the officials he bribed led to their execution.

That, I’m afraid, is Krueger’s legacy.