Southampton: Once the pride of the south coast – what has gone so badly wrong at Saint struggling?

Southampton are a football club burdened by trouble and strife. It has been that way since their European zenith under Ronald Koeman – an extension of the fine work Mauricio Pochettino had undertaken in the two seasons before his arrival.

Saints are a far cry from the club the Dutchman inherited back in 2014. And some distance from where they themselves expected to be after establishing a brief foothold as one of the Premier League’s top-half teams.

A story that got muddled before reaching its fairytale conclusion.

Indeed, Southampton’s plight is a bit like a ‘once upon a time’, less the happy ending. A series of pinch points without the comfort of resolution.

Friday 21st April 7:00pm

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Various players with ambitions far greater than the means at St Mary’s have come and gone during Southampton’s decade-long Premier League stay, yet expectations of grandeur persisted. Plans were discussed in boardrooms and along executive corridors by the club’s decision makers, who became obsessed with the notion of overachievement, or rather the ability to punch above one’s weight. A rookie in the big leagues.

The tagline coined in said discussions was “potential into excellence”. What that meant in reality was somewhat idealistic. A strategy that served for a short while but needed refining as the Premier League landscape changed – and became ever-more financially fueled.

Saints stumbled across some gems during the Koeman era. In consecutive transfer windows the likes of Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle and Virgil van Dijk were all attracted to the south coast, supplemented by a world-class academy system packed with thoroughbred talent. Prospects were good.

Ronald Koeman was Southampton boss between 2014-16
Ronald Koeman was Southampton boss between 2014-16 – winning their highest-ever PL points total (63) in his final season

Between 2013 and 2017 Southampton finished no lower than eighth. In 2016, during Koeman’s swansong, they ended the season on 63 points. The football was, at times, enchanting – results too. Saints adopted an expansive, progressive style, with clear energy and identity, and a reputation for producing a healthy sprinkle of shock results.

In January 2015 they recorded back-to-back victories over Arsenal and Manchester United without conceding a single goal. In October the same year they visited Stamford Bridge and dispatched of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, before putting four past the Gunners on Boxing Day. They beat United, again at Old Trafford, in January 2016, as well as emerging triumphant over Liverpool and Tottenham in the same campaign.

2015/16 season

It was a melting pot of smart operational decisions, a coherent structure and favorable external circumstances that landed Southampton in European competition the following season, with the chance to treat fans to one of the apogees of continental football – a night at the San Siro. For most supporters it was a dream come true – a fantasy playing out in real time. The kind normally reserved for creative games of Soccer manager.

The return leg was even more memorable.

Van Dijk, enjoying his south coast heyday, put Southampton in front before Yuto Nagatomo’s own goal handed Saints a historic 2-1 victory. They did not progress past the group stage, but they had beaten three-time European champions Inter Milan. That alone was enough to satisfy. Enough to point towards an irreversible upwards curve. Potential on its course to excellence.

alas. Sudden success has turned into a scourge.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League match between Southampton and Crystal Palace

Koeman was lured to Goodison Park shortly after, tempted by the promise of the biggest transfer budget in Everton’s history by majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri. The loss rocked St Mary’s but was not completely catastrophic. They turned to form Lyon and Nice boss Claude Puel, who ultimately fell victim to Southampton’s admirably unreasonable expectations.

He oversaw an eighth-placed finish as Saints made it all the way to the League Cup final at Wembley – akin to the waves Brighton are making now. Eight was solid, respectable. An overachievement. Not according to the Southampton board, who promptly gave Puel his marching orders shortly after the season had finished.

Granted the football was not as pretty, and lacked the flair and verve of the Koeman age, but it was productive enough to ensure stability. A total of six managers (one caretaker), including current head coach Ruben Selles, have taken the helm since Puel’s exit, with none outperforming the Frenchman’s win percentage (38).

This is a case of a dramatic rise – Southampton were competing in League One as recently as 2011 – leading to one almighty fall. Perhaps Leicester can be categorized similarly. They too are victims of their own success, albeit the comedown from winning Premier League glory as 5,000/1 outsiders is altogether different from the predicament unfolding on the south coast.

Having won two of their first three games under Ruben Selles, Saints are now winless in their last six
Having won two of their first three games under Ruben Selles, Saints are now winless in their last six

Southampton’s five-year plan, circa 2017, was geared towards breaking the Premier League’s top four upcoming seasons. Now they find themselves plummeting precariously ever closer to the Championship.

Pining after the Puel days has become commonplace.

If Saints were once ahead of the curve – using a data-led approach to unearth young talent and shop in savvy player markets at low risk – they have now fallen frightfully behind it. Competitors caught up, cruising by in the outside lane while Saints sat idle on the hard shoulder.

Southampton’s sorry season

  • Saints have failed to score in a league-high 13 matches (42 percent of games)
  • Only seven goals have been scored by recognized strikers this term
  • Saints are yet to register back-to-back wins in the league
  • 10 games have been lost at St Mary’s – equaling their most defeats on home soil
  • They have failed to reach 1.0xG in six of nine games under Ruben Selles
  • Having won two of their first three games under Saddles, Saints are now winless in their last six

The model in operation just along the A27, 70 miles east of Southampton in Brighton, is making matters worse. The Seagulls are now the pride of the south coast, soaring ever higher after years of steady improvement and consistent recruitment. They are the envy of most middle-sized clubs with modest budgets.

Indeed, there was a time where Brighton aspired to emulate Southampton or Leicester. How the tables have turned.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League match between Chelsea and Brighton

With a relentless drain of talent, both on and off the pitch, is the area in which Brighton have succeeded where rivals have not. The football at the Amex Stadium is just as effective and bears just as much fruit as before Ben White was poached by Arsenal or Marc Cucurella by Chelsea, or Dan Burn left for Newcastle and technical director Dan Ashworth followed, or Yves Bissouma and Leandro Trossard chose to head for different sides of north London.

Captain James Ward-Prowse attempts to galvanize team-mates after falling behind to Palace
Saints captain James Ward-Prowse attempts to galvanize team-mates after falling behind to Palace

There has been a purge on Brighton’s best talent for years and nothing much has changed. Like a well-oiled assembly line. Neatly summed up by the seamless transition from Graham Potter as head coach to the enigmatic Roberto De Zerbi.

Southampton, comparatively, have lost their way. They have abandoned principles that were once held dear to the club in a desperate attempt to survive. When a ship is sinking it requires life rafts, not rubber rings. Replacing experienced manager Ralph Hasenhuttl with Nathan Jones – a novice who was untried and untested at top-flight level – back in November, which was perhaps the most fatal mistake of all.


Jones turned out to be the shortest serving permanent manager in Southampton history, characterized by a circus of commotion and blame-shifting.

In the three months he was in charge the club sank to the bottom of the Premier League, while wasting millions of pounds in a misused January transfer market on players who are either consigned to the substitutes’ bench or do not make the matchday squad at all . Croatia international Mislav Orsic is the best example of such misdirection, having played just six miserly minutes of Premier League football since his £8m January arrival.

Selles, the man tasked with the remote recovery mission, is at least more familiar with Southampton’s DNA – he too is a top-flight first-timer, but was Hasenhuttl’s right-hand man before stepping into the hot-seat. He is well-liked and well-respected by players, and has already set to work realigning Saints’ playing style with some degree of familiarity.

Erling Haaland leads Man City in front
Saints have the fifth worst defensive record in the league

On the pitch they have returned to Hasenhuttl’s 4-2-2-2 methodology, with a heavy reliance on the “counter-pressure”, as Selles terms it. Off the pitch, efforts have been made to reunite a fractured playing squad by implementing clear and defined roles, but a losing culture among a bloated squad is hard to shake under such scrutiny and pressure.


Saints suffered their 10th home defeat of the season against Crystal Palace last weekend, equaling their most losses on home soil in a single season – it was their 20th loss overall, a club record for a 38-game campaign. Now they must travel to league leaders Arsenal, live on friday night football, with the weight of the world on fragile shoulders.


“Every mistake we’re making is getting punished very hard. We will keep fighting until the very end,” a sorrowful Selles told Sky Sports last week, as if already resigned to an ill-fated end.

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Selles insisted Southampton would fight until the end to avoid relegation, despite suffering a ‘damaging’ defeat against Crystal Palace

At this point, Southampton look a side where pride may be all that is left to play for. Such a prolonged malaise has taken its weary toll, while a once indignant fanbase has turned increasingly indifferent as hopes of survival fade with every passing week.

Perhaps paying the ultimate price of relegation and restarting the up-cycle from scratch is what needs to happen for years of chaos and crisis to give way to calm waters.

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