Since returning to the top flight at the start of the 2012-13 season after a seven-year absence, Premier League founding members Southampton have managed to consolidate and build steadily. At one point they were even considered potential Europa League candidates and seemed to have a solid plan of action in place to improve each season. Now, though, the South Coast club have fallen drastically and are relegation strugglers. Where did it all go wrong?
Southampton’s return to the Premier League
Southampton were one of the 22 clubs that took part in the inaugural season of the Premier League, and remained there for ten terms before slipping into the lower echelons of the English game. The Saints sank as low as League One for a duo of campaigns between 2009 and 2011, but managed to bounce back up with two successive promotions under Nigel Adkins. Upon returning to the top flight, the now Hull City manager was replaced by Mauricio Pochettino, who had been managing in La Liga with Espanyol up to that point. The Argentine quickly made a name for himself in England, guiding the Saints to 14th then 8th place finishes in his first two seasons in charge.
This emphatic start to his Southampton career was destined to catch the eye of bigger clubs in the division, and Pochettino was quickly snapped up by Tottenham Hotspur. But, surprisingly, the loss of the 46-year-old tactician wasn’t detrimental to the team’s success, and the Saints continued to sustain a strong record in the league under the next two managers. It was clear that the club had a durable structure in place which helped to maintain their position.
One of the things Southampton have been lauded for in recent history is their shrewd signings and strong development system. The Southampton F.C academy is considered to be in the top ten youth set-ups in the world alongside the likes of Barcelona’s La Masia and the AFC Ajax Youth Academy. The club has produced talent which includes Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, and Adam Lallana, and in 2014 invested £30 million into a state of the art facility and an extensive scouting network. For clubs that don’t have the financial pulling power of the division’s elite, systems like this are imperative.
Steady Progress under Koeman
When Pochettino made the switch to White Hart Lane, Southampton managed to secure the services of another hot prospect in the field of management, Ronald Koeman. Everton fans will remember the 55-year-old for his recent dismal spell at Goodison Park, where he was ultimately sacked, but prior to entering the English top flight, Koeman was considered an excellent acquisition. The Dutchman had gained most of his experience in the Eredivisie, managing Ajax between 2001 and 2005, PSV from 2006 to 2007, and Feyenoord from 2011 to 2014. He’s the only person to have both played for the “Big Three” of Dutch football and managed them. In his time in the division, he won three titles.
Southampton knew they were getting a schemer of strong pedigree, and Koeman didn’t disappoint during his time at the St Mary’s Stadium. The now Netherlands national team manager set records in both of his seasons at the club, guiding the Saints to a seventh-place finish in 2014-15, and a sixth-place finish the following season. These were the club’s highest ever finishes, and they subsequently qualified for the Europa League two seasons in a row. Koeman’s charges were even one of the teams considered capable of winning the trophy at one point.
Even when the Dutchman was snapped up by the Toffees, Southampton continued to enjoy good times under Claude Puel, despite being accused of playing fairly bland football. The Frenchman led the club to an eighth-place finish in the league, and also to the EFL Cup final, where they lost 3-2 to Manchester City.
Loss of Van Dijk
Some may say that part of Southampton’s downfall could be attributed to the loss of their best players over recent years. Although in a business sense they have made a lot of shrewd decisions and all their major transfers combined add up to around £300 million, on the pitch it has caused them to suffer. After selling Adam Lallana to Liverpool for £25 million in 2014, the Saints went on to offload Nathaniel Clyne and Sadio Mane to the Anfield outfit, for £12.5 million in 2015 and £34 million in 2016 respectively. Spurs also swept in and stole a couple of Southampton’s best players – Toby Alderweireld for £11.5 million in 2015 and Victor Wanyama for £11 million in 2016. These price tags look like absolute steals now considering how pivotal these players have been to their teams. Despite losing these players, Southampton still managed to maintain strong league form.
In the 2017-18 season, Southampton saw another major player go in Virgil Van Dijk. They managed to sell the Dutchman for a staggering sum of £75 million, but the saga surrounding his sale in the summer before was clearly detrimental to the start of the Saints’ campaign. The centre-back was determined to leave, and no longer wanted to play for the club. This is when Southampton’s decline became more evident – they only managed to win four games in the first half of the season. Van Dijk was clearly a crucial cog in the Southampton machine.
New Management and Decline
Southampton slipped down into relegation contention under the stewardship of Mauricio Pellegrino in the 2017-18 campaign. The Argentine was supposed to bring about a more free-flowing form of football at St Mary’s after the conservative style of Puel from the previous season. The former Alaves manager was unable to instil a new attacking philosophy, though, and the team seemed to stagnate. There were also few opportunities given to players from the respected youth set-up.
After only winning five games during his time there, Southampton decided to part ways with Pellegrino. The move was clearly required, but whether Mark Hughes will be able to inspire the same success as Pochettino and Koeman remains to be seen. Southampton have certainly fallen from grace, but luckily for them, they have the systems in place to be able to recover from this temporary blip.