Southampton: What now for the Saints?
After beating Swansea to take a giant step towards retaining their top-flight status, what lies ahead for the struggling south coast side?
It’s easy to forget Southampton were plying their trade in the English third-tier only seven short years ago.
Having battled their way back into the top-flight, they’ve gone on to enjoy five successful season’s, the last four of which they finished comfortably in the top half of the table.
This season has been different. With a squad that’s been repeatedly ransacked for its prize gems, the Saints solid footing has eroded from beneath them and left behind a club struggling for survival.
While they’re not quite safe from relegation just yet, Manolo Gabbiadini’s goal last night has put them into a gravity-defying position from which they’re fully expected to remain in the top-flight for another season.
The euphoria from this achievement will soon dissolve, however, leaving behind a feeling of dread. Caught in the firm grasp of decline, the Saints board will be left to reflect on what has been a hugely disappointing two years.
But what do they need to do next to arrest this new trend?
The most obvious takeaway from Southampton’s recent plight has been a fundamental lack of goals throughout the team.
While they have some promising talent within their squad on paper, the reality has been that these players don’t consistently deliver.
Since the sale of Graziano Pellè and Sadio Mané in the summer of 2016, the Saints have been unable to find a new cutting edge.
There have been investments made in the forward line. Sofiane Boufal, Nathan Redmond, Guido Carrillo and Manolo Gabbiadini have all arrived through the doors for significant transfer sums during this time.
They’ve collectively only managed eight goals between them in the league this season, one less than Charlie Austin who’s only started 9 of the 37 games in their league campaign, albeit with another 14 appearances made in rising from the bench.
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The emergence of Southampton as an established force in the Premier League came with a swagger of expansive football.
The attacking philosophies which were deeply embedded into the bedrock of the club’s latest reincarnation saw them win the hearts of many neutrals.
What made them an even more attractive poster-child for the Premier League was their ability to foster talent. Between 2006 and 2012, the rate of successes to emerge from their academy was nothing short of miraculous.
With James Ward-Prowse, Jack Stephens, Sam McQueen and Joshua Sims the latest arrivals into the first team, the well is looking a little drier than previous years.
This isn’t to suggest it can’t brim over again but it should serve as a warning that it’s not a reliable source of replenishment.
The loss of Paul Mitchell to Tottenham in November of 2014 has proved to be the Saints biggest loss in recent memory.
The man in charge of scouting and recruitment and co-designer of their fabled “black box” of metrics data and analysis tools, simply hasn’t been sufficiently replaced.
Responsible for the capture of both Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, not to mention some of the finest players to grace the Saints stripes, Mitchell has gone on to discover the likes of Delle Ali, Davinson Sánchez and Heung-Min Son.
Southampton, meanwhile, have been left shooting blanks. While the hierarchy have continued selling their prized possessions to the highest bidder, the influx of talent has caused a state of imbalance.
If Les Reed can finally beat another winning formula from his black box, he could well bring the next Pochettino to English football. In Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino it was believed they would be just that.
Statistics will tell you that even the most accurate piece of analytical software still has a chance of error. When this is used to calculate human behaviour, this margin of error is greatly increased but this run of bad fortune can not last indefinitely.
The loss of Nicola Cortese, and more recently, Katharina Liebherr, from the Southampton board has meant wholesale changes to the structure behind the scenes.
This was a formula which grew the club out of division one and rooted them firmly into a mid-table berth in the Premier League.
While Les Reed is still the figurehead of the club, his support system has become significantly weakened.
While the club continue to follow the same blueprints which served them so well, they no longer appear to have the refined tools needed to make this system tick.
Above all else, what the Saints desperately need next is a general direction to aim for, and more importantly, someone to helm that route.
Mark Hughes’ record suggests he’s not the person to lead them to milk and honey, a sentiment backed up by the fans of each club he’s left in a withered state following a brief revival.
The Welshman has been a good short-term choice, helping to provide the proverbial kick the under-performing players needed to see them over the line.
His record for long-term succession, prudent recruitment and promoting young players suggests he is an ill-fit for the current Southampton prototype.
The Saints have profited from heavy investments in both human and technical resources and now they must invest again.
This summer could prove to be a watershed moment for Southampton. In need of re-establishing their foothold, the shoes they choose this summer will need to fit comfortably and have plenty of grip in terms of tactics, scouting and player motivation.
I wonder what the black box will suggest next?
What do you think the future holds for Southampton? Let us know by commenting below.