Somewhere in Leicestershire, Claude Puel will be chuckling into his Chablis.
Mauricio Pellegrino was finally put of his misery on Monday night, sacked as Southampton manager after less than a year in charge. The Saints haven’t won since November, with a 3-0 defeat to Newcastle at the weekend proving the last straw for an exasperated boardroom.
In truth, while Pellegrino’s exit has been a long time in coming, it wasn’t immediately obvious that his first stint in England would go so badly.
The Argentine arrived from La Liga with an inflated reputation, having guided Alavés to their highest finish in a decade on a shoestring budget. An apprentice of Rafa Benítez at Liverpool and Inter, big things were expected from a man with a proven pedigree.
A dressing room lost
One victory in seventeen games, however, meant that the writing was on the wall.
Pellegrino’s fate was sealed as soon as the Newcastle game finished. Normally diffident in front of the cameras, the Saints’ mans’ face was a mix of resignation and annoyance, as he admitted that some of his players appeared to have “given up”.
Questions about his future were met with a tired riposte – he was the Southampton manager “at the moment” but everybody knew the axe was soon to fall.
The manner of his men’s surrender will have forced chairman Ralph Krueger’s hand. The visitors were tortured at St.James’ Park, second to every ball and outfought by a team just one place above them in the table.
“Everybody must look in the mirror” admitted Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg after the latest debacle.
In truth though, Southampton’s decline this year has been pronounced.In each of their preceding five seasons in the Premier League, they have been a guaranteed fixture in the Top Ten. The peril of their position can justifiably be ascribed to one man in particular.
It’s a shame because Pellegrino did some astute business in the summer. Wesley Hoedt was an assured acquisition at centre back, a calm successor to the striking Virgil van Dijk. Mario Lemina, meanwhile, is an athletic midfielder who had earned a move to Juventus courtesy of some excellent form with Lyon in Ligue 1.
Southampton’s defence as a whole, however, has been poor. Three of their players are in the top 20 for errors that have led directly to goals, whilst only Bournemouth, Stoke and Crystal Palace have fewer clean sheets.
“This season we have conceded too many easy goals,” admitted Oriol Romeu in February. “Then closing the game down, we have had too many times when we have lost points in the last minutes.”
It was an accurate assessment, but the failures were as much about tactics as they were about application. Ultimately, Pellegrino paid the price.
With eight games left to salvage their season, Krueger will be keen to appoint a successor sooner rather than later. Mark Hughes, Marco Silva and Slaven Bilic head up a less-than-inspiring field, slightly ahead of Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill.
Brendan Rodgers seems like an intuitive feel but the Carnlough man would be loathed to leave Scotland with Rangers breathing down Celtic’s neck in the league. If assistant coach Carlos Campagnucci can somehow secure Premier League status, then the job on the South Coast could be a very attractive one indeed.
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