When Claude Puel was sacked last June, there was tangible excitement among Southampton supporters ready to enjoy a season without the shackles. But seven months on there is little of that desired zest or swagger where Mauricio Pellegrino’s side are concerned and the possibility of relegation to the Championship – the club are outside the bottom three only on goal difference before Saturday’s trip to Watford – suggests regression.
After one win from their past 13 league matches, it was not surprising that Pellegrino was forced to bat away questions over his immediate future and whether he fears becoming the eighth Premier League managerial casualty of the season at his pre-match press conference on Thursday. “It’s part of our job,” he said. “For every manager, the biggest risk in football is to work in football.”
Under Pellegrino, Southampton were supposed to be revitalised; players freed from the leashes of Puel’s reign, his style deemed too conservative, with front-foot football promised by Les Reed, the club’s executive director. There has been little evidence of the attacking philosophy that made the former Alavés manager so attractive to the club, as last season’s frustrations continue to plague St Mary’s this term; from the reluctance to play two up front to the predictable slow and steady approach that has seen Southampton go stale.
Most damning is the fact that they have won only four league matches this season, as many as the bottom club Swansea City and more than only West Bromwich Albion. Finding the net has proved problematic too, with a frightening reliance on Charlie Austin – ruled out until at least the end of next month with a hamstring injury – while Shane Long’s struggles have been well documented.
The pain even led to a 12-year-old season-ticket holder writing a letter to Pellegrino this week in which she expressed her “embarrassment” at the season so far.
The post-Puel era was surely not envisaged quite like this. On the flipside, perhaps it is unfair to assume Southampton ought to be able seamlessly to repeat or build upon impressive previous feats, such as last year’s eighth-place finish or reaching the League Cup final. Tellingly, the chairman, Ralph Krueger, thrice made reference to Southampton as a “small club” in a recent interview. Maybe, then, this wishy-washy season is a much-needed reality check, a realignment of expectations. Either way, after a bumpy ride under the Frenchman, Southampton seem to be stalling under Pellegrino.
What has happened to the Southampton Way? It is a slogan trumpeted by Reed and Krueger, was once the backbone to their fearlessness – no matter who they were playing – and partly relates to the club’s emphasis on developing and affording first-team opportunities to players from their esteemed academy.
That route seems to have slowly eroded over the past couple of years, though, and until recently homegrown players have hardly been a fixture of any starting lineup. No longer a youngster, the 23-year-old midfielder James Ward-Prowse continues to flirt with being a first-team regular. He is also possibly a victim of Pellegrino still not knowing his best team, while the defender Jack Stephens, signed from Plymouth Argyle in 2011, had to make do with living in Virgil van Dijk’s shadow – he was largely left on the bench or out of the match-day squad altogether – until the Dutchman’s £75m move to Liverpool accelerated.
The towering striker Sam Gallagher, who signed a new four-year deal last summer, and the midfielder Harrison Reed, handed debuts by Mauricio Pochettino in 2014, are out on loan in the second tier, at Birmingham City and Norwich City respectively. Sam McQueen, another handed his debut by the now Tottenham manager, has been very much a bit-part player, as have Matt Targett and Jake Hesketh – the latter returned from injury in October – both youngsters given a chance by Ronald Koeman. Josh Sims, meanwhile, thrust into the limelight by Puel after a brilliant cameo at home to Everton last season, is also back from injury. There is no greater time for them to make their mark.
Southampton also plan to invest this month by bolstering their attack but a move for Theo Walcott feels like an own goal; they already have Long, Dusan Tadic, Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal to provide flickers of brilliance down the wing before a more often than not disappointing end product. The striker Guido Carrillo, who worked under Pellegrino at Estudiantes, has underwhelmed at Monaco but may at least inject some kind of goal threat into the final third.
Pellegrino, as he says, is doing his best and has conducted himself superbly amid further anger from fans, most recently when on the receiving end of “You don’t know what you’re doing” chants during the FA Cup third-round win over Fulham at Craven Cottage last Saturday. But this, surely, is not the Southampton Way.