Southampton’s sacking of Claude Puel is not entirely fair on the Frenchman but the club reckon they could do better, which, in the Premier League, is fair enough. There is no guarantee that Southampton’s next manager will do as well as Puel did but the club’s rulers have decided, ruthlessly and with a boldness born of their strong record, to try to find a manager who will rise to the formidable challenge of guiding the team higher and generating a happier buzz around the place. It will be some trick if Southampton pull it off again. Especially if they sell key players. Again.
Nigel Adkins would disagree but there is entertainment to be had in the way Southampton strive to find better managers even at the risk of making fools of themselves, demanding that gaffers be close to supernatural rather than merely good. And to think, people say they lack ambition.
Southampton may accept (without wishing to have it rubbed in their faces by, let’s say, Liverpool) that some players and managers see them as a stepping stone to even grander things, but that does not mean the club have abandoned hope of reaching higher ground. Whether they let top people go willingly or grudgingly, they always back their ability to source someone better. They don’t aways get it right but they’ve proven to be cannier than most.
Puel did not fall short of the reasonable expectations that Southampton could have had when they appointed him less than a year ago, he just failed to meet their admirably unreasonable ones. In his credit column after his solitary season in charge there is a not-to-be-sniffed-at eighth place in the Premier League and a marvelous run in the EFL Cup, in which Southampton overcame four top-flight teams, including Liverpool and Arsenal, without conceding a goal before losing unluckily in the final to Manchester United. That was Southampton’s first appearance in a major final for 14 years.
Several players enjoyed the best season of their careers under Puel, such as Oriol Romeu, James-Ward Prowse, Nathan Redmond, Cédric Soares and, at a stretch, Maya Yoshida. The Frenchman was headhunted partially because of his aptitude for rearing young players and he did that pretty well on the south coast, with Jack Stephens, Sam McQueen and Josh Sims making memorable impacts on the first team.
Those achievements came despite a series of unfortunate events that might have horrified even Lemony Snicket. Puel lost his first signing, Jérémy Pied, to a long-term injury on the first day of the season, then in December lost his only reliable goalscorer, Charlie Austin, to injury for several months and then his first-choice centre-backs (his captain, José Fonte, defecting to West Ham in January and his best player, Virgil van Dijk, suffering a season-ending injury soon afterwards). Throw in shorter-term injuries to players such as Ryan Bertrand and Manolo Gabbiadini and it is clear that Southampton’s results could have been far worse.
But one can imagine them being better, too. Southampton finished just one place away from qualifying for Europe again but actually they were miles off. As the top six teams soared away only Everton grasped at their coat-tails; below that everyone bunched together in a low-brow sprawl, Southampton being just six points above 17th-placed Watford. Southampton finished only two places lower than the previous year but gathered 17 points fewer. That was no surprise after the top clubs strengthened – partially by buying Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama from Southampton, and the Saints drafted in replacements who have mostly looked inferior so far. But that does not make it an acceptable state of affairs to Southampton’s peculiar and demanding regime.
The ugliest entry in Puel’s debit column was Southampton’s Europa League campaign. After embarrassing themselves on the continent two years ago under Ronald Koeman, the club had high hopes of making a better impression under Puel – who took Lyon to the semi-final of the Champions League – and Southampton did enjoy a couple of satisfying wins over Sparta Prague and Internazionale. But ultimately they flopped out of the competition like rumbled impostors, eliminated at the group stage by a 1-1 home draw with Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Southampton’s approach to that game was damnable, as they initially played against their humdrum visitors as if aiming for the 0-0 draw that would have put them through.
Southampton often played snappily and cleverly under Puel but accusations that excessive caution was cramping their style became more frequent as the season wore on. Puel was unable to rebut those allegations during the run-in, as his team failed to score in their last five home matches. They ended the campaign with a paltry 41 goals from 38 league games, with only the bottom five teams scoring fewer. Again it seems harsh to scold the manager alone for that because part of the reason he tightened up the team was to offset the loss of his best defenders and, more significantly, some of the club’s forwards are incorrigibly erratic, especially when Austin and Gabbiadini are absent. Even when Puel’s team tore through Burnley in October and fired off 34 shots – more than any other Premier League team in any match since 2003 – they managed to win only 3-1.
In Puel’s previous job he inspired Nice to surpass expectations with much pizzazz. At Southampton he generally failed to do that despite the EFL Cup exploits and, accordingly, he achieved only a par performance. Which, paradoxically, is not good enough for Southampton.
What is more, and contrary to the cliche, football management is not only a results business. The troublesome thing for managers of mid-ranking teams is that the farther they get from challenging for the title or European qualification, the higher fans’ demands get for entertainment, at least. Critically, Puel failed to give the impression that he was building towards something more exciting. He did not connect with enough people.
Puel would flunk the entrance exam to the Jürgen Klopp or David Wagner School of Charismatic Speaking. Southampton must have known that when they enlisted him but evidently they still hoped he would create a positive dynamic. It turned out that he could not get through to some players, as too many of them became irritated by his rotation policy, seemingly unconvinced that rationing their workload was in their best interests. Similarly, too many fans suspected Puel’s instincts were negative even though the core message he tried to impart to his players from his very first match – a home draw against Watford during which he railed furiously from the sidelines – was, according to Romeu, “to be braver and to take responsibility and be happy out there”. Ultimately, it did not look as if enough of his players were able to do that as often as demanded. But by jilting Puel, the club’s rulers have followed that instruction.