Once the blueprint for building dazzling reputations of their academy graduates, Southampton have flirted with the prospect of vanishing from English football’s elite league in recent years. The club were once in a position of sustainability with a platform for future success as the likes of Adam Lallana, Ricky Lambert and Sadio Mane were sold to Premier League giants Liverpool for a king’s ransom. Just eight years prior to that, Theo Walcott was moved on to Arsenal for a total of £12m and Gareth Bale left the south-coast for Tottenham Hotspur for £5m just a year later.
Since then, the club have operated reasonably well with results superseding expectations, such as a League Cup final appearance in 2017 and a solid period exceeding a decade amongst the elite in the Premier League. During the summer of 2016, the club sold £123m worth of players and turned a tidy profit of just over £27m. Just eighteen months later, Liverpool came back in for another Saints player in Dutch centre-half Virgil van Dijk and the club sold the player for £75m, a British record transfer fee for a defender at the time.
Such an impressive recruitment model had dissipated over the last few years, with fellow south coast club Brighton seemingly taking their place as the best in the business. Southampton have performed remarkably well in the Premier League since their promotion in 2012 but a consistent trend of bringing the wrong individuals at the wrong time to the football club has finally caught up with them, with the club now rock-bottom of the table with three games to go.
The Saints started the 2022/2023 season with lots of negative noise surrounding the club. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s position was being talked about in the media as if it was untenable and the feeling amongst the fans was that he might walk away sooner rather than later. Compounded by a 4-1 defeat at Spurs on the opening day, many predicted that this would be the club’s final season in the top flight, which has ultimately turned out to be true. However, four points from their next two granted Hasenhuttl with time, and the fanbase looked on with hope as they beat a Chelsea side shot of confidence at the end of August.
The goodwill didn’t last for long though as the underperforming Saints side were soundly beaten by Wolves, Aston Villa, Everton and Manchester City. The players had checked out, and further whispers of the Austrian’s position becoming untenable were becoming clearer by the day. Normally, managers are shown the exit door for a run of poor results and failing to get the best out of the group they have at their disposal, but Southampton weren’t really underperforming by the very nature of the capacity of their squad.
Important players such as Che Adams and James Ward-Prowse were seen to be the leaders of a dressing room full of those simply not good enough to play in the Premier League, and many inside the club felt that the expenditure the club had forked out in the summer of 2022 should reflect better performances and results on the pitch. Sacking Hasenhuttl was just a matter of time, and the board decided to pull the trigger in early November prior to the World Cup break.
There was no time for panic, however, as the owners decided to bring in Nathan Jones from Luton Town. The writing, however, was almost immediately on the wall for the Welshman. The Southampton ownership, Sport Republic, were seemingly looking to replicate the trend of a young English manager to take the reigns of the youngest team in the league and push for survival against the odds. Lots of money spent, a raging hunger for success and profound expectations were bubbling away in the minds of Saints’ supporters, despite the club seemingly resigned to be playing in the second tier of English football next season.
Jones arrived with a reputation for being a fiery and motivational character. His constant self-praise and high perception of his own ability sparked excitement about what he might bring to the Premier League strugglers. Inevitably, Jones almost immediately out of his depth. His reign began with a frantic 3-1 defeat at Liverpool, which was followed by a collapse in front of their own fans against rivals Brighton by the same scoreline. Jones’ tactics and in-game management flabbergasted various sections of the media and the club’s supporters, which led to the question – why on god’s green earth did Sport Republic even entertain the idea of bringing in a manager who had failed so miserably at Stoke City?
The initial optimism in Jones came through good man-management skills and his ability to motivate his players. The club was firm on the view that the playing squad needed a confidence boost and fresh ideas having become disinterested in the philosophies of Hasenhuttl and his coaching staff previously. Rasmus Ankersen, the co-founder of Sport Republic became the driving force behind the appointment of Jones and suggested he could retain Hasenhuttl’s best qualities while building a more durable framework for the future.
Southampton paid Luton £3m to get Jones out of the Bedfordshire club and decided not to include a survival bonus in his contract – a decision widely viewed as suitable by the club’s hierarchy. Jones immediately became a popular figure on the training ground and the players were optimistic about what the future might hold for the team. The hierarchy had got what they wanted, an experienced coach intent on providing a cultural reset and adding some belief to a group of players almost convinced their fate would lie in the Championship.
Almost immediately after the World Cup break, the players returned to action perplexed by Jones’ indecisiveness on the touchline and ended the match having changed formation on multiple occasions. This wasn’t what the players or club bosses had in mind and the team succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Brighton on the day. The alarm bells were ringing, and a lack of clarity in Jones’ vision and playing philosophy offered no comfort for Ankersen and co.
Fast forward to February 4th at the Brentford Community Stadium – a critical point in Jones’ reign, and ultimately one which would determine his fate in inconceivable circumstances. Besides the abject performance on the day, the real show would begin in Jones’ press conference after the game. The Welshman said he had ‘compromised on principles’ and claimed Luton were once of the best-coached teams in Europe during his tenure at Kenilworth Road.
The comments were unquestionably arrogant and ill-timed and provided further clarity that Jones had indeed lost control of what he was brought in to do – getting the best out of an underperforming group. Just seven days later, ten-man Wolves grabbed a last-gasp winner to heap more misery on Jones. The result and lack of in-game awareness of Jones left the club with a decision to make, and seven defeats from eight league matches ultimately made the decision an easy one.
The club then announced that Jones had been sacked after just three months in charge. The Saints were left rock-bottom of the Premier League table and desperately looking for a solution to a season-long catastrophe. Senior players such as James Ward-Prowse and Che Adams were reportedly becoming disgruntled at the club’s lack of direction, and something needed to change fast. Since the Jones debacle, the tide hasn’t really turned as far as the Premier League table shows, although the appointment of assistant coach Ruben Selles has kept the players believing in a period that has seen Southampton draw 3-3 with Spurs and title hopefuls Arsenal.
Sport Republic will now be planning for life in English football’s second tier with just three games to go to save themselves from the drop. Players who have recently come in, such as Carlos Alcaraz, Romeo Lavia, and Kamaldeen Sulemana, will surely leave the club; even club captain James Ward-Prowse might be thinking of the next step in his career. Ultimately, it has been a horrific season for a team that beat the drop by five points last time out, and Ruben Selles has an almost impossible task to drag them out of what looks like inevitable relegation from the Premier League.
By: Tom Norton / @tomnorton_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Dan Istitene / Getty Images