• Joshua Schneider-Weiler

Southampton at a Crossroads

Following three losses in eight days, Southampton sit in 18th place in the Premier League, a position that not long ago would've been unthinkable.

Just three years ago they were playing in Europe and the envy of clubs across Europe. We spoke with The Athletic's Carl Anka (@Ankaman616) about Southampton's identity crisis and see how they can turn it around.

Carl Anka: There is an adage amongst the Southampton faithful of 'three nil down back to town', which links into how bad Southampton have been at home recently. Fans were leaving as early as 2-0 and 3-0. So fans were walking home after 20 minutes in the [Leicester 9-0] game.

Fans going up to people in the press box and going, 'what is going on? Can you explain what was happening?' And I think about that game and I can't remember much of it, in a similar way, of if you've ever suffered a big injury, you can't really remember the specific details. I can't particularly remember the intricate details of that 9-0 because my brain is simply gone, 'nope, that is too traumatic.'

It sounds like almost like a reaction of a car crash.

Carl Anka: It felt like one, it really did. It also felt as if, I don't know if you've ever driven on a freeway or a motorway, and there's been a car crash ahead and there's been like a slow procession of cars that slowed down so they can get a great to look at what on earth has happened. It felt a bit like that as well. It was a truly unique, utterly bizarre experience. It's my job to describe football for a living and I'm still struggling to describe football.

Why have they struggled so much at home?

Carl Anka: So let's put the numbers in detail here. Southampton has won 15 of their lost 62 home games. That is a run that stretches three seasons. That means on average if you are a season ticket holder for Southampton, when you buy your season ticket you are expecting five home wins a season, roughly. No football club with that record should be in the premier league.

A lot has to be said about the loss of Graziano Pelle.

Graziano Pelle
Graziano Pelle

Southampton is the only team that-- I don't think they understand; they play better with a target man, someone who can hold the ball up and bring other people into play. And they've never properly replaced Pelle since he departed for China, so they are incredibly goal shy. Southampton is notoriously bad at converting the good amount of chances they create and they are incredibly easy when it comes to coughing up goal opportunities. And if you combine those two, you end up with a home form that suggests you should have been relegated at least the season and a half ago.

Let's take a 30,000 foot view of the club. Is Southampton still recognizable from five years ago?

Carl Anka: I'll describe them as the Theseus' ship. So when Theseus was going around his adventures in ancient Greece, he eventually repaired so many parts of his ship that no original part of the ship was part of his vessel, by the time he returned home. And it prompted the philosophical debate, how many key components can you replace of an object, before that object becomes something else entirely? And frankly, Southampton has sold all of their good players. They have sold the players that got them to eighth place, and Europe league finishes and helped them defeat Inter Milan in the Europa league.

Yes, there's the joke about Southampton and Liverpool and those link but when you had Jurgen Klopp at St Mary's this season after the 2-1 victory for Liverpool, Klopp sat there in his press conference and goes, 'I look around here and go, wow. Like where would this football team, Southampton, be if all of these players had stayed?' And that's a key question.

How much of this is due to the change in ownership which happened in 2017?

Carl Anka: I can't answer that yet. Chairman Gao Jisheng, bought 80% stake of the club in 2017. The takeover was protracted and there was some discussion over whether or not he had the money. Gao used the term, Southampton is not picked to be fattened and he very much wants the club to be self-sustainable. And as such Southampton is operating on a series of financial constraints that make things incredibly hard for Premier League clubs to operate.

Former director of football, Ross Wilson has said that £15 million is sort of there upper spending limit in the transfer market. Not quite, we won't spend more than £15 million, but if a player they want is quoted for over £15 million, that's the point in which they go, 'woo, woo, let's really consider this'.

When you consider recently promoted Aston Villa, bought Tyrone Mings for 25 million, you realize £15 million in 2019 is not a particularly large amount of money. It is incredibly hard to turn around the sinking ship with infinite funds, like say Manchester United. It is much harder to do that on a shoestring budget, which is what in effect Southampton has.

Recruitment guru Paul Mitchell left in 2014 along with Mauricio Pochettino and has done really well at Spurs and now RB Leipzig. Bill Green, a senior recruitment officer died in August of 2017. Sporting Director, Les Reed and Technical Director Martin Hunter were both fired last fall. And director of football, Ross Wilson left last month for Rangers. So what is the recruitment philosophy and who is making these recruitment decisions at the club?

Carl Anka: Bill Green was a very unfortunate passing. He passed away at the age of 66. So, I always feel a bit sad mentioning him with everyone else. Who is steering the ship? Normally it's Ross Wilson. So Ross Wilson was director for football operations and director of football and he was working in connection with Ralph Hasenhüttl.

And CEO, chief executive officer Martin Semmens, said that at Southampton, there is sort of 10 commandments list that was devised by Hasenhüttl. That was basically the checklist of the attributes that they want to bring to Southampton. I have not seen that commandment list. I can make a guess as to what qualities he was looking for based on how they describe new signings.

I think Hasenhüttl very much wants players under the age of 24. He wants players who are tactically fluid or able to play a number of systems.

The Austrian manager has used the term open-minded to describe player he likes; so players who are receptive to his commands and ideals.

Are there any recent mistakes that kind of symbolize their recruitment issues?

Carl Anka: So, Guido Carrillo is, as far as I know, Southampton's record signing, he cost £19 million. He was signed to be replacement for Pelle, and he was not fit for purpose for Southampton, for the style of football they wanted to play, nor was he a good fit for the Premier League. He scored a pittance of goals and look lost.

Guido Carrillo, Southampton's record signing
Guido Carrillo, Southampton's record signing

Ross Wilson said when he was talking about transfer mistakes, he said, obviously, we have made some mistakes in the market. 'There was one particular scenario where we over supported our manager, who wanted a certain player that he had used at previous club and we short circuited it, our own process.'

That is not even a thinly veiled illusion to Carrillo. That is admitting, hardline, that Southampton had 20 million in their coffers and bought striker just because their manager said, 'I like this guy'.

At the time, according to people in and around the club, or with history of the club, it was plain and obvious to see that Southampton needed a faster striker; someone with pace.

So, Ross Wilson is gone, but Ralph Hasenhüttl still has his 10 points, so is he making the transfer decisions now?

Carl Anka: I don't know wholly, as far as I can ascertain, or I'm putting two and two together and hoping it makes four. I believe that there has been a plan put in place since the end of the summer window. It looks as if Southampton wants a new center-back and new recruits at full-back position, I think in particular left back and I think they're going to carry along with that plan.

Ralph Hassenhüttl
Ralph Hassenhüttl

There's a short list that has been around since the summer window and they'll probably make that. In terms of who the new director of football was going to be, I have no idea, so the marathon continues.

Do you think that could also be result of long-term assistant Danny Rohl who left the club in the summer to go to Bayern Munich?

Possibly, I've only been covering Southampton and I've been in the press box this season, but from what I understand Danny Rohl was a valued assistant, very much.

I don't believe Hasenhüttl is conferring to them [assistants], at least on the dugout. During games, Hasenhüttl is very much out there by himself in these technical areas, looking at the game, and giving instruction. He doesn't really talk to people much or when he does go to sit down it's more to get a glass of water than it is to talk tactical with someone. But I don't think he's particularly proactive in his substitutions, which makes me worry there is not someone going, 'okay, we have to change right now. '

And there have been two or three accounts of his time in Germany and his time a little bit to a lesser degree at Southampton that indicate while, he's a man who very much is forthright and believes in discipline and very much believes in players doing what he tells him to do, sometimes that can be demoralizing or hard if you're not in a particularly good place. So it is always good to have an assistant, if not just be the good cop to when the manager has to be bad cop. Well, I think there is concern from those in and around the club that there isn't a good cop yet.

Sounds like a man alone at the club.

Carl Anka: Hasenhüttl is probably as close to an old school manager that we have in the premier league right now. So in terms of, we've got head coaches who just do the first team and what not, and we've got managers. And I say all of the managers we've got in the premier league; we've got Mauricio Pochettino, Ole Gunnar Solskjear, Sean Dyche, and now Hasenhuttl. And whether or not Hasenhüttl wanted to be a manager or if he just wanted to be a head coach, I'm not sure, but he very much now has this position.

We know for a fact that he works eight o'clock in the morning til eight o'clock at night, and that's incredibly hard for one person to do.

This is Southampton Football Club, a company with revenues of over a hundred million a year, and they very much need to stay in the Premier League. And that sort of responsibility placed upon a man who's only been in the club since December of last year. It takes its toll.

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