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Rob Palmer is a Southampton fan. He’s also the one on The Final Third Podcast what does a lot of puns. Here he tells us about what has changed for Southampton since the loss of Koeman and the appointment of Claude Puel.
Southampton’s season started as every season on the south coast seems to. A manager was lost, a couple of key players were lost, replacements were sourced and then September arrived. A typical Southampton off-season. Except that it wasn’t. Almost everything had changed.
The losses of Ronald Koeman and key players weren’t greeted with the normal doom and gloom of the past. Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane moved on, but there was never a sense that Southampton would regress because of these moves. Pelle and Mane are both wonderful footballers, it’s clear that they would improve virtually any side; but there was never a sense that Southampton had suffered for their departure.
The general feeling from around the club was “This always happens, we always improve despite the losses, there’s no reason to fear anything”. Fans applied the same attitude to the loss of Ronald Koeman. Some sectors of fans were upset with his exit, naturally; but the capture of Claude Puel has been an inspired one.
Puel was a respectable player in his day winning a couple of Ligue 1 titles with Monaco for whom he played 488 times before he went on to manage them to another Ligue title. A defensive midfielder who came from an era in French football when losing the ball while was punishable by death. Glenn Hoddle, a former teammate, has said in the past that Puel is “the hardest worker on a training field I’ve had ever seen”. This philosophy of ball retention and hard work is one that has become a fundamental part of his coaching style.
Southampton fans during the Koeman years had become used to a team who were defensively solid and functional in possession if rarely spectacular. Puel is a more expansive coach; he is someone who places greater emphasis on taking the game to the opposition rather than countering what the opposition has decided to do. The best example of this is during his time at Nice; Puel took them from the brink of relegation to a pair of fourth place finishes playing a delicious brand of controlling football when most of the league favoured counter-attacking. Not bad going.
Southampton have made a respectable start under Puel- 9th in the Premier League and top of their Europa League group at the time of writing this – but are still a side deep in transition. Mentally, the players are still in a very defensive mind frame. Defenders have a fear of playing the high line Puel prefers, fullbacks are afraid to let themselves off the defensive leash and midfielders are afraid to make third man runs to supplement attacks. Yet, the Saints are still performing at a very high standard.
In my humble and largely irrelevant opinion the reason for this good start is down to the fact that the Southampton system is a more possession-based system than a defensive one as it was under Koeman. I should be clear, that is not a criticism of Koeman and his philosophy. He’s one of the best coaches Southampton have had and I hold no bad blood for his decision to leave for Everton.
However, the fact is that his style was at odds with the system that’s played within Southampton. Rumours circulated during the last 18 months of his contract that he fell out with director of football Les Reed who repeatedly asked Koeman to play more academy players. Koeman responded by saying that none of the young players were good enough. If you look at how few academy players were part of the first team as Koeman’s stint progressed, you might think there’s some truth to the stories.
Puel’s style is more conducive to what Martin Hunter (U21 coach) and the other youth coaches at the club are playing. It’s closer to the “Southampton way” than anything that’s been played in the recent past. The move has been one to deliver success today, but also to put in place the building blocks for success when Puel moves on after winning the Europa League (we can dream). It’s a system which may see players like James Ward-Prowse, Jordan Turnbull and Harrison Reed reignite their development cycles and become key players for Southampton in the years to come.
Thank Christ we didn’t appoint Roberto Martinez, or I’d be writing this from my prison cell.
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