Rob Palmer is a Southampton fan. He’s also the one on the excellent Final Third Podcast that does a lot of puns. Here he tells us about his optimism for the Saints at the start of the year, and the mixed feelings Puel’s side have left him with come the end.
Dustin Hoffman once famously said “There’s a rebirth that goes on with us continuously as human beings. I don’t understand, personally, how you can be bored. I can understand how you can be depressed, but I just don’t understand boredom”.
While that’s an unquestionably admirable and somewhat brilliant way to view life, the fact that existing in the world at its most advanced is miraculous and we should find it impossible to not be stimulated by what we live in, it’s also bullshit if you happen to be a Southampton fan this season. I can guarantee with absolute certainty that if I took the esteemed Mr Hoffman to watch Southampton this season he’d say “I can understand boredom now. It is Claude Puel”.
As this season began my enthusiasm for football couldn’t contain itself. My little South Coast club was in *Europe* of all things. The Saints were in a group against former Champions League Winners Inter Milan. It couldn’t have been better. Imagine my surprise when despite being TOP of the group at the halfway stage having beaten Inter, Southampton still managed to get themselves knocked out. While at the start it was simply a novelty to be in Europe, to throw away such an opportunity hurt everyone involved with Southampton. In my opinion, this was totally down to the conservative tactics and absurd levels of rotation employed by Puel.
I wrote a piece on Puel at Southampton for Under the Cosh back in September, and reading it now with the hindsight of the season passed, I can see how the desire for Claude to succeed at my club had blinded me from being able to critically analyse the situation. One of the things I said was “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”.
For some reason, I had decided that this was a legacy of Ronald Koeman’s stint in charge. That was a bit wide of the mark, almost as wide of the mark as 95% of the shots attempted by Paul Pogba this season. The defensive play and lack of support from deep had been introduced by Puel, not left behind by Koeman.
It’s certainly not been all doom and gloom this season, there have been some exceptional moments and the league position is more than acceptable.
The Saints still finished in the top half of the table and contested a League Cup Final, their first major cup final since 2003. A final which was arguably decided by an assistant referee not doing his job and consequently a frustrated Oriol Romeu giving away a silly free kick which Zlatan Ibrahimović rifled home. United could kick on and Southampton were unable to react well enough to win only the second piece of (real, sorry Johnstones Paint Trophy) silverware in their history.
There’s also been a far higher concentration of young talent getting playing time in the first team which is so important to the club. Josh Sims and Sam McQueen have both been excellent when they’ve been drafted into the side but the breakthrough player of the season, from the academy at least, must be Jack Stephens. With the major knee injury to Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte’s retirement from football with his move to West Ham United, Stephens suddenly found himself part of the club’s first-choice centre-half pairing alongside Maya Yoshida.
Both Stephens and Yoshida have been nothing short of exceptional since February, which is a testament to how good a defensive coach Claude Puel really is. Previously, Yoshida on the team sheet struck fear into the hearts of Saints fans globally. The man was an accident waiting to happen. However, the last few months he’s shown how good a defender he can be when playing both consistently and with a partner and a coach that clearly work on the defensive side of the game so intensely.
Overall, it’s been a mixed bag of a season for Southampton. It’s been excellent, but also a bit underwhelming; a large sense of “what might have been” especially as far as the Europa League is concerned, will hang over it. Rumours of Puel being sacked and replaced by Marco Silva may please some, but it may infuriate others. I don’t have a dog in either fight, I would like to see Puel given another season to add some potency up the business end of the pitch considering the talents of Gabbiadini, Boufal, Redmond, Rodriguez. However, Silva turned Hull into a respectable Premier League team who looked like staying up, and given the squad they have that’s nothing short of a miracle.
This is where Les Reed earns his money. Does he stick with Puel who’s tactics made this season far less than it could have been but still finished in the top half and arguably doesn’t deserve to lose his job, or does he twist and go with Marco Silva who could do something truly magnificent at Saint Mary’s? Porto may have answered the question for him.