Dr Saintlove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Liebherrs
Benjamin Franklin was not quite right. While death and taxes are certain, there is one other certainty that stands alongside them: Southampton Football Club will be relegated at the end of the 2014/15 season. They’ve sold all their star players and may not even be able field a full squad of senior players, instead relying upon untried kids to fill their shirts, while the unscrupulous owners shamelessly strip the club of its assets ahead of a cut-price sale and ignominious decline and fall on the pitch.
At least, that’s the story that we’re being told in the media. The truth is that Southampton, while being forced to part with many of their stars by player power and ruthlessly exploitative larger clubs, are actually engaging in an inventive, brave and intelligent rescue strategy which sees them forcing the buying clubs to overpay for almost every player, while at the same time doing smart business in bringing players in.
The following is an exploration of why the narrative of the falling stars of the south coast was constructed and how Southampton FC are quietly and confidently defying it at every turn. It starts, as most such stories do, with lazy journalists.
A Summer of Discontent
The summer is a curious time in football journalism. On the one hand there is typically very little happening, yet on the other there is always a buzz of ceaseless activity. Newspapers are crammed with stories about big glamour moves and exciting newcomers to the Premier League, as the giants of the English game strive to rule both domestically and in Europe. Of course, the back pages of the newspapers are actually a smokescreen; a deceitful blend of educated guesses, hopeful speculation and outright lies, going uncontested and with narratives switching from day to day without anyone ever taking the time to query source or substance. One day a player may be destined for Manchester United, the next he is a certainty to join Chelsea. Spin upon spin, lies on top of lies. No-one complains, largely because it’s mostly taken with a pinch of salt and, importantly, it’s actually rather fun. This summer though has been somewhat different.
Every four years the World Cup is good for filling five months of back pages, or rather as many weeks as England last, after which the pages are only half-full and the transfer speculation rumour mills kicks into action to fill the rest, eventually taking over the whole when the tournament ends. After spending the entire qualification stage justifiably playing down England’s chances of accomplishing anything at the World Cup, the press did what it always does and turned up the pressure just before England kicked a ball. The reasoning behind this is depressingly pragmatic and obvious: Newspapers have to fill pages and a double-page spread of ‘Uruguay are probably going to fist us’ is not going to sell copies. So the optimistic cheerleading began and then turned inevitably into recrimination when England proved to be as turgid as was originally predicted. This was exacerbated by the surprise showing of Costa Rica, who also proved better than England.
The press’ post-World Cup tradition of a ‘Sack the Manager’ campaign reared its head in a minor way, but fell flat and was quietly swept away without further comment when it received zero support due to not even the most bellicose of bar stool Ron Managers being able to come up with a master plan that would have seen England do any better. So, pretty much every World Cup avenue for filling pages was done, except for one: The post-World Cup transfer bonanza.
After every World Cup it seems that sanity vacates the building and every previously little-known player who did well until their nation’s inevitable quarter final exit is suddenly on the brink of a mega-money move to England or one of the two Spanish giants. This time though, the World Cup did not really fuel any serious increases in profile, other than that of James Rodriguez and he immediately made it plain that it was Real Madrid or nowhere for him. To compound this problem for journalists, the next big move, that of Luis Suarez, was outgoing. Having helpfully repaid the Football Writers Association for their Player of the Year award by providing a good week or so of easy copy by picking up the third ban of his career for biting an opponent, Suarez upped sticks for Barcelona without looking back. And, to date, that has essentially been it for big transfer stories.
That is not to say that there have been no incoming signings at all. There have been and some of them have been expensive, with Fabregas to Chelsea and Lukaku to Everton, but no truly inspiring incoming deals have gone beyond the fantasy speculation stage. The men paid to cover the ‘Best League in the World’ (© Sky Sports), so used to summers of huge transfer deals and star signings, have been starved of any morale boosting, copy-shifting incoming moves.
When a summer is going as badly for journalists as this one, there is only one solution and that is to find a narrative. This is where Southampton enter the story.
It is frequently said that in England we like to ‘build them up so we can knock them down’. Southampton FC is a case in point. Aside from the resurgence of Liverpool and the collapse of Manchester United, Southampton were the story of the Premier League in the 2013/14 season. A side in only their second season back in the top flight took everyone by storm, with a style of play that bore comparison to some of the very best in Europe. They were attractive, fearless and did their business in what is universally declared to be ‘the right way’, by making comparatively few expensive signings, investing large sums in their training and youth academy infrastructures and giving young talent the chance to star in the Premiership at ages at which other clubs would have been loaning them out to mediocre Championship sides. The press adored Southampton and never more so of course than when the first crack appeared in the veneer and the stories could begin in earnest.
In January, Chief Executive Nicola Cortese resigned from Southampton, having led the club from League One to near guaranteed safety in the Premier League in the space of just three and a half seasons. The reason behind this departure was cited as his inability to convince club owner Katharina Liebherr (daughter of Saints’ saviour, the late Markus Liebherr) to back his vision of pushing Southampton into the upper echelons of the Premiership and into the Champions League. The press pack was furious in his defence. This was a man daring to dream, building a club for sustained success and here was the unscrupulous landlady crushing his aspirations beneath her heel. There were though a few things that the press conveniently forgot in their campaign on behalf of the outgoing Cortese:
- They themselves had slated him as a foreign banker ignorant of the sacred ways of English football, right after he sacked tabloid favourite Alan Pardew and replaced him with Nigel Adkins.
- They did it again after he sacked Nigel Adkins and replaced him with Mauricio Pochettino.
- Cortese’s grand vision involved, as it always had in the past, spending a vast sum of Katharina Liebherr’s money.
The smirkingly obvious cynicism of this rewriting of the press relationship with Cortese (who was extremely unpopular with them until about three months before he left) was compounded by another trait that they demonstrate with casual assurance: Barely-concealed sexism. With Cortese now gone and the alleged fire sale in effect, this unsavory trend is now in full swing.
The attitude of the English media to women in football is complex, but only in so far as they try, and usually fail, to disguise their hostility toward them, which is only ever toned down when there is an opportunity to cynically exploit them. In brief, women can be WAGs (handy for bikini shoots and blaming for poor international performances), they can be the ‘hot club doctor’, like Chelsea’s Eva Carneiro (useful for myriad ‘amusing’ jokes about groin strain), and they can occasionally be the patronised lineswoman like Sian Massey (when she’s in the right and the press want to finally get rid of a pair like Keys and Grey), but god forbid they actually have power at a football club.
Liebherr is the third major high-powered woman to come under serious spotlight from the English media. The other two, Delia Smith and Karren Brady, received varying degrees of scorn, contempt and withering sneers dependent upon the mood and requirements of the back pages at the time. Brady is frequently characterised as hard and cold, as well as having her appearance criticised and has never been allowed to fully live down an investigation into corruption in which she was implicated, even though she was never subsequently charged. Delia Smith largely escaped the outright attacks, due mainly to her celebrity status as the nation’s unofficial cookery teacher, but also thanks to her famous instance of drunken cheerleading:
The press grabbed that opportunity to pat a woman in football on the head and dismiss her with gleeful mockery. They will get no such opportunities with the inscrutable Liebherr and that is a major part of why they dislike her to the point at which they, even as Southampton embark upon their signing campaign, are still openly attacking her leadership. In a Daily Mail article by Sam Cunningham (the same paper whose Neil Ashton dubbed her a ‘dream wrecker’ in January), an unnamed source claims that “Getting Katharina to stabilise the club after Cortese left is like getting a lunatic to run an asylum.” For those who are not aware, ‘unnamed sources’ are very frequently examples of journalists making up quotes and insuring themselves against being sued.
The most common complaint levelled at Liebherr is that she does not ‘communicate with the fans’. It is certainly true that she is not one for giving interviews, but let us make a couple of things perfectly clear. Firstly, the press complaint about not being forthcoming with fans is a nauseating smokescreen. They do not give a tenth of a damn about the club’s fans. Their grievance is that Liebherr has not been giving them stories to fill out their column inches and help them coast their way to another early lunch. The second point is that exactly the same complaint could have been levelled at Liebherr’s late father when he was owner of the club. Just as she leaves communications to the likes of Les Reed and Ralph Kruger, her father left it all to Cortese. In fact, Markus Liebherr was almost universally praised for his silence, with the press stating that he was admirably keeping out of the limelight and letting the football men work unencumbered. So, if Katharina Liebherr is just following her father’s style of ownership, why was he praised while she is castigated? I think we all know the answer.
Burning Down the House
If the motivations behind the press interpretation of Southampton’s situation are murky, the situation itself would appear rather less so. They are shedding their most talented players and losing them to clubs who are direct impediments to any advance from their eighth place finish from last season. This has the appearance of a kamikaze approach to football administration and all the hallmarks of the ‘fire sale to be followed by club sale’ that the print media envisage. However, if you start asking questions and applying logic to the situation, the story begins to fall apart.
Southampton are in a no-win situation with regard to keeping their squad intact. Players have been tapped up, transfer requests have been filed and some players have threatened to go on strike if they do not get their move. If Saints keep them against their wishes, they will likely wind up with a miserable player in their team, underperforming on the pitch and hamstringing them, as well as sowing dissent and ill-feeling in the dressing room, before finally and desperately the club sells them off next January for half of what they could have had this summer. The days of ‘Let him rot in the reserves!’ platitudes are long gone (or at least they should be). Players are now assets worth tens of millions of pounds. No-one can write off that kind of money on a point of obtuse pride that belongs to an era when players were worth a tiny fraction of their present value.
So, if the Saints are over a barrel and have to sell the players who are demanding to leave, the only way in which they can come out at least level in the deal is if they force the buying club to pay over the odds to get them. Unsurprisingly from an intelligent and experienced businesswoman, this is exactly what Katharina Liebherr’s club are doing. Liverpool and Manchester United have already paid king’s ransoms to get their men and the message is out: Southampton may be a selling club, but they are not a club who sell cheap. If you want to buy from them, bring the big money or stay at home. Here I will examine exactly what Southampton have lost, are likely to lose and what they have been getting in return. It begins with the loss that started the collapse.
In terms of managerial impact, Pochettino’s upon Southampton was arguably as decisive and revolutionary as the Premiership has seen from a new manager since the arrival of Arsene Wenger. At the time of his arrival, Southampton were on a minor undefeated run, but still looked very much like a team destined for the bottom three. They were great fun to watch, with a cavalier, creative attack, but through the centre of their midfield and defence they were soft and flabby; easy prey for all the Premiership’s aggressive attackers. Almost immediately, Pochettino changed this. With a combination of a high defensive line and relentless full-team pressing, Pochettino brought the Bielsa/Guardiola model of play to the Saints: A system that made up for defensive deficiencies in key areas by adding defensive work all over the pitch and lessening exposure at the back. Southampton not only stayed up, they did so comfortably.
The following season, Saints continued in much the same vein, only with strong defence-minded additions like Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama, plus a significant showing from the youth prospects whom the manager pushed to the fore more than ever. It worked like a charm and Southampton became the darlings of the media on their way to achieving their best-ever Premiership points finish and that was enough to earn Pochettino a move to Tottenham, with a massive pay rise. Overall, he would appear to be a fantastic signing for Spurs. However, there are question marks over him that, while never likely to be considered at a smaller club like Southampton, could well see Tottenham’s dream managerial signing become yet another in a long line of Levy casualties: He does not actually seem to be a winner.
If goes without saying that Pochettino’s Southampton won a lot of games, but for those watching the side regularly it was clear that something was not quite right there. For every time they excelled, such as away to Liverpool, an opposite performance can be found, such as the defeats away to Norwich and at home to Aston Villa, plus two notable collapses against Tottenham (in the away fixture they went 2-0 ahead, should have been four or more up by half time, and then lost 3-2). They could be by turns unplayable in one game and then unwatchable in the next. It would seem excessively harsh to criticise the team or the manager for this, given that it was still their best season in Premier League history, but a crucial factor is that Pochettino’s own words seem to indicate that he himself did not want Southampton to make the next logical step up and qualify for Europe.
When asked about the prospect of playing in continental competition, the Argentine claimed that the Europa League ‘kills clubs’ with its pressure upon squads and the imposition of Thursday-Sunday match rotations. While there is a case for this position, it betrays a lack of ambition for the club on the part of its manager. Manchester United and Tottenham were both extremely erratic all season and were surely there for the taking if Southampton really pushed to claim their league positions, but in the end they respectively finished eight and thirteen points clear of the Saints. Considering that all at the club spoke of ambitions to push the club forward, one is left wondering just what Pochettino was envisioning. Did he want to make the quantum leap from eighth to the Champions League? If so, did he want to do it in a single season, bypassing the upper midtable of the Premiership at a stroke?
While talk of the Champions League seems outlandish, what was and still is not so is the possibility of winning a cup. Southampton are a club with only one major trophy, the FA Cup, to their name and that was won thirty-eight years ago. With the Saints one of the obvious form teams in England and all the top clubs looking erratic and beatable in ways that had not been seen in many years in the Premiership, the chances of Southampton adding an FA or League Cup to their sparse trophy cabinet was a real possibility, especially given that they were effectively safe from relegation by February. The only problem was that Mauricio Pochettino clearly had no interest in winning either. He fielded weakened teams in both competitions until they were eliminated from each by a dreadfully mediocre Sunderland side. Not only were the teams weakened, but they also seemed undermotivated. The verve and aggression of the Premiership Saints was a country mile ahead of the tired, disinterested performances of the cup side. Of course, cup wins (and often even losing finals) come with Europa League qualification. The natural assumption is that Pochettino disregarded the football fans’ natural desire for trophies in order to consolidate their safe, if uninspiring, league position.
Of course, now that he’s at Tottenham, Pochettino will be required to compete for trophies. Unlike the Southampton fans, who are traditionally so starved of success that they don’t even notice when the chance of it passes them by, Tottenham’s fans feel the absence of a trophy deeply and consider a failure to qualify for Europe to be a disastrous end to a season. Then one must also consider that they actually are in Europe this season. With all this, plus last season’s shortcomings in mind, one can only wonder just how much commitment he will bring to the Europa League and the domestic cups. Surely the pressure from within the club will be too great for him to just let them fall by the wayside and yet he’s already proven that he does not himself care at all for any of those winnable competitions. That will be the question mark over Mauricio Pochettino next season: Now that he’s at a club that actively wants to take the next step up football’s ladder, is he the man who can guide them to it, or was Southampton’s inability to do so actually down to a critical flaw in his management.
Transfer fee: £4m.
Realistic value: £4m.
Of all the players leaving Southampton, Rickie Lambert is by far the most loved and will remain so. Lambert was the catalyst for Southampton’s charge up the leagues, scoring the goals that turned them from a League One side into a Premiership club once more. He was a great servant to Saints and no-one begrudges his move to Liverpool, for two reasons: Firstly, because it’s his boyhood club and he is fulfilling a dream by moving there. Secondly, because Southampton were actually going to sell him to West Ham last January, only to have to ice the deal when Osvaldo headbutted Jose Fonte in training.
The truth is that while Super Rickie is a club legend for Southampton, he is no longer someone who can be relied upon to be the main man at a Premiership club. His link-play and set pieces are still very good, plus his penalties are as good as scored from the second he spots up the ball. However, his lack of pace frequently holds the team up (and was a major factor in the inability of playmaker Gaston Ramirez to make an impression for Saints) and he does not score enough in free play. A season or two as a squad player at Liverpool fulfils his dream, allows him to play with little pressure to be a main threat and sees him leave Southampton via the front door, always welcomed back with affection.
Transfer fee: £25m.
Realistic value: £12-15m.
In contrast to Lambert, Lallana will be lucky to if he gets through his first visit to St. Mary’s in a Liverpool shirt without having it doused by a bottle full of urine thrown from the crowd. Having frequently waxed lyrical about his love of the club, it took little more than a flirtatious wink from Brendan Rodgers for Lallana to immediately demand the move. While he took out a full page advert in Southampton’s local paper, it was no secret at all that his response to being told that the club were not willing to sell him was to threaten to go on strike. Saints, caught between a rock and a hard place, made the decision to be rid of a potential trouble-maker, even if he was still officially their captain. What they made sure to do though was ensure that, unlike the Lambert deal, Liverpool had to pay through the nose to get their man.
Lallana’s 2013/14 season was impeccable. In fact, he bore entirely reasonable comparisons to the best in his position in Europe. He scored and created goals, advanced play, opened even the best defences up with clever passing and showed impressive guile and trickery on the ball. In short, he looked every bit a potential Champions League attacking midfielder. All that said though, we are still talking about a player with just sixty-eight appearances and twelve goals in top flight football. Liverpool could have had far better value for money had they spent their money abroad. It must be pointed out that Lallana brings assets that a foreign signing likely would not: He’s already shown his ability to perform in the Premiership, speaks English, knows many of his team-mates well from club and international duty and helps meet quotas for domestic players. All that said, the price remains massively inflated.
With Southampton owing 25% of any fee to Bournemouth, they forced the transfer higher and higher and, even with Lallana threatening to strike, would not relent. It was a game of transfer market Chicken and eventually Southampton won. They may have lost their player, but they got far more than he is actually worth as it stands. The player’s own petulance also helped the club’s hierarchy out, given that by the time he left few Southampton fans actually wanted him to stay.
Transfer fee: £27m plus add-ons.
Realistic value: £15-20m.
On the Southampton residual love scale, Shaw falls between Lallana and Lambert, though far closer to the latter than the former. Realistic Saints fans knew that he was not going to stay. In spite of coming through the club’s system, he was never a Southampton fan and interest from both Manchester United and his boyhood club, Chelsea, was always going to draw him away. The reason why he’ll retain the affection of most though is that he did things the ‘right’ way. There were no strike threats, nor unprofessional outbursts. He maintained his composure, awaited his move and then got it. With that settled, the question is ‘Is he worth the money?’ Yes and no.
On the ‘No’ side, Manchester United could have picked up a senior pro of far more experience for much less money had they shopped abroad. He was also frequently caught out at the back last season, with his aggressive wing play and patchy defensive positioning opening space for opposing attackers. However, on the ‘Yes’ side, Shaw’s defensive game can be greatly improved with experience and top coaching and he is unquestionably the most promising teenage full-back in Europe, possibly the world. His attacking movement is exceptional, his crossing accurate and his fitness and mobility excellent. Also, being as young as he is, he could conceivably be United’s left back for the next fifteen years, so if all goes well they will never regret what is, at least for now, an excessive fee. This is a rare instance in which both the buying and the selling clubs will likely be delighted with the deal struck.
Transfer fee: £20m.
Realistic value: £20m.
Lovren’s greatest accomplishment of this summer was not moving to Liverpool, but rather doing so in a manner that will make him even more despised than Adam Lallana. If the latter may have to endure some booing when running out onto the pitch at St Mary’s, Lovren could well be on the end of the kind of reception that Daphne & Celeste got at the Reading Festival.
The circumstances of this transfer are much the same as that of Lallana: Liverpool made a bid, Southampton turned it down, the player threw a temper tantrum, threatened a strike and then, crucially, went public with his disaffection. He accused the club of lacking ambition and claimed that his ‘head is already at Liverpool’. It goes without saying that if Saints fans had had their way, his head would have gone to Anfield and his body would have been thrown into the Solent. What made it hurt all the more was that he is by far the hardest outgoing player for them to replace.
While Southampton have made a profit of approximately £12m on Lovren, this is not a deal in which they have put the buying club through the wringer. Whereas in the past it was always prolific attacking players who were hard to find, yet you could shake five good centre backs out of any tree in the country, now talented central defenders are as rare as rocking horse manure. Just last week Barcelona paid €20m for Jeremy Mathieu, a 30 year-old full-back who can also play in the centre. With that in mind, paying £20m for a 25 year-old international with proven organisational capabilities in a Premiership defence. Liverpool could have picked up someone for significantly less, but they’d have been taking a gamble on their ability to adapt to the Premier League, much as Saints did on Lovren a year ago. Overall this deal is not bad business for either side, but it is Southampton’s least impressive piece of transfer market brinkmanship.
Transfer fee: £16m (including add-ons).
Realistic value: £8m.
This is probably the strangest deal of the window for Southampton and, indeed, Arsenal. Chambers is clearly a talented young player and has potential, but was not even a guaranteed first choice at right back for Saints. He was alternated with Nathaniel Clyne depending upon the circumstances, with Clyne the man for attacking from the back, while Chambers was chosen for more defence-minded duties. That said, for all the talk about his defensive solidity, he often proved equally as error-prone as Clyne, most notably in the three-goal collapse away to a truly atrocious Spurs side. In that match Clyne was at fault for a goal and was substituted for Chambers, only for the latter to then make exactly the same mistake for the equaliser. What makes the deal especially odd is that Arsenal have a youngster of their own in Carl Jenkinson and, while he’s assuredly not a prospect on a par with Chambers, he’s not so inferior that it becomes sensible to spend such a large sum on another player who is still also simply a talented prospect. They have also signed Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle.
An idea being mooted is that Wenger sees Chambers as a future centre back and if that is the case then that would make more sense from the perspective of the squad as a whole, but still not financially when it comes down to spending so much money on a player who made just twenty-one appearances for Southampton. It is a big money gamble and another case of Southampton getting maximum return for the loss of their player, while actually not even needing a replacement, given that Clyne is already in situ.
Mooted transfer fee: £27m.
Realistic value: £15-18m
The case of Schneiderlin is an unusual one. The French international is at once one of the most talented players at Southampton, yet also by far the most expendable of all those either sold or angling for moves to date.
An excellent all-round midfielder, with a great work ethic, a solid range of passing and good physical stature, Schneiderlin is a model of the Premiership ideal in the centre of the park. What makes him expendable though is the sheer volume of talent that Southampton have at their disposal in that area of the pitch. Steven Davis, Jack Cork, Victor Wanyama and James Ward-Prowse offer a range of contrasting talents and tantalising potential combinations. Cork is an all-rounder from deep, Ward-Prowse an incredibly promising playmaker who can also play wide, Davis is creative and industrious and Wanyama is a powerful physical presence.
Schneiderlin’s great asset is that he combines elements of all of the aforementioned. His down side is that he’s not quite as outstanding in any of them as the specialists above. So, he’s a talent who will command a large fee and, in spite of his going the Lovren route to angling for a move, Saints will not let him go cheaply. However, they also probably will not need to spend any of the money received on a replacement. Now that is good business.
Mooted transfer fee: £15m.
Realistic value: £0-15m.
Of all the Saints deals of this summer, this one would be the craziest yet if it goes ahead. Jay Rodriguez had a superb season at Southampton, netting fifteen goals in thirty-three appearances, all while usually playing either a deep second striker role or, more often, wide on the left, cutting inside. Excellent numbers and his season could have been even more impressive had it not been cut short by a cruciate ligament injury against Sunderland. It is this injury that makes the deal such a bizarre prospect.
A torn cruciate ligament is no longer the guaranteed career-killer that it was not so long ago, but it is still major and leaves a question mark over any player who has suffered one. Rodriguez may come back and be as good as, or even better than ever; or he could come back and be a shadow of his former self, racked by further injuries, fear of being tackled (psychologically crippling for a Premier League player) and poor form. It’s absolutely impossible to predict.
What can be predicted though is that surely Rodriguez will not be able to pass a medical before the end of the transfer window. If that is the case, one would assume that the deal cannot happen regardless. If it does still go ahead though, one suspects that it may not only be Rodriguez who is gambling with his career in the games to come.
The Last Men Standing
Assuming that the worst comes to the worst and all of the aforementioned leave, we must now consider just what the relegation-doomed wreckage that the press have warned us about consists of. When we do that we see that actually things are not bad at all. In fact, things look really rather good. We’ll begin with the manager.
It is safe to say that Ronaldo Koeman’s managerial career has not been as glittering as his playing days; it could even be called patchy. He has not won a major trophy since his Copa del Rey triumph with Valencia in 2008 and, in spite of having managed all three of the traditional giants of Dutch football, the last of his three Eredivisie titles came in 2007. So, not a great record at all? Think about it for a moment: This is the new Southampton manager and he is a man who has won trophies in Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. If anyone is touting his signing as a step down from Pochettino then they should consider that the Argentine came to Southampton on the back of having had his contract ‘terminated by mutual consent’ (football-speak for a popular former player being given the chance to quit before being fired) by Espanyol, with just nine points from thirteen games for the season. Also, unlike Koeman, Pochettino has never won anything as a manager.
As well as a trophy-winning record, Koeman also brings a certain star quality, having been an extremely high profile player, as well as great connections in the game, especially in Spain and his native Holland. As steps go this would appear, on the surface at least, to be rather more up than down and that exposes the first major flaw in the press narrative of the crumbling Saints: Just how did they attract a manager like Ronald Koeman?
The most convenient explanation is that he wanted to get on the Premiership gravy train and Southampton offered an easy station at which he could jump aboard. The thing is though that sticking around in the Premiership is heavily driven by success. A manager who fails at a smaller club like Southampton has little chance of a second bite with another, so if he wants to move onto one of the more promising jobs in the league he’ll need to be successful. So, why would a manager who wants to show his worth in a big-money league go to a club that is obviously being asset-stripped and doomed to failure? He would not. Clearly he has been told something different by the club and when you look at the business that the Saints are doing, it appears that what he has been told is far more accurate than what the press has been telling us.
So far Southampton have added Ryan Bertrand on loan to fill their gap at left back, as well as the Serbian international Dusan Tadic and Italian striker Graziano Pelle. The latter two were each recruited from the Eredivisie, with Koeman pivotal in convincing them to join, so already the managerial decision is paying dividends and, importantly, the Southampton owners are paying money. Between them Pelle and Tadic cost almost £20m. As asset-stripping exercises go, this seems rather atypical.
So, if we do a positional comparison of who Saints have lost and who they have acquired, we see that Bertrand will replace Shaw, Tadic will step into Lallana’s slot (albeit as a more orthodox winger) and Pelle will go straight in as Rickie Lambert’s replacement. If we are to assume the completion of the doomsday scenario, that really only leaves Lovren and Rodriguez in significant need of replacement, given that Clyne is there as right back and a multitude of players can fill the centre of midfield. What we are left with is far from a relegation-certainty of a squad. Actually, other than a suspect central defence, it appears to be a mid-table side:
Then we come around to the simple fact that this is far from what the club intend to start the season with. Already they have begun negotiations with Celtic for centre back Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Fraser Forster. In addition they are reported to be trying to secure Ezequiel Schelotto and Saphir Taider on loan, and have been strongly linked with Dutch international Ron Vlaar and the rather more ambitious and less likely signing of striker Javier Hernandez from Manchester United. It does not require a second squad image to make plain that if they get even half of those Southampton will have a very competitive squad indeed and will have spent a sizable chunk of their cash windfall on the team, rather than sucking it out so that Katharina Liebherr can swim in it like Scrooge McDuck, as the media would have us all believe.
There is definitely a profit being made here. Southampton have been wildly overpaid for most of the outdoing players and if you look at how much each of those players were brought to the south coast for, the profits are actually staggering. That they’re being replaced with quality at lower prices would be considered brilliance in most businesses, but football is generally a idiot’s passtime, with people believing that every penny that comes into the club should be pumped into the pockets of players and their agents in some way, or else the club and their fans are being robbed. As it stands, Southampton will likely go into the 2014/15 season with a squad potentially as good as their old one, possibly even better.
Naturally the counter-argument to this position is that the incoming players are mostly untried in the Premiership, which is a notoriously difficult league to which to adapt. The newcomers could all shine, collapse or fall anywhere between those two positions. There are no certainties. However, were there really any certainties with the squad as it was?
How many less famous sides similar to Southampton have had great seasons and then fallen by the wayside during the next campaign? It has happened plenty of times. Indeed, look at Manchester United. With all the experience and that their squad and manager brought to the table last season, they went from champions to seventh place. With regard to Southampton, for all the apparent certainty that the outgoing players are now Premiership stars, they in fact have all had at most two seasons in the top flight. Further, toward the end of the season, Southampton’s performances and results declined. Was this a lack of motivation to progress or had they, as have so many others before, been worked out? It could be either case, but neither can be classed as a good sign. Saints may soar with their new boys, or they may crash. That though would have been true with the old boys too. Others may have paid star money to get those players, but that does not mean that they are yet actual stars. That has been the genius of Southampton’s recovery plan. They have sold potential stars for superstar money and, in doing so, have turned a potentially disastrous exodus into a possible triumph. They have been forced by other clubs to gamble, but they have both financially profited and, in turn, forced that same circumstance upon the apex predators of the Premiership.
Disaster? Fire sale? Don’t believe the hype, especially when it’s coming from people who are truly desperate for a story.
© 2014, Darryl Morris. All Rights Reserved.