Until recently Southampton is known in the Premier League for good scouting and youth development. Their rise 2012 in England’s top division was followed by turbulent years, in which the development of the club could not have been any faster. The saints close a magical aura. An aura that was not least in their account. Trading in the transfer market has been initiated. For two years, the well-oiled machine is no longer running. A fall from Europa League aspirant to relegation candidate within a short time.
Rise of the Saints
You have to keep one thing in mind: Southampton never was a normally promoted team. They weren’t characterized by expansive transfers. Rather a joy of experimentation and the uncompromising confidence in their own youth brought the successes. It all began in the summer of 2009 when Markus Liebherr took over the financially ailing club.
The Saints dropped down to the third league the same summer and were facing exodus. Nonetheless, they were known for their outstanding work in their youth academy. They developed players like Walcott or Bale – the latter should be the most expensive player in the world – at least for one summer.
Although Liebherr died only a few months after his takeover, his engagement was kind of a wake-up call in the club. So, he put about three million pounds in 13 new players, including José Fonte. His vision was to develop a „bottom-up“ process in the club, which can be found in the first team. Furthermore, he took care of a strong relationship between fans and the team.
In 2010 he appointed the former technical director of FA, Les Reed responsible for player development. A role that was then smiled at by many clubs at that time. According to Reed, Southampton FC should never forget that they already have very good players in their youth academy.
An essential part of the development of players is the players‘ own responsibility. Every player from the under-8s on, gets an iPad on which the drills and exercises are provided.
All data is also sent to the support center, the so-called black box. This allows the scouting departments to work together and not rely on video footage from analysts, who have to cumbersome cut it all together. Ten years ago, the academy had just 20 employees. Today, there are more than 60 employees only in the Support Center.
Of course, this also affects the first team. Thus, the academy has produced many talents in the recent past. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana, Shaw, Ward-Prowse and Chambers are all seasoned PL players. The next generation is long in coming. The biggest talent in the U-21 sector today is Josh Sims, who is now on loan at Reading and not even a starter.
Of course, Southampton does not live exclusively by its youth players. Their transfers have always been thoughtful and far-sighted in the past. When, for example, Alderweireld left the club, Van Dijk was transferred. When Lallana left, Tadić had been committed a long time before. The same thing happened Wanyama when Romeu became his successor.
Southamptons decay – piece by piece
Year for year, top performers left the club and coaches also came and went. On an exit Reed looked in his black box and always found the right replacement. Pochettino, who took Southampton in all matters to another level, was followed by Koeman, who was no less successful. Both drew a clear playing idea and had an affinity for trusting in young players from their own ranks.
Back then Pochettino had become known for his good performance at Espanyol Barcelona but was anything but an obvious candidate for the thenby relegation threatened promoted team. Koeman came from Feyenoord with a good reputation, put the young outfit just under half of the Dutch World Cup squad of 2014.
Reed justified his coaching commitments with the fact that it would be pointless to hire a manager, who does not rely on the academy. Why else do you put so much money into the youth development?!
Koeman was followed by Puel in 2016. As a result, they ended up in a good eighth place, which should not hide the playful decay. They played very defensive what caused tension and bad mood within the stands. Since season 2013-14 the Saints always scored over 54 goals in the Premier League and conceded at most 46 themselves. It was 41:48 goals under Puel. Occasionally there should have even been players who have protested his portly style of play.
Besides the sport, it also rumored on the board level of the club in 2014. After Markus Liebherr’s death in 2010, his daughter Katharina took over his post with the English. Since the summer of 2013, however, she was in a clinch with President Nicola Cortese, who vacated his post earlier in 2014. The Italian was considered as an analyst who had a nose for investments. It was him who wanted to bring Pochettino to the south of England.
According to media reports, Katharina Liebherr was not so much focussed about football as she was about the financial return. She only was a small cog in the Liebherr dynasty, according to malicious gossing. In 2017, she confirmed the sale of 80% of the club’s shares to the Chinese business family Gao.
Last year Mauricio Pellegrino hired to bring the club back to ancient times. How the whole thing ended is well known. Southampton slipped past the relegation zone and is now coached by Mark Hughes. But it would be too easy to point your finger at the coach or Reed. Errors were made before the season started and in terms of good fortune they have never been really blessed in the past season.
Statistically, Southampton had more chances last season than any other team outside the top six. According to „expected goals“ they were still in ninth place this spring. Nevertheless, Pellegrino made more trouble with various squad decisions. The manager made 64 (!) changes in the starting eleven in the first half of the season.
Charlie Austin was missing for about three months due to injury. The fact that he was still top scorer after his return with seven goals only shows how poor Southampton’s attack was. Redmond, one of the club’s most talented players, has been removed from the squad many times. As a result, it was never possible for a scaffold to be built to play.
The Causa van Dijk brought just agitation in the club and of course the team missed him badly in the second half with his stability. Nevertheless, the squad no longer gave and gives what it was able to do. In short: Southampton’s transfers do not work as they used to.
Tadić never came back to his old record since Koeman left and was sold to Ajax this summer. Romeu like Lemina started very well under Puel, both are currently chasing their old form. The list can be continued endlessly: Boufal, Gabbiadini and Højbjerg have as little influence as record addition Carrillo, who was bought in winter for 22 million euros and has now been loaned to Leganes.
There already was a primary goal for the club in summer of last year: to keep Virgil van Dijk. When it loomed that both parties split up in the winter they had to get an adequate replacement. The young Bednarek proved despite good assets not as Premier League eligible. The actual successor, Wesley Hoedt is a completely different type of player and much less a leader than van Dijk. Vestergaard, who was brought from Gladbach in summer, seems to fill the gap at least a little bit.
A model with limits?
But sometimes football is not just about the new players, but also about the current squad. To players who may be dealing with a change. You could not bind Van Dijk in the long term, you could bind Ward-Prowse at an early stage, but here, too, the development stopped a bit.
Experienced players have not shown such consistent performances for quite some time as they used to. Forster didn’t reach his old form after he extended his contract in July 2017, also due to injuries. Same with Romeu after he extended his contract in January. Even Cedric Soares is no longer as confident as before.
Les Reed once said that the club with his commitment in 2009, settled a five-year plan. The fact that the goals were completely surpassed until 2014 was just as important to him as the current (supposed) reduction. Keyword regression to the middle.
On that occasion, Swansea’s Chairman Huw Jenkins said that as a Premier League team, you usually only have a cycle of two to three years to plan with players and their contracts. Then the contracts would have to be renewed to not lose the players value. However, every contract extension is always accompanied by a salary increase. Jenkins spoke of about a million pounds per contract.
Of course, Southampton’s philosophy is limited to certain transfer models. It is unlikely that Reed will easily accept a transfer of 50 million euros. For years they recognized the signs of the time early and acted courageously in terms of commitments. Don’t get me wrong: Southampton did that with Pellegrino as well but with Hughes the Saints seem to become more and more average.
The club lacks an identity for about two or three years now. Something that distinguished the Saints in the first years after the relegation. It is not so much about an unique style of play. Rather, they are missing again a rising star from the talent factory again.
James Ward-Prowse is no longer a youngster at the age of 24 and seems to be stagnating now. Although Jack Stephens was playing in two games so far, he is not an upcoming top player like his predecessors. A next Luke Shaw or Gareth Bale seems to be a long way off.
In general, they currently lack „homegrown players“ who should form the core of the team. Strong team structures made it possible for many foreign players like van Dijk, Mané or Tadić to quickly integrate into the club.
SC Freiburg faces a similar problem in the Bundesliga. The Germans also relied on players from their own youth department or region for many years. Like the Saints, the model results in large performance fluctuations if you lose three to four high performers in one summer.
The fact that the „native“ players were eventually replaced by foreign players, also because of the growing demands, are not easy to handle for the team. „But other clubs also have foreign players,“ could be an argument there. Other clubs do not stick to and therefore rely on this kind of local patriotism so much!
In addition, the Premier League and it’s market has been crazy for about three years now. There is no stable midfield outside the top six. It feels like every team from the eighth place is close to relegation zone and at the same time has the financial resources of a Champions League participant. As a result, it can happen that an actual standing team like Southampton slips in below when the competitors massivley upgrade their squads and have a lucky hand with single transfers.
A not to be underestimated fact is that it can be mentally exhausting for players firmly anchored in the team if the best players leave the club year after year. In particular if success lacks at some point.
In the fourth year of Reed’s five-year plan, the club from the south of England seems to stumble more than ever. Whether it will overturn them is not to be expected. As a Saint, one always stands up again and again