Relegation Must Lead to Culture Change

Fraser Spinney –

After 12 points from 14 Premier League games under Ralph Hasenhüttl, Southampton then got three points from eight under Nathan Jones, and currently have nine after 12 under Ruben Sellés with four games remaining of a wretched season. This side have somehow been handed opportunity after opportunity to pull themselves out of their position at the bottom of the table, but have failed to capitalise on any one of these undeserved chances. If the 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth in midweek did not seal their fate, then the 3-1 loss away at Newcastle United certainly did.

This is a club that have been on a worrying decline for some time, largely due to a prolonged period of mismanagement at board level under two different ownership regimes. Despite the ongoing lack of investment under the previous ownership and the recruitment policy that focused a little too heavily on youth, in Hasenhüttl the team itself had a sense of stability. There was, for the best part of his almost four-year spell in charge, a plan. Everyone in the squad was singing from the same hymn sheet, resulting in a togetherness that consistently saw the Saints secure enough points to survive in the Premier League; even with some horrible runs of form and comprehensive defeats along the way.

Something changed in the summer, though. The very foundations of Hasenhüttl’s coaching success in his career had been a 4-2-2-2 gegenpressing system which has largely been labelled the ‘Red Bull model’ given its association with both their Leipzig and Salzburg sides. Results had been poor at the backend of last season and the squad perhaps needed some new ideas, having finished 15th for two seasons in a row and seeing the once-effective counter-pressing tactics lose their edge. Just one league win in the last 13 games of the 2021-22 season is as glaring an example of this as you could imagine. The team built in his image was looking less and less like a Hasenhüttl side and, in truth, the conclusion of that season was the time for the club to thank the Austrian for his services and part ways.

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A pre-season to implement the ideas of a new manager seemed like the perfect chance to reset after a three-and-a-half year period which had taken its toll on the group of players given the physical demands of Hasenhüttl’s style. Instead, it was Hasenhüttl himself trying to teach the same group new tricks with a back three the surprising outcome of the work done in pre-season.

Hasenhüttl had deviated from his principles, playing a formation alien to anyone who has followed his career and sacrificing his side’s pressing intensity for a mid-to-low block. It was the beginning of the increasingly inevitable end, and a 4-1 defeat at home to Newcastle in the first week of November was the final straw. Hasenhüttl left the club in the aftermath of this defeat, but his principles and the identity he had worked so hard to embed had beat him to the exit door the second he compromised his core values in the summer.

Therefore, arguably, Southampton have not had anything that resembles an identity or the ‘insert club name here Way’ that every club’s fanbase seems to believe so strongly in (despite not really ever being able to explain what said ‘Way’ is) since halfway through last season.

Jones had a short-and-anything-but-sweet eight league games where he constantly spoke of an identity which comprised of being aggressive, direct and on the front-foot whilst simultaneously seeing his side be anything but these things in practice. When his sacking was confirmed, in stepped Sellés with the Spaniard making his senior managerial debut at the club in which he had served as an understudy to both of the previous two managers. Another manager that has consistently spoken about identity, with nothing on the pitch resembling anything that fans can look at and recognise as their team. He has piggybacked Hasenhüttl’s tactics to the nth degree, but without the effectiveness of his mentor. Other than his poor attempt to replicate the best aspects of Hasenhüttl’s work, the only recognisable trait in Sellés when compared with the Austrian is his inability to react tactically to shifts in momentum during games and his questionable substitutions.

It should be abundantly clear to Sport Republic and, particularly, Rasmus Ankersen – who runs the football side of the club – that Sellés is absolutely not the man to oversee the team moving forward. That is, if Ankersen remains in his post following a season in which his decisions have contributed more than any other individual’s in the clubs 11 year stay in England’s top flight coming to an end. 

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Therefore, this is the perfect time for a complete reset. And going back to the drawing board to establish just what Southampton want to be is a painful but crucial first step. It has been alluded to, but this is a squad that could benefit from a fresh approach as well as some equally fresh faces. It is a group of players who have been bogged down by a series of tough seasons at the wrong end of the table and cutting ties with a number of these players is important to build a sense of a new dawn. Some of those leaving will be deserving of – or at least good enough for – moves. James Ward-Prowse will likely lead the way out of the exit door despite his admirable service to the club. He will likely be followed by at least the majority of Kyle Walker-Peters, Armel Bella-Kotchap, Roméo Lavia, Che Adams, Carlos Alcaraz, Mislav Oršić, Duje Caleta-Car and Mohammed Salisu. Moi Elyounoussi and Theo Walcott’s contracts are coming to an end and neither should expect to stay. 

One factor the club could benefit from is the return of loanees Nathan Tella and Will Smallbone, both of which have enjoyed good seasons away from the negativity of their parent club. Tella was named in the Championship Team of the Season having helped fire Burnley back to the Premier League and is likely to be subject to interest from the Clarets as well as others. With a clear plan and project in place, Southampton may just be able to persuade the winger to stay.

A change in tactical approach could also convince other players Southampton would want to keep hold of to stay put. A new manager with much of the same principles as those that have come before is unlikely to inspire a group that has gone stale and looked fatigued by the repeated ill-fortune they have suffered trying to implement such ideas.

Southampton are associated with youth and the ability to nurture young talents. The likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw and Ward-Prowse all benefited from the club’s world famous academy. However, the last two of those examples are the two most recent successful graduates of this system and came through over ten years ago. Southampton have very exciting, talented youngsters, but they acquired them rather than moulding them themselves. Over the past two seasons, Southampton have recruited the likes of Sékou Mara, Lavia, Tino Livramento, Thierry Small, Dynel Simeu, Samuel Edozie, Gavin Bazunu, and Juan Larios. All cherry-picked from Premier League academies and all aged 21 or under. When you consider that Carlos Alcaraz, Kamaldeen Sulemana, and Armel Bella-Kotchap all also fit in that category, you can see that there should be a real cause for optimism once the dust of Premier League relegation has settled.

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Looking at the likely squad for next season, it is clear that shrewd recruitment is essential to provide a blend of experience to compliment the exciting youth. Whilst it may be tempting to trust players like Adam Armstrong who have proved they can succeed at this level, if Southampton are to have an eye on future success then they must cut ties with these players who they know simply are not good enough to make the step up should the time come again. Bazunu has had a tough first season as a top level number one but should be trusted in the less intense spotlight of the Championship. Ahead of him, Saints fans will be desperate to see a return to fitness for Livramento who showed so much promise before rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in April 2022. James Bree – signed in January on Jones’ request – has impressed at this level before and could be handed a Southampton lifeline too. Romain Perraud is one player who many Southampton fans would like to see stay, given his aggressive approach and commitment, so he could be the starting left-back, with Larios and Small as understudies. Central defence is likely to be an area which sees a shake-up with a lot that could happen between now and next season. There is a very real chance that none of Jan Bednarek, Caleta-Car, Bella-Kotchap, Lyanco, and Salisu will be Southampton players come the opening game of next season and Jack Stephens is expected to want to extend his stay at Bournemouth where he has endeared himself to the Cherries faithful despite regularly receiving criticism across him time at Southampton.

Central midfield also looks worryingly light, with Ward-Prowse and Lavia almost guaranteed to move on. The fact that the centre-back and central midfield situation next season both require overhaul means that Southampton are effectively looking for a new core of the team. Ibrahima Diallo is another centre midfielder who may head to the exit door, albeit pushed rather than too good to stay put, whilst Ainsley Maitland Niles’ future is uncertain. It is further forward that Southampton may well have much better options. If the likes of Sulemana, Alcaraz, Tella, Smallbone, and Edozie all stay then things could be about to get very exciting for Saints fans. Add to that the experience of Stuart Armstrong and Joe Aribo and Southampton have tactically flexible attackers who could all interchange position. Up front, Adams could be in line for a move, whilst Paul Onuachu looks an expensive mistake destined to be the proverbial dead horse Southampton will be trying to flog – if ever a player seemed destined for a loan move to Turkey this is it. For reasons mentioned, Adam Armstrong should not be the man Southampton rely on. Mara, on the other hand, has the feel of a player who could really flourish in the Championship. The talent Mara has is abundantly clear, but he is raw and has not had much service to feed off this season. He has a bright future ahead of him and a year of playing regularly with less pressure on his shoulders could be the making of the Frenchman. He will not be able to do it alone, but Southampton will surely be an enticing project for an experienced Championship goalscorer to take the load off.

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Almost all of this is, of course, hypothetical and if you were to ask fans of the club at this moment in time they would likely name very few players in the current squad they wish to see in the side next season. This is a group of players who have been horribly mismanaged – of that there is no doubt whatsoever – but there are questions over the mentality of the group both collectively and individually that need answering too. For some, the opportunity to prove they have that mental fortitude will not be afforded to them.

A fresh approach with some fresh players, combined with the young talents who will have to take strength from a difficult first season, could see Southampton fans watching a team that they can identify with next season. Nothing is guaranteed in football, and it may be painful at times, but sometimes there is a lot to be said for taking one step backwards to take two forward. 

It will be a busy summer of comings and goings, but if Southampton get things right – and it is a big if – they could reap the rewards of trusting the youth. The fruits of their labour may just come a season or two later than they had initially hoped.

By Fraser Spinney

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