Ross Bramble has a look back at Claude Puel’s time at the Saints and just why so many fans were glad to see his spell at the club come to an end.
Since their return to the Premier League in 2012, Southampton FC have won favour amongst neutrals for their ethos, play style and youth development. Under Nigel Adkins, Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, steady progress saw the Saints move from relegation fighters to Europa League contenders, finishing as high as 6th place in the 2015-16 season.
With Ronald Koeman’s acrimonious departure last summer, Southampton were left in a familiar position – without a manager, and with key players set to depart. In the past, Les Reed and his scouting department had been able to dip in to the famed Southampton Black Box and replaced their stars with seamless efficiency. So when Claude Puel was hired as the new statesman at St. Mary’s, Southampton fans had no reason to put anything less than full faith in the new direction the club was taking.
12 months later, the Frenchman had guided Southampton to 8th in the Premier League and the EFL Cup final. On paper, it was an impressive debut season – imagine the neutrals surprise, then, when Southampton fans booed Puel from the field in the season finale against Stoke City. “You’re getting sacked in the morning” and “You don’t know what you’re doing” chants reigned down upon him across the fixture, too. But what was so bad about an 8th placed finish and a cup final? Had Puel really done anything to warrant that reaction? Well, Southampton fans – myself included – have a firm and definitive answer; yes, he had.
The Claude Puel Chronicles
Having lost Ronald Koeman to Everton, Claude Puel stepped in to the breach as Southampton manager in the summer of 2016. Fans, by in large, had little knowledge of the Frenchman from his time in Ligue 1. His time across Monaco, Lille, Lyon and OGC Nice had wrought mixed results, but his stock as a coach grew with every role. His interest in developing youth and coaching a side to strengthen it, rather than simply buying expensive talent to plug holes, endeared him to the Southampton board. His appointment was greeted with optimism – Pochettino and Koeman had been rousing successes, so why wouldn’t Puel?
Early doors, though, the Frenchman found it hard to win the hearts of his new fans. His grasp of the English language, while more profound than Pochettino’s on his arrival, was fractured and difficult to understand. He lacked the charisma of Mauricio, and the authority of Ronald. What he had instead was integrity. Claude was a good man – but a good man wasn’t exactly what Southampton needed. The Southampton squad, and indeed the entire club, is ambitious. Southampton intend to challenge for the Champions League places within five years, as do the players. They had expected to see the recently-released Manuel Pellegrini in the hot-seat – what they got was a murmuring, uncharismatic Frenchman they couldn’t understand. Issues of charisma and clarity would plague Claude all season long, and the evidence was written all over a number of performances.
Puel attempted to get the team playing a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 across his 12 months in charge, but none seemed to work. Fans saw flashes of brilliant, pacey counter attacks, but the lion’s share of Southampton performances this season have been dull, limp and flat. Nearly half of Claude’s 53 games in charge ended either 0-0 or 1-0. In possession, Southampton spent most of their time passing across midfield and defence, rarely encroaching on the final third of the field. Chance creation remained high, but goals were scarce, especially at home. 17 goals all season at St. Mary’s was the third lowest total in the Premier League, and one of the lowest in Southampton’s league history.
Performances dropped off entirely from previous seasons, too. Opponents used to fear fixtures against Southampton under Pochettino and Koeman – under Puel, the Southampton pressing game had been all-but abandoned, and with negative, possession-based football now the order of the day, teams rarely had anything to fear. The Saints ended the season without a single win over any side in the top six. In fact, of the seven sides above them in the league, Southampton only achieved one victory – a 1-0 home victory against Everton. Gone were the days of the pacey, high-pressing counter attack style that had defined Southampton since their Premier League return. Fans lost belief in their side’s ability to turn a game around, and often, fans just didn’t see where the side’s points would come from. A relegation scrap was a real concern for many supporters at the turn of the year.
Perhaps the most damning run of all, however, was that in the Europa League. A famous 2-1 win over Inter Milan at St. Mary’s will go down as one of the biggest victories in Southampton’s history, but the European campaign will be remembered less favourably. Negative performances away at Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Sparta Prague saw a simple group left in a delicate one-goal balance going in to the final round of fixtures. A home game against the Israeli’s seemed a dead rubber. Of course, Southampton would show their superiority and defeat Be’er Sheva with ease, and through they’d go to the knockout stages, right? But that was not the story that the Saints wrote that evening. The performance was a hideous mess of dull, defensive caution. A 0-0 draw or a win would have sent Southampton through – the late-in-the-day 1-1 draw they ended with saw them eliminated from a group they should have walked.
Southampton’s Europa League campaign was meant to be the crown jewel. The board had made it priority number one, and part of Claude’s appointment was based on his European experiences with Monaco and Lyon. But a flat, negative campaign saw the dream develop in to a nightmare that scarred fans and players alike. From the moment the whistle blew against Be’er Sheva, Puel’s days seem numbered.
An outstanding run to the EFL Cup final glossed over many of the problems that had plagued Claude across the season. Two famous performances against Liverpool in the semi final will be etched in to Southampton folklore for years to come, as will the heartbreak of the final. If not for a moment of poor officiating which saw Gabbiadini’s opening goal chalked off incorrectly for offside, Southampton could be back in Europe this season with their first piece of major silverware since 1976, and Claude Puel may have been safe in his position.
The hope, then, was that without the distractions of cup runs and European exploits, Puel would finally be able to get his thoughts and ideas across to his squad. One-fixture-a-week was a rarity in his first six months in charge. But with time on his side, perhaps we would finally see Puel’s style bear fruit. What Southampton fans saw, however, was much of the same. As the weeks went by, the football failed to improve. The ball remained bogged in midfield, goals remained scarce, and whatever faith fans had in Puel’s management were fading day by day.
With Puel’s job now hanging by a thread, the pressure was on as the season entered its final few games. The turning point truly came at home to Hull City. Marco Silva’s Tigers came to St Mary’s with a hideous away record and clogged in the centre of a relegation battle. Fans were expecting a win. What they got was another hideously dull, defensive display that suggested Puel was happy to escape with a point. If the boos at halftime were an indication, then the “you don’t know what you’re doing” chants as Gabbiadini was subbed off were a damning indictment. Fans had had enough.
What the neutrals saw
For neutrals, Puel was safe. Southampton 8th in the Premier League – “the best of the rest” if you will – and in the EFL Cup final against Manchester United. The idea that Southampton fans had any reason to complain seemed utterly unbelievable.
The simple truth, though, is that Southampton had regressed. Dry statistics like league placement didn’t tell the whole story. The performances were as poor at the end of the season as they had been at the start. Southampton had lost their identity. Fans had lost faith. Judging by performances, the players had too.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. For all of the issues with his management, Claude Puel is an excellent coach. The improvements in Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse, Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida were testament to Puel’s footballing brain, but there was little evidence that it was doing much for the entire 11. His ideas were just not getting across as they had been at OGC Nice the previous season. Stories have since leaked that Puel became frustrated with how slowly the players were picking up his methods, and routinely scrapped them for something simpler. His English – although marginally better by season’s end – was still fractured and had become something of a meme amongst fans, what with his reliance on the words “interesting” and “possibilities”.
The neutrals will point to a cup final and a high league finish as evidence that Puel had done a good job, especially with a European campaign and serious injuries to Charlie Austin and Virgil Van Dijk to contend with. But Southampton fans who had been subjected to a season of insipid possession football had seen enough. Southampton were a shadow of the side they had been since the Liebherr takeover in 2009. Their points total of 46 points was enough to finish 8th, but in the previous four seasons it would have seen the side finish 13th, 13th, 11th and 9th. 46 points was the club’s second lowest points tally since their promotion in 2012. In fact, the points gap between Southampton and the relegation zone was smaller than the gap to 7th placed Everton. Simply put, Southampton had regressed, and Puel’s goose had been cooked.
Reports suggest that the board were hopeful that Claude could yet persuade them to keep him on another season. During the end of season review, the board gave the Frenchman the chance to defend his record and give them reason to believe things could get better next season. His response, reportedly, was uninspiring. For Claude, this season had been excellent. For Southampton, it was a poor, dreary march that had seen us squander chances for progression.
Ultimately, then, Southampton and Claude Puel were just a poor fit. Puel’s style was not compatible with the ethos of Southampton FC, and a lot more was expected. He was a square peg in a round hole, and while he certainly must be credited for an 8th placed finish and a historic cup final, his short-comings cannot be swept under the rug. For neutrals, it seems inexcusable that a side like Southampton could sack a manager for achieving a league position many would have expected from us, and a cup final we have rarely had the chance to savour before. But scratch beneath the surface and festering wounds appear. The Europa League campaign was a seismic blow for everyone at Southampton to try and recover from, and unfortunately, Claude Puel never seemed to have the answers.
Next season, then, Southampton will be lead by a new man. The frontrunner appears to be the Argentine Mauricio Pellegrino, whose recent success at Spanish outfit Alavés has won favour across the continent. Whoever takes up the reigns at St. Mary’s, however, will be under pressure to bring fans on side with a pacier, more energetic brand of football. The players will be hoping for a manager they can rally behind, one who can inspire them and translate his ideas on the training ground. The board will be hoping for a manager who can help take Southampton another step closer to consistent Europa League qualification, while remaining loyal to the club’s philosophies.
Thank you for Wembley, Claude. But I’m afraid this just wasn’t to be.