All doesn’t seem well at St. Mary’s. With the team currently sitting in 13th place, questions are beginning to be asked of new manager Mauricio Pellegrino. With only 9 league goals in 11 matches – earning 3 wins in that time – it is clear to see where the south coast club must improve. Consistency will have been key in the appointment process, however in the club’s efforts to secure a successor, they may have neglected to address the main deficiencies within the side.
Claude Puel was appointed as Southampton manager in June 2016, arriving with a strong and exciting reputation from Ligue 1. The frenchman was known for implementing a high velocity, counter attacking ethos, as well as integrating youth prospects into the first team. This coupled with his ability to work with a tight budget, gave the Southampton board all the encouragement they needed.
If supporters were told pre-season they would reach a domestic cup final and finish in 8th in the league, one would imagine a positive reaction. However regardless of those achievements, the performances on the pitch were met with exasperation and discontent. His play style was heavily criticised for its lack of attacking intent and was reinforced by their goal output – 41 league goals in 38 matches.
In June 2017, Puel was dismissed after less than a year in charge. Although it was difficult to refute the manager’s achievements, the board’s decision to relieve him of his duties seemed to come down to entertainment value.
With entertaining football high on the agenda, the Saints began their search for a new manager. High profile names such as Andre Villas-Boas and Unai Emery had already began to circulate as possible replacements for the departing Puel. However, in typical Southampton fashion, they went with slightly lesser known entity.
After an impressive season with Spanish club Alaves, Mauricio Pellegrino was appointed as Southampton manager. The ex-Liverpool defender began his coaching career in Spain, before a homecoming to Argentina earned him another chance in La Liga with Alaves. He went on to attain a 9th place finish as well as a Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona, before departing for the south coast of England.
Puel vs PellegrinoEmbed from Getty Images
Southampton and Alaves enjoyed similar success domestically, but there were subtle differences in terms of play style.
Even though the frenchman arrived on the south coast with a reputation of counter attacking football, Puel’s side had a real hunger for possession. His team showed great composure on the ball, electing to build attacks using short passing through central areas. His use of the 4-1-2-1-2 (diamond) formation created an overload in central midfield and space in wide areas. During the attacking transition, the opposition will be forced to narrow their shape to cope with the numbers in midfield. The spaces will then appear in wide areas for the full backs to advance. This tends to create 1 v 1 situations, allowing the opportunity for crosses. Although the Saints full backs only earned 4 assists from crosses during the season, the manager’s thinking in a creative sense was clear.
The shortcomings of Puel’s philosophy became clear toward the end of his time in charge. Southampton failed to score 15 times in the league, mostly due to poor finishing. Eventually the Saints finished 15 points adrift from 7th placed Everton.Embed from Getty Images
It would be difficult to blame the man in charge for missed chances, when the decision making process is generally down to the players. However, the fact that none of the Southampton players broke double figures for league goals, would suggest a different tact in attack may be required.
Another aspect of the game the Saints struggled with was defensive organisation, conceding two or more goals on 14 occasions. Their final goal difference of -7, showed that their lacklustre finishing wasn’t their only problem.
Opponents discovered Southampton’s weaknesses were not just in concentration and structure, but in defending from dead ball situations. By the time the season had ended, 35% of goals that Southampton conceded were from set pieces, the third most in the league.Embed from Getty Images
In the 16/17 campaign Pellegrino took over at Alaves, who were embarking on their first season in top flight football since 2005/06. They began the season well, remaining unbeaten for their first 4 fixtures – including a draw away at Atletico Madrid and an amazing first win of the season against Barcelona.
Their win against last year’s champions at the Nou Camp, became the catalyst for their season. Pellegrino set his side up in a 5-4-1, to negate the space around the 18 yard box. The plan was to soak up pressure from the hosts and counter attack through their wing backs. A 64th minute winner from Ibai Gomez added to an early Deyverson strike to give Alaves their first victory in Catalonia’s capital since 2000.
“He”s a very complete coach. Not many have the tactical awareness of the game and also so much talent for group management.” Manu Garcia – Alaves midfielder 16/17
Although Pellegrino’s side enacted a pragmatic approach against elite clubs, a more aggressive style was utilised during the rest of the season. The Argentine asked his players to press the opposition intensely, in an attempt to retrieve possession high on the pitch. Alaves’ combative approach was highlighted in their disciplinary record, receiving 116 yellow and 5 red cards during the season. This is possibly the biggest disparity between the two sides, with Puel’s Southampton receiving only 61 cautions in total.Embed from Getty Images
Their final league position did not represent the team’s defensive performances. Their record of conceding 43 goals in 38 matches – earning 12 clean sheets in that time – was only bettered by 4 teams in the division.
Despite minor differences between the clubs, both seemed to struggle in attacking areas. Alaves finished the season having scored the same amount of goals (41) as Puel’s Southampton side with only 33% of their shots finding the target.
When Pellegrino was hired as Southampton manager, alterations were required at both ends of the pitch. A testament to the Argentine’s coaching methods, is the Saints improvement in defending set pieces. So far this season, Southampton have only conceded 1 goal from dead ball situations, an obvious advancement on the previous year.
However, the opposite end of the pitch is were Pellegrino still has work to do. After their performances in front of goal last season, fans may have expected some new attacking talent to arrive at Staplewood. But when the transfer window closed – with Jay Rodriguez the only attacking option moving in or out of the club – it would have seem the manager was happy with his options.Embed from Getty Images
Despite their manager’s faith during the window, the team’s attacking problems are showing no signs of change. The Saints are currently the sixth lowest scoring team in the league and drop to 19th with penalties excluded.
In spite of this, perhaps the comparisons previous show that the Southampton hierarchy could have anticipated these short comings. When they made the understandable decision to relinquish the services of Claude Puel, a requirement for entertainment was set. The style of Alaves under Pellegrino, whilst more aggressive and imposing, was of a similar level to Southampton last season. If one approach requires a change of personnel, it is difficult to see how the other is an improvement.
Pellegrino is clearly finding it difficult to reverse any loss of confidence the Saints attackers may have from the previous season. It is possible the only feasible way for him to overturn this loss of form is through the January transfer window. But with a harsh festive schedule on the horizon, results may dictate whether or not Pellegrino is still in charge by that time.