22/12/2015: December 2015 Round-Up
There has been little Christmas cheer around St Mary's this year. The mood is nowhere near as bleak as it was during previous slumps, but it's fair to say that the feel-good factor that emanated around the city during the previous six years has dissipated. This campaign peaked in August with the European trips, and aside from the amazing win at Chelsea, there has been little to get excited about since.
It's fair to say the squad Ronald Koeman has to work with is significantly weaker than it was last season. Morgan Schneiderlin is clearly the biggest loss, but Nathaniel Clyne's absence has also been felt to a huge degree. Most of the players signed in the summer haven't lived up to expectations, and some have outright flopped. Koeman clearly has at least some say in which players come in, so he must take a portion of the blame on that front. While the team clearly has issues, Koeman can hardly blame everything on his players. There is talent within the ranks and he simply hasn't been getting the best out of them this season.
Watching Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham on Saturday reminded the St Mary's crowd of what Saints used to be all about. Pochettino adopted a high-pressing style from the word go when he worked at Staplewood, and Koeman adapted it to his own ends last season. Saints no longer seem to have a defined style of play, however. We're not an awful long-ball side, but we're not really a quick passing, aggressive closing down outfit either. It's difficult to identify what, if anything Koeman is trying to do with this team in training. There has been little to suggest we are a well-coached team at the moment.
During Pochettino's reign there seemed to be an innate synchronicity between the forward players. The likes of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez seemed to always know where the other one was without looking, making for exciting fast attacking football. Contrast that to today where there is little cohesion within the ranks. You can compensate for weaknesses within the team with good organisation and teamwork, but we haven't done that. Pochettino was also really adept at making individuals better. Lallana and Rodriguez came on so much under his guidance, and they weren't the only ones. Harry Kane has turned into a player nobody could have imagined under the Argentinian's tutelage. Koeman hasn't had the same impact on his squad of players. While you could argue one or two made small strides last season, nobody this term has looked better than they did previously. If a coach can't get his team organised and doesn't make players better, you've got to ask yourself what is he there for?
Tactically Koeman has been found wanting this season. It's telling that we've yet to beat any of the eleven teams above us. He still deserves credit for the Chelsea heroics, because no matter how bad things got for Jose Mourinho and co, going to Stamford Bridge and winning is still no mean feat. Apart from that though, very few of the points we've picked up have come from Koeman making clever decisions. Beating teams like Norwich (who had 10 men for much of the game), Swansea, Bournemouth (who outplayed us in the 2nd half) and Sunderland is the absolute bear minimum that should be expected. In one of Pochettino's first games at St Mary's he led Saints to a 3-1 win over Premier League champions Manchester City. The Saints line-up that day included maligned players like Danny Fox, Maya Yoshida and Jos Hooiveld, but Pochettino made it work and dominated a far superior team. That Koeman hasn't been able to do anything like that this season reflects badly on him. A good manager should be able to make their team look better than the sum of their parts.
As bad as things have got for Koeman this season, only a small number of fans have so far called for his head. Personally I'm on the fence on this one, but I do think you can make a compelling argument either way. Even though managerial change has steered us to success in recent times some still view it as a recipe for disaster. Managerial stability is seen as rational and the key to success, while change is immoral and short-sighted. In reality though, neither way is better or worse than the other, it depends on the people involved and the circumstances surrounding the club at the time. Saints improved significantly after Alan Pardew was sacked for Nigel Adkins, and then when Adkins was dumped for Pochettino. In fact, contrary to popular belief, sacking managers has rarely backfired on us. From Lawrie McMenemy, Alan Ball, Glenn Hoddle and Gordon Strachan, most of the good bosses Saints have had left of their own accord. Equally Saints probably held on to Harry Redknapp and George Burley too long, based on the assumption that they would be able to recapture past glories. The same people pleading for patience now were saying exactly the same thing when it was clear that Pardew and Adkins were under threat. It worked then, so why not now? Regardless of Koeman's previous success, if you can find someone better qualified, why not do it? There are managers who possess the training ground skills that he doesn't and could breathe some much needed new life into the team.
The question is though, based on the recruitment department's recent judgement, would you trust them to bring in somebody better? I'm not so sure. While you shouldn't necessarily make decisions based on public opinion, if a new man came in and didn't hit the ground running, you'd run the risk of alienating the fans even further. Confidence in the board would severely drop if they got it wrong and the atmosphere could turn poisonous. Nicola Cortese ran the same risk in January 2013 when Pochettino was appointed, but that was when we were on an upwards curve. Things are different now, and even if a new manager did improve things, how high could he realistically take us this season? Barring something dramatic happening Saints are likely to be grounded in mid-table for the rest of the season. A better manager would probably only knock us up a couple of places, so would it really be worth it? Biding our time and assessing the situation in the summer may be the best bet for now. Things will start to look a lot clearer then.
Previously it was widely assumed Koeman would happily see out the rest of his contract until the summer of 2017, but now I'm not so sure. Say we finish 12th or 13th this season and sell a few more key players, what motivation would he have to continue? As noted above, he seems incapable of improving players and working on ever tightening budgets, so Saints would likely get worse. Koeman surely can't afford to damage his reputation by slumming it in the lower reaches of mid-table, or worse endure a relegation battle. With that in mind I believe it's unlikely that he'll be here beyond the summer.
Whatever happens it's fair to say Saints' recent troubles go way beyond Koeman. We seem to have stopped doing a lot of the stuff that made us good, off and on the pitch. The talent in academy has dried up, while the few good youngsters we have left aren't being nurtured as well as they should be. Our recruitment has been a mess and the long term direction of the club and its ownership seem unclear. Everything about Saints seems kind of stale right now. This season is already a write-off. The club must now learn from the mistakes they've made in 2015 if they want to get back on the right track.