08/01/2017: Puel - In or Out?
You'd be forgiven for forgetting Saints were about to compete in their first major semi-final for 14 years. The mood among supporters has grown increasingly despondent in recent weeks. A run of three straight league defeats and a series of dour performances have caused serious questions to be asked of manager Claude Puel. The Frenchman has divided opinion throughout his St Mary's tenure, with the discontented voices growing ever louder over the New Year period.
Puel has in some ways been dealt a bad hand. Saints dominated most of their Europa League games, and only failed to progress to the knockout stages due to a combination of individual errors and poor finishing. The team's lack of quality up front has also been exposed in the Premier League on several occasions. None of the strikers currently on the payroll possess the pace of Sadio Mane or presence and the aerial ability of Graziano Pelle. Puel's not responsible for the recruitment of players, so it would be unfair to shoulder him with all of the blame for Saints' goal-scoring woes.
Some of the criticism Puel has received has been fair, but some less so. One of the chief complaints has been the rotation policy deployed throughout the campaign. Many have sighted the examples of last year's champions Leicester and this season's league leaders Chelsea using fewer players than any other team. Leicester didn't have a glut of cup games to contend with last season, and in the few they did have they actually rotated heavily. The same can be said for Chelsea this term, who have been afforded a week's rest between most games due to the absence of European football. Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the biggest proponents of rotation during his glorious reign at Man United, and used to great effect during his most successful seasons. It's near enough unheard of for managers to use the same team in multiple competitions or in a tough fixture pile up like Saints had over Christmas.
For the most part Puel has made good use of the squad. Saints have been (or at least were up until Christmas) competitive in the Premier League whilst progressing to the League Cup semi-finals. As mentioned above, only poor finishing prevented us moving in the knockout stages of the Europa League. The pace of the game today means rotation is absolutely necessary. The result and performance at Bournemouth demonstrated how effective it can be. Maya Yoshida was one of the standout players that day. Saints' rotation policy allows players like him to come in without any ring rust and perform to the best of their ability.
One other major plus of Puel's reign so far has been the emergence of several young players. Josh Sims was handed his first start in a game Saints were desperate to win, and more than excelled. He's looked completely at ease at this level whenever he's been called upon. Sam McQueen has come on leaps and bounds since making his St Mary's bow against Burnley, and already looks like a seasoned pro. The man he replaced - Matt Targett - started the season very well before going down with injury. Jake Hesketh scored in his debut against Crystal Palace, and may well have made further progress had it not been for injury. Under Puel's tutelage a number of more senior players have also made significant strides. Cedric has gone from being one of our most unreliable performers to one of the most consistent. James Ward-Prowse has also improved, with his dominant display against Inter a particular highlight. Jordy Clasie is another player who looks significantly better than he did last season. Others like Nathan Redmond and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg haven't been able to maintain a consistent run of form so far, but time is on their side. It's a young team so you have to expect a few bumps in the road, but Puel's commitment to youth and working to improve the talent at his disposal should be applauded. It will benefit Saints in the long run.
Too much emphasis has been placed on Puel's demeanour and personality by some. His interviews aren't exactly engaging, but that shouldn't really matter. If Koeman was still here and Saints had performed exactly as they have this season I don't believe he would have received as much criticism. Puel has barely had his name sung at any point, with many predisposed to distrusting him from day one.
Saints fans might have been slightly forgiving for some of the poor results picked up this season had the football been a little more palatable. The pace the team plays at now is significantly slower than it was under Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino. Poor striking options certainly haven't helped. As Les Reed noted in his recent round of interviews, Puel hasn't had the time to properly formulate his tactics due to Saints' heavy schedule either. Even with that in mind though, it's not unreasonable to expect a bit more. Some have suggested that fans should be happy that the team is still in the top 10, but given the resources and setup at Saints' disposal that's the absolute bare minimum that should be expected.
With Koeman and Pochettino you always thought Saints had a decent chance going into any game, no matter who the opponent. For the first time since Nigel Adkins' ill-fated five month run as a Premier League manager Saints have looked a bit overawed at times this season. On more than one occasion we've completely folded after conceding. Against West Brom recently there was no discernible game-plan evident after the team had gone behind. Back in November at Hull Saints blew a game they looked in complete control of. In a rare throwback to the Pochettino pressing days, Saints played it perfectly during the first 20 minutes against Tottenham, but then crumbled. There seems to be very little leadership and character within the ranks. Not since the 2005 relegation season has there been a team with a weaker mentality. That might not be solely down to Puel, but you could definitely argue that he hasn't been inventive or flexible enough in the way he sets up his team.
For what it's worth Les Reed has given his public backing to Claude Puel. You could certainly make a case for Saints making a change, and few would shed any tears if they did. Still, there have been some positives, and given the extenuating circumstances mentioned in this article Puel can justifiably argue that more time is needed. With the fixture list gradually easing up over the next few months there will be more time to work on tactics and team shape. The club also need to provide him with a proper centre forward in the window. Saints aren't going to break into the top seven this season and they're not going to go down, so urgency is not required. If things haven't improved significantly by May however, Puel can have no complaints if he's looking for fresh employment.