25/06/2017: Puel Out, Pellegrino In
In years to come 2016/17 may be looked back upon as a successful season for Saints, but when the final whistle blew at the end of the dour final day defeat to Stoke it sure didn't feel like one. Most fans would have bitten your hand off if you'd offered them 8th and a cup final appearance back in August, but that doesn't tell the whole story. There were some great moments, but overall last season felt rather underwhelming. Claude Puel was unlucky in some respects, but the decision to replace him with Mauricio Pellegrinio feels like the right one.
In many ways Puel was up against it from day one. In both transfer windows, he was dealt a bad hand. The team was clearly in desperate need of an additional centre forward during the summer, but Puel was not provided with one. In January you had the ludicrous situation where Jose Fonte was sold before a replacement was sought. In general, the calibre of players brought in were not of the same quality of those who departed. With that in mind a drop-off was to be expected.
Saints did finish 8th, but it was a very different 8th to one in 2013/14. Back then we were streets ahead of most if not all the teams below us. We played an exciting aggressive style of football and may have pushed Man United and Tottenham were it not for all nearly all our injuries coming at once in December. The same can be said of Ronald Koeman's two seasons in charge. This time we finished 8th by virtue of the fact that we were just slightly less useless than the teams below us. Saints were only six points better off than Watford in 17th and closer to Hull in 18th than Everton in 7th in terms of points.
It's hard to imagine who else could have taken this team to a higher standing, but plenty could have done so more convincingly. Even with the additional fixtures and inferior squad, top 10 is absolutely where Saints should be given the setup, financial resources and everything else. Apart from the first few weeks after Manolo Gabbiadini's arrival, and a brief period in the Autumn the football was generally dull and uninspiring. For the first time in the Premier League era Saints didn't win a single league game against a top six side either.
There were some positives to Puel's reign of course. The League Cup run, and in particular that magical night at Anfield will live long in the memory. He made the absolute best of a difficult situation in the January window with Fonte going, helping to develop Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens into a cohesive defensive partnership. Sam McQueen and Josh Sims thrived when given a chance and more senior players like Cedric and James Ward-Prowse came on leaps and bounds too.
Short of doing a Leicester there was absolutely nothing Puel could have done to convince certain sections of the fanbase that he was up to the job. Even during the good spells he barely had his name sung, and even his most fervent supporters were ambivalent about him leaving. There was far too much emphasis placed on Puel's supposed uninspiring personality and boring interviews. Had a skilled media operator like Koeman been in charge last season and achieved the exact same results, perhaps sympathy from the stands would have been more forthcoming. We know from past experience that you shouldn't necessarily make big decisions based on the mood of the crowd, but the atmosphere was already turning close to poisonous at the end of the campaign. A bad run at the start of the campaign would only have exasperated the ill felling further.
As lazy as it might sound, it's difficult to completely avoid the comparisons between Pellegrino and our last Mauricio. Not only do they share the same name, nationality, former playing position and career trajectory, they also appear to have a not too dissimilar coaching style and personality. The profiles from Spanish football experts like Sid Lowe and Nick Dorrington read remarkably similarly to the pieces that were disseminated when Pochettino rocked up at St Mary's in January 2013.
Pellegrino is described as a tactically flexible coach who is able organise and develop players extremely effectively. He helped mastermind a famous win at the Nou Camp with Alaves last season, just as Pochettino did in his first season at Espanyol. Pellegrino was generally regarded as one of, if not the best coach in Spain last term, with his side finishing 9th and reaching the cup final. He is said to be passionate and personable, qualities that will surely endear him to the supporters and players more than Puel did. Pellegrino extracted absolutely everything he could out of his men last season, something which certainly could not be said of Puel. He deserves more support from the board and the fans than his predecessor received, but provided he gets that there's no reason why Pellegrino shouldn't be a very successful appointment.