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  • Writer's pictureWill Uglow

From Saints to Sinners - How the Premier League's 'model club' fell from ...

Updated: Feb 17

Thursday, 3rd November 2016.


Inter Milan players trudge back to the away dressing room, their lurid, fluorescent green and blue away strips bearing stark contrast to a night which must rank amongst their bleakest of recent times. They remain rooted to the bottom of Europa League Group K, now 4 points behind a Southampton outfit who have just recovered from an early deficit to humble the Nerazzurri, European champions just 6 years before, 2-1 at a raucous St Marys. Ultimately, both teams will end up falling short, Inter propping up a section where the Saints pick up just one more point from their final 2 fixtures to finish a creditable third behind Sparta Prague and Hapoel Be'er Sheva. For the Italians, their inglorious exile from Europe's top table continues. For Southampton, a glorious period in the club's history grows richer still with the downing of one of the continent's most glamorous names (not to mention a 3-0 thrashing of Sparta at St Marys in their opening group game). These are heady days on the Solent, the Saints sailing off the back of consecutive top 7 finishes in the Premier League and widely viewed as the top flight's model club outside of the' Big 6'.


If there was a warning of choppier waters ahead, however, it perhaps came from just up the road at Fratton Park, the home of the club's great rivals Portsmouth. 8 years earlier to the month, a Pompey side in its pomp following a historic FA Cup victory in 2007-08 played out an enthralling 2-2 draw with Milan's other great side, AC, at the same stage of European football's secondary competition. A Milan team who were Champions League winners just 18 months before and still boasted the likes of Ronaldinho and Kaka in their ranks, may have felt fortunate to escape Fratton Park with a point having trailed 2-0 as late as the 84th minute, but for Pompey this is as good as their Noughties renaissence would get. Within 2 years, the club would be relegated from the Premier League amidst administration and financial turmoil. Within 6 years, the club would be marooned in League 2. A full 14 and a half years on from that night in November 2008, an admittedly stabilised Pompey are still struggling to recover from the excesses of their Premier League days and climb back up the pyramid.


Whilst Southampton's slide has been much less severe and financially crippling, there is now an unavoidable realisation that the club's once enviable standards have slipped drastically since their own brush with Milanese European royalty, painfully confirmed by a 2-0 home defeat to Fulham in May that saw the Saint's 11 year stay in the top flight come to an undignified end. So what exactly has gone wrong at St Mary's since their mid 2010's heyday?


The summer of 2016 seems a good point to start. The Saints were just coming off the back of a commendable 6th placed finish with a team that contained talents such as Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic and Virgil Van Dijk. Recent results included a 4-2 home humbling of Manchester City, featuring a Mane hat trick, and a 2-1 away success at title chasing Spurs. The sun was shining on St Mary's, although the heroics of fellow underdogs Leicester at the league's summit had put Southampton's achievements in the shade slightly. Still, the South Coast side's efforts had been an integral part of the Premier League's 'season of the underdog' in 2015/16.


The upshot of this odds-defying campaign, however, was a fierce and immediate fight back from the division's wealthier clubs that was to spell bad news for the Saints and other clubs that had dared to take on the established elite.


Languishing in eleventh position that season, 5 places and 16 points behind the Saints, lay a disgruntled Everton side. The Roberto Martinez era at Goodison Park had turned sour, and when the Belgian was sacked at the end of the campaign, the Toffees hierarchy turned to Southampton's promising boss Ronald Koeman. The Dutch former playing legend was announced as Everton's new boss in June 2016, robbing the Saints of one of their greatest assets and providing the catalyst for a slow but steady exodus of their best players. At the end of the same month, the club's star forward Sadio Mane was bound for the other side of Stanley Park, signing a 5 year contract with Liverpool. Influential players Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle also left that summer, for Tottenham and Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng respectively. It was a foreboding sign of things to come on the south coast.


Koeman's replacement at St Mary's was the little known Claude Puel, previously in charge of several clubs in his native France including Lyon and Nice. Vibes of "Claude who?" might have led the Saints faithful to hope they had their own version of Arsene Wenger on their hands, but despite a promising start, things weren't to materialise as such. Puel led Southampton to another solid 8th placed finish in 2016-17, coupled with a superb run to the League Cup final where Liverpool were beaten 2-0 on aggregate in a tense semi final, before a somewhat unfortunate 3-2 loss to Manchester United in the Wembley showpiece. The initial form of January signing Manolo Gabbiadini was another positive, the Italian striker bursting onto the scene at St Mary's with an early goal rush before falling flat.


Whilst that can't be said for the Saint's campaign as a whole, Puel's tenure did indeed flop like a burst balloon in the summer following his debut campaign. A paltry record of 41 league goals, 18 fewer than the previous season under Koeman, reinforced the idea of Puel being an overly defensive manager. This stood at odds with the club's well established recent brand of exciting, attacking football. Southampton's board acted ruthlessly, dismissing Puel in June 2017, less than a year after walking through the door at St Mary's. Whilst losing Koeman twelve months earlier had been understandable, this was the first real sign that the Saints patient long-term approach was giving way to something more impulsive, the board's anxiety at trying to maintain the club's newly elevated standards beginning to show.


Puel's departure may have been justified had the Saints seen another upturn and a return to attacking principles under an exciting new coach. Instead, the Frenchman's replacement in the dugout, former Valencia and Liverpool defender Mauricio Pellegrino, oversaw a disastrous start to 2017-18, winning just 5 of 30 league games before receiving his marching orders following a dismal 3-0 defeat at Newcastle in March 2018, with the Saints dangling just a place above the relegation zone. In the meantime, more influential players left for pastures new, most notably defender Virgil Van Dijk's £75 million move to Anfield on New Years' Day 2018, whilst successive record signings in midfielder Mauro Lemina and striker Guido Carillo failed to fire. After being the model of sustainable, sensible success for so long, the Saints suddenly found themselves embroiled in a chaotic scramble against relegation, craving the mid table security they had scorned under their previous head coach.


Any suggestion of Southampton sticking true to their model of progressive continental coaches amidst this dogfight were then quashed when renowned firefighter Mark Hughes was brought in to secure the club's top flight safety with just 8 games to go. Three successive defeats to begin the Welshman's tenure plunged the Saints below the dotted line and into serious trouble, before 8 points in 4 games were secured at the most vital time to haul the club to safety. The final game in this run was a tense 1-0 victory away at Swansea in what was effectively a shootout for survival, with the Swan's demise providing a grim foreshadowing for their opponents own fall from grace.


Hughes stayed on for the 2018-19 campaign as Southampton entered an uncertain era, with another member of their golden period departing when Dusan Tadic moved to Ajax for an undisclosed fee ahead of a season where he would help the Amsterdam side to reach the Champions League semi finals. Whilst their Serbian playmaker's career took another upwards trajectory, his former club's 2018-19 held no such glamour. Hughes' side quickly found themselves in trouble once again, registering just one win in their opening 14 league games before the Welshman was sacked in December 2018.


In came highly rated Austrian manager Ralph Hassenhuttl, previously in charge of RB Leipzig, who he had led to 2nd place in the Bundesliga, as the club returned to their philosophy of upcoming continental coaches. Hassenhuttl got off to a strong start at St Mary's, beating Arsenal 3-2 in his first match and leading the club to safety again with a 16th placed finish.


The summer of 2019 saw influential striker Danny Ings arrive at St Mary's as Hassenhuttl looked to get the squad fighting at the right end of the table once again. The Saints made a slow start to the season, however, culminating in a humiliating, record breaking 9-0 home defeat to Leicester City in October. This could have been the signal for a bleak few months ahead, but instead Hassenhuttl's charges rallied, winning 13 of their final 28 games to finish a respectable 11th and even taking revenge on their Foxes humbling by winning 2-1 at the King Power less than 3 months later.


At this point, Hassenhuttl seemed to be steering things in the right direction, slowly crafting an increasingly exciting young squad that was added to during the summer of 2020 by signings such as Mohammed Salisu from Valladolid and Takumi Minamino on loan from champions Liverpool.


If 2019-20 had been a season of two halves that trended in the right direction for the Saints, however, the following campaign was quite the opposite. Amidst the eerie atmosphere of stadiums that were mostly deserted due to COVID-19, the Saints won 5 of their first 8 games to briefly going top of the table for the first time in the club's history following a 2-0 victory at home to Newcastle in early November. By early January, Southampton were still an impressive sixth after dishing out a New Year defeat to Liverpool at St Marys. A fixture against Leicester, however, was again to prove crucial in reversing the Saint's fortunes. A 2-0 defeat at the King Power was the precursor to a woeful run of 6 consectuive losses, including another 9-0 drubbing at Old Trafford which saw the club increasingly become meme fodder in social media circles. The Saints conspired to lose 15 of their final 21 games, tumbling down the table to 15th. Even a run to the FA Cup Semi Finals, again ended by Leicester, couldn't fully excuse this slide.


A largely disastrous few months somewhat halted the feeling that Hassenhuttl was building something special once again on the Solent, and the departure of Ings and other key players such as Jannik Vestergaard at the campaign's conclusion didn't help. An attempt to further refresh the squad was made however with smart additions including Tino Livramento, Adam Armstrong and former academy player Theo Wallcott.


Many predicted 2021-22 to be the Saint's swansong in the top flight, but an solid enough start of 35 points from 26 games silenced several doubters. Then, however the 'season of two halves' curse struck again on the South Coast, a 4-0 humbling at Villa Park in early March triggering a dreadful stumble to the finish line of 9 defeats from 12 games, seeing the Saints plummet from 9th to 15th once again.


This second consecutive poor finish to a campaign increased the pressure on the Saint's formerly feted boss and a summer spending spree on 9 players of 9 different nationalities, coupled with the loss of more influential players such as Oriol Romeu and Nathan Redmond, only added to the sense of panic gathering at the club. The club had got away with this hectic approach 12 months earlier, but this time there was to be no reprieve in a campaign where the club's formerly superb model descended into chaos...


7 points from 5 games represented a decent start, and when Chelsea were downed 2-1 on 30th August, the mood at St Mary's was positive once again. The side's streaky tendencies then showed themselves again however, 6 defeats from 9 plunging them into the relegation zone by early November. This time, there was no coming back for Hassenhuttl, who like the club's previous overseas coach Pellegrino was dismissed following a three goal defeat to Newcastle after 4 years in charge.


Any Saint's fans hoping this was to be the campaign's nadir were sadly mistaken, as worse was to come under the Austrian's replacement Nathan Jones. The Welshman's spell at Luton Town, guiding the Hatters on their incredible recent rise through the EFL, stood him in good stead for a top flight job, but his brief time at St Mary's can only be described as one of the worst managerial stints in Premier League history. Signing off for the World Cup break with a respectable 3-1 defeat at Anfield offered some promise in Jones' first game, but optimism rapidly faded upon the resumption of domestic football after the tournament as the club found themselves on a run of 9 defeats in 10 games, 7 of them under Jones. This was all despite surprisingly impressive cup form that included a 2-0 victory over Manchester City, potentially denying the Sky Blues an unprecedented quadruple. Jones departed the club on 12th February 2023 having seen his side score just twice from open play, following a bizarre interview claiming he had "let the players down".


The Saint's final manager of a troubled campaign came in the form of Ruben Selles, who stepped up from his lead coach role whilst the remainder of Jones' supporting staff left. By the time of his appointment, however, the club's situation was already grim, propping up the table with just 4 wins and 15 points from 22 games. Selles initially improved matters, earning 5 points from 4 to follow up on a surprise win at Stamford Bridge before he had officially taken charge. March 4th's 1-0 home victory over Leicester (them again!), however proved to be the last victory of the club's 11 year spell in the top flight, as the Saints went on to take just three points from the remaining 13 games to bow out of the big league with a whimper.


So as the club prepare to play in their first Championship fixture for over a decade at Hillsborough on Friday, what can be determined about their demise? Ultimately, the Saint's tale has been like many Premier Leagu e clubs before them, including Swansea, Stoke and others. A once revered club A loss of attacking principles in favour of a panicked, scattergun approach.













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