Southampton’s misery stems from losing identity and transfer touch

Mauricio Pellegrino’s sacking is no surprise after he struggled to identify his best team or lift the excitement but the club have been sleepwalking into relegation danger for some time

Perhaps the biggest question is not who Southampton turn to next but whether they have left it too late. The manner in which Saints have sleepwalked to the point where they are teetering above the relegation zone has been alarming but inevitable for a while. Little has changed over the past nine months, when Mauricio Pellegrino was appointed, and the team, with one win from 17 league matches, have sat stagnant for too long.

After Claude Puel failed to woo fans with a style deemed too safe, Pellegrino was sold to supporters as an exciting manager who would reinvigorate St Mary’s with a brand of front-foot football, and up the ante at least. The Argentinian was supposed to be a breath of fresh air yet, 263 days on, he has departed and the same groans surrounding a discernibly predictable team linger.

Any optimism evaporated after one win in Pellegrino’s opening five matches, against 10-man West Ham United. Winless runs continued and supposedly must-win matches at home to Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace in January, and more recently Stoke City, came and went. At least at this stage last season Puel could cling to the positives of reaching a cup final and blooding players such as Jack Stephens and Josh Sims, who has been welcomed back into the first-team fold over the past month.

“If you don’t want to lose, don’t play the game,” Pellegrino said after one of his side’s better performances, against Tottenham Hotspur in January, but that in many ways was the root of the problems. He chopped and changed personnel – rightly dropping Fraser Forster in goal and thrusting Stephens in after Virgil van Dijk’s destabilising exit – but he flittered and flapped on the touchline and, despite being amenable and gracious, as well as well-liked by the players, his tenure was unconvincing.

Other than Ryan Bertrand and Oriol Romeu, who have shone during a dismal season, few seemed assured of starting places, with Pellegrino seemingly puzzled as he attempted to establish his best team. It may be a buzzword but under Mauricio Pochettino and then Ronald Koeman Saints had a clear identity – they had an endearing habit of playing at full-throttle – that has been eroded over the past couple of years.

Pellegrino’s insistence on playing a lone, often isolated striker home and away unsurprisingly failed to inspire supporters or the goals-for column, and heaped pressure on players such as Dusan Tadic, James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond to do more than just deliver into the box. With eight games remaining, it is not inconceivable that Charlie Austin, who has not played since before Christmas because of a hamstring tear, could finish as the team’s top scorer with six league goals.

Guido Carrillo, left, in action here against Stoke, has failed to score since his club-record £19m arrival in January.
Guido Carrillo, left, in action here against Stoke, has failed to score since his club-record £19m arrival in January. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

The club gambled in January on Guido Carrillo, who worked under Pellegrino at Estudiantes, a club-record £19m buy who has not scored nor solved Saints’ problem of being too easy to defend against. At the other end, the Van Dijk saga was an unwelcome distraction but only so much blame can be attached to that for the team’s struggles. Pellegrino admitted frustration at the club signing only one player in the four weeks after selling the Dutchman to Liverpool for £75m.

Southampton’s model has been deservedly commended in recent years, for the way in which they sign, develop and often sell assets – both players and managers – but it is difficult to lavish much praise on last summer’s transfer business. Evolution is expected but at the same time it is naive to think Saints could keep defying the odds.

Neither Jan Bednarek, who has spent the majority of this season with the under-23s, nor Wesley Hoedt, a Netherlands international, have offered defensive steel. The midfielder Mario Lemina, like Hoedt, has shown glimpses of quality but bearing in mind the issues elsewhere, feels an increasingly unnecessary commodity. Of course Saints cannot always strike gold yet they still crave a goalscorer, whether that be a powerhouse who strikes fear into defences as Graziano Pellè did or a player who zooms down the wing like Sadio Mané.

The Southampton board, however, must get their next move right. When the Chinese businessman Gao Jisheng acquired 80% of the club for around £210m in August, it is unlikely he envisaged owning a Championship club. Saints have to steer themselves clear from danger and fast, but five wins in 30 league games (only the bottom club West Bromwich Albion have won fewer) speaks volumes, and Pellegrino’s successor will need to provide a stirring short-term bounce.

There are few obvious options considering the club wishes to make a long-term appointment, one ideally with Premier League experience. Mark Hughes, a former Saints player, or Marco Silva, whom the club sounded out last season, would be logical moves. Whoever assumes charge will oversee a daunting run-in, though that is probably underselling it. They have only three home games remaining, against Chelsea, Bournemouth and – on the final day of the season – Manchester City. By the time Southampton travel to Puel’s Leicester, towards the end of April, their fate may, even if not mathematically, have been sealed.