Black Box to Black Hole: The Southampton Way is now defined by wastage

Words By Richard Jolly Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 15, 2018
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From the black box to the black hole, perhaps. For years, Southampton were lauded for their transfer policy, in the black as they bought low and sold high to the top-six, almost being a lucrative feeder club to Liverpool, and finding replacements thanks to Les Reed’s famous “black box”, the inner sanctum at the training ground with the database of video analysis and compendium of targets that seemed to make change seamless. Southampton became the role models, the club with the reputation as the reputation as the savviest traders. It was a triumph of strategy, technology and research.

It was. It isn’t now. Southampton have wasted around £100 million in the transfer market in recent years: some of that profligacy, during their modern-day glory days, scarcely mattered, but other bits of bad business came at a greater cost that would have been still higher had they been relegated.

Those dreadful deals are reflected in this summer’s non-sales, in the players still on the books because no one would buy them. Some are out of sight, in an attempt to get them out of mind, but they represent problems who will not go away. They are camouflaged calamities, not found in the first-team section of the Southampton website; instead Jordy Clasie is on loan at Feyenoord, Sofiane Boufal beginning a temporary stint with Celta Vigo and Guido Carrillo has been borrowed by Leganes.

Clasie was a comparatively cheap £8 million. The midfielder’s Southampton career produced one league goal and one assist. Boufal was a club record £16 million. His three league goals tended to be spectacular; besides averaging out at 1.5 per season, the issue was that the winger did virtually nothing in between. Worst of all, Carrillo, a new club record at £19 million, scored no goals and barely threatened any. The Premier League has seen few less potent strikers.

His loan spell at a low-budget club like Leganes is thought to be heavily subsidised, a drain on Saints’ wage bill producing few benefits for them. Perhaps the failing lies not in the black box, but in backing their managers. Dani Osvaldo, the £12.8 million buy who was paid off, represented the major black mark against Mauricio Pochettino, his former Espanyol coach. Clasie was a Ronald Koeman protégé. Claude Puel had seen Boufal in France. Carrillo was Mauricio Pellegrino’s peccadillo, so much of his fellow Argentinian’s pet project that they are now working together for a third time.

But then there is Fraser Forster, possibly the best-paid third-choice goalkeeper in the world, unable to get on the bench after Angus Gunn’s arrival, but granted a new five-year deal last summer, five months before he was belatedly dropped. There was precious little interest in Forster this summer. It represents a failure of foresight from a supposedly insightful club, who ignored evidence of his blunders and created problems for themselves with a ludicrously generous contract.

If others were managerial missteps, this is a club mistake. So were Florin Gardos, the forgotten £6 million centre-back who started five league games in four years, and Gaston Ramirez, the £12 million Uruguayan who was yet another club record signing. Southampton did not recoup a fee when he left.

Together their seven fees come to £84 million. Factor in the wages Saints have paid, and will pay, for them to either go unused or play for others, however, and it will surely come to a nine-figure sum. That amounts to all the profits they made from Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mane and Nathaniel Clyne, for instance. Or, to put it another way, the money they got from Morgan Schneiderlin, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren, even before factoring in purchase prices, sell-on clauses and other assorted costs. Whichever way, more than one windfall has been wasted. And while every transfer comes with some element of risk and every club makes some mistakes, Southampton were both defined by spectacular success and the rarity of errors.

Not any longer. If they were able to set themselves up for the future, financing their next batch of buys with sales, now part of their budget is swallowed up problems created in the past. Their wage bill is weighed down by paying players they cannot sell and do not want.

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