It was all going so well for Southampton on Tuesday night. 1-0 up at half-time over Crystal Palace, opposition who were a missed penalty away from beating Manchester City on Sunday. The atmosphere was surprisingly good for a game in profoundly unpleasant conditions between two reasonably mediocre sides. Even Shane Long scored, his first goal for nearly a year.
But then after the break the mood at St Mary’s quickly went from indifference, to trepidation, to active hostility. Palace started playing and Southampton dropped back, back, back and in the words of their own manager they “didn’t have the intention to go forwards, we just had the intention to pass the time.”
If the Southampton fans were his judge, jury and executioner, Mauricio Pellegrino would be looking for other work by now. But those with more control over his employ seem, in public at least, to be a little keener to stick with him for now. And that might in part be because they recognise this current mess is their fault.
Ralph Krueger gave an interview to the Southern Daily Echo this week, in which he discussed a range of issues, but the main one pressed home by the questioners was basically: why are Southampton no good this season?
And a big part of that concerned Virgil van Dijk. On the surface, getting £75million for a defender who hasn’t really contributed much this season might seem like a fine piece of business. Southampton’s model has been to buy low and sell high, and having paid £13million for the Dutchman in 2015, a £62million profit in two-and-a-half years seems to be the perfect way for that model to work.
But the timing of the move was odd. Liverpool spent much of the summer keen to get their man, initially going in a little heavy-handedly before apparently maintaining a more softly-softly approach, their phone on until the very end of the transfer window. But the call from Southampton never came, despite enormous stacks of cash on the table and a player very keen indeed to travel north.
Krueger explained why in his interview, calling it a “stand of principle”, essentially saying Southampton wouldn’t be bullied into selling a player they didn’t want to. But how much of a principle is it to just delay the inevitable by six months? Who is this stand designed to impress or benefit?
The manager had a disillusioned player on his hands. The fans are unlikely to be delighted with their brave board considering the number of players Southampton have already sold to Liverpool. The rest of the squad had a colleague who didn’t want to be there. The club as a whole basically look foolish, like a small child who won’t eat their greens and stamp their feet, but then eventually eat those greens ten minutes later, thinking they’ve made their point.
And what is this “stand of principle” against? This is how Southampton operate, by essentially acting as a vetting service for the Premier League’s bigger clubs, taking on some risk for those clubs and giving players a platform to perform. The players get their move, the club gets their money, the giants get their players: broadly speaking, everyone’s happy. The trick is managing the churn, and before this season Southampton broadly had it right.
But they rely on those bigger clubs offering telephone number transfer fees. It’s how they work. Might this actually mean clubs are less likely to attempt business with them? If it does, then even more trouble might be ahead.
Southampton have essentially wasted six months, during which time they could’ve had a fat bank account, two or three really good new signings and a more settled squad. As it stands they just look confused.
Either continue on the established line, by taking the money when the fee is right, or resist altogether. Waiting half a season before accepting basically the same deal they were offered in the summer just seems like a silly halfway house, pointless symbolism that will achieve nothing and will probably turn out to be actively harmful.
But more than that it could have at least played a part in torpedoing their season. Here’s the full context of Krueger’s quote: “The first half of this season was under the shadow of a stand in principle. It emotionally threw off us balance and financially was a huge business risk that we took in the summer.”
The chairman is there essentially admitting that the whole saga has harmed the club, how Pellegrino has gone about his business and the team’s results to this point. Of course, we can’t know whether things would’ve been significantly different had Van Dijk been sold in July, replacing Claude Puel with Pellegrino certainly looks like a bigger mistake and their recent recruitment decisions have not been nearly as strong as in the past.
But Southampton may have sabotaged their season by making a point that goes against the way they have run their club ever since returning to the Premier League, and has potentially hamstrung their new manager. From finishing eighth last season they’re now in real danger of relegation, and they have only themselves to blame.