After 11 straight seasons in the Premier League, Southampton now face up to life in the Championship next year after a 2-0 defeat at home to Fulham confirmed their fate. Boos rang out from the half empty St Mary’s Stadium at the full time whistle, noting the fans displeasure at what they had witness not only on that day but across the entire season. Captain James Ward-Prowse summed it up perfectly by stating that “standards had slipped at the club” which has resulted in their relegation.
Ward-Prowse comments overall were not surprising but highlighting that this has been a problem since pre-season was. The midfielder, who is almost certain to leave in the summer with several Premiership clubs chasing the set piece specialist, has been with club since he was 8 years old so has seen the evolution of Southampton from all sides. Once viewed as the poster boy for youth development in England, Southampton has gradually lost its way over the past 5 or so years, mostly down to unrealistic expectations at the board and ownership level. This is the club after all that sacked Claude Puel for achieving a highly respectable 8th place in the league and steering the club to its first cup final appearance in 14 years. Southampton’s owners have never really seemed to understood where they fit in the football pyramid and what was possible at that given time. Ambition to be better and bigger is to be encourage (look at Leicester for example in 2015) but it needs to be a gradual evolution of the approach and not a rapid deviation to a different one. On several occasions, the pressure on managers to meet these elevated expectations was similar to that placed upon a manager at a club consistently chasing Champions league football. Eventually something was going to break.
The ownership, both old and new, should be held accountable for this relegation as much as the players on the pitch will be. Owners are responsible for how the clubs is run, how the money is spent and who is at the club to help drive it forward. But in all three areas Soouthampton’s owners have let the fans down. False promises and expectations, poor managerial selections and a lack of real investment has led to the downfall of this once self sufficient club. To be fair to the new ownership group, Sport Republic who took over in January 2022, they have attempted to invest this past season, paying €25m for Kamaldeen Sulemana, €18m for Paul Onuachu and €14m for Gavin Bazunu in addition to sanctioning 10 other arrivals but few have been a success due to the managerial merry-go-round that has plagued the club this season.
Whilst not their appointment, Ralph Hasenhüttl was never going to be a manager to deliver trophies but like Klopp, he was a fan of gegenpressing which the new owners be could potentially bring a brand of entertaining football back to Southampton. For a short while it looked promising but results never really went his way and his card was effectively marked when he oversaw two different 9-0 defeats. When he was eventually sacked this season with Southampton in the relegation zone, the new owners needed to make a big decision about who to turn to in order to save them. Unfortunately to the dismay of most Southampton fans, they turned to Nathan Jones. Welshman Jones had impressed at Luton but ultimately found the step up too steep to manage. Handing Ruben Selles, a coach who had worked under Hassenhuttl then Jones with no managerial experience, the reigns in order to save them from relegation was purely down to saving money and nothing else. These three decisions crippled Southampton’s chances of survival and had a detrimental effect on the team.
On the field, chaos reigned. New signings failed to gel under ever changing strategies, youth players found their pathway to first team action delayed due to pressures for results and Southampton’s disjointed squad that has been created over the past five years by never properly replacing like for like (Danny Ings being the perfect example) failed to find a way to carve out wins and put points on the board. 6 wins and 6 draws from 36 matches is unacceptable even with falling standards. This summer will be one of reflection and upheaval as Southampton rebuild once more this time for the Championship. Bouncing straight back up wont be that straightforward especially if the owners havent reset their expectations. A new manager is need, further investment into the squad will be required and stability returned to a club that desperately wants to be back in the Premier League in two years time.