2017/18 The Post Mortem Part 4
Monday, 18th Jun 2018 10:33
As we get to the business end of our end of season review we take a look at perhaps the most key area of a football team the manager.
There are those that say that Saints demise started two years ago when they appointed Claue Puel, but that would be harsh, Puel was not the most charismatic of persons, but he will have left St Mary's feeling that he did a good job in the circumstances.
In hindsight he did have a point, he came straight into a problem with Jose Fonte, lost his leading scorer Charlie Austin, saw his best player also injured in Van Dijk and then had to perhaps sit down and change his tactics to ensure that Saints did not did not dip into the relegation battle.
Yes it wasn't pretty to watch at times, but after January Puel had to abandon pretty and concentrate on getting results, to a degree he did this, the fans weren't entertained, but 8th and a Wembley cup final was as good a season as most Saints fans had ever witnessed.
So Mauricio Pellegrino's season started off in pretty much the same way, Van Dijk in dispute with the club and after 16 games there wasnt that much difference in points, Puel had 21 points (ironically exactly the same as Ronald Koeman at that stage a year earlier) and Pellegrino 18.
But this is where the season's took different directions and Pellegrino after an average start sitting in 11th place would win only 1 more Premier League game in the next 14 as manager, drawing 7 of these and losing 6.
As mentioned earlier Pellegrino had problems way beyond his control, it was not his fault that Van Dijk had been tapped up by Liverpool, he could not help Charlie Austin getting injured, he could not be blamed for the goalkeepers loss of confidence and I'm sure he would have preferred Saints to sign a central defender in the January transfer window, but that does not excuse the job he was doing.
He was a likeable enough man and therein lies the problem, he was a coach and not a manager and there is a very definite difference.
On paper Saints did not have a bad squad, it had quality and it had depth, it did not need coaching it needed managing and Pellegrino appeared to be unable to to this.
Although in mid December Saints appeared comfortable as we have shown, the issues behind the scenes were tearing the squad apart, the Van Dijk situation was abysmal, but there was more Pellegrino had fallen out with Mario Lemina after questioning the midfielder's verdict he was not fit to face Everton and that was certainly not conducive to squad morale.
I questioned after the defeat at Liverpool at the end of November whether Pellegrino was the man, the team had no heart or fight that day, but we came back and beat Everton, but from now on in the season would follow a similar pattern, one of bad luck, late goals and poor marking.
Each game seemed to have at least one of those elements in it, certainly the seson could have taken a different path had we held on against Arsenal and beaten Huddersfield, but it didn't.
The club board seemed to be unable to decide what to do, there always seemed to be a glimmer of hope, after the Boxing Day debacle at Spurs we went to Manchester United and drew 0-0, then after throwing the game away at home to Palace, January was a month that gave hope, at Watford we were cheated out of a win, a fine draw against Spurs and starting February with a win at rivals West Brom, a victory that at the end of the season was crucial.
The board tried to soldier on, their view appeared to be that appointing a manger mid season is always a panic job, most manager who come into clubs in that situation rarely last long, Les Reed was gambling on Saints getting up and then finding the right man.
In fairness to him, evidence backed him up, the three relegated clubs all sacked their managers, in the case of West Brom twice in quick succession, it did not improve their situation, Les Reed was perhaps right to stick with Pellegrino, but he was gambling and at some stage the panic button had to be pressed.
Most fans would agree though that it was left far too long before being activated, in truth the FA Cup run covered up a multitude of sins and led the club to hope that there was not much wrong that a win or two would not put right, they were totally correct, the problem was that in the League at least it never came and the manager had to go.
The problem now was that Mark Hughes had a squad in complete disarray, Hughes himself made mistakes in his early days, the debacle at West Ham for example, but he soon worked out what the problem was and whom should be the core of his team and although we could hardly describe the end of the season as a great escape, more of a great survival, Hughes last five matches would see only one defeat, that coming in the final minute of injury team against Manchester City with the fans knowing that Swansea V Stoke was already over and we were safe whatever happened now.
So Les Reed took a big big gamble in sticking with Pellegrino, but he will say that it paid off, that we weren't relegated and that has some credence, hopefully we got the right man in to take the club forward.
I still maintain that this was not a bad squad, it was just poorly managed, when you see that the club player of the year only played half a season, the runner up Pierre Emile Hojbjerg, was completely ignored for the first three months of the season and despite major issues at the back Jan Bednarek didn't play a league game till April, Pellegrino had no real excuses.
That was the crux of the problem, he was a good coach, but a poor manager, he could not seem to change games, he seemed unable to spot when the pattern of a game had changed and deal with it.
Classic examples were in the number of late goals conceded, at home to Arsenal as the game entered injury time with us a goal up we were dead on our feet, yet at this point Pellegrino's only substitution had been to bring on an attacking midfielder in Boufal and a striker in Gabbiadini, yet he had Wesley Hoedt on the bench along with Steven Davis and Mario Lemina, all the sort of players needed to close out a game, Davis stood watching waiting to come on as we gave Giroud an unmarked header in the final minute.
Likewise Watford away when we threw away a two goal lead, in the final minute we had used only one substitution and we really should have brought someone on if only to break up the game, stop the home sides rythmm, if we had done that then perhaps we would not have been cheated out of all three points.
From the very start Pellegrino showed flaws, but we hoped that it was more about learning the Premier League rather than fatal flaws, virtually right up to his sacking at times we threatened to win a game or two and suddenly pull up the table as Les Reed was gambling on, indeed when Pellegrino was sacked in March he could still have had the best season in the history of the club if he had kept us up and won the FA Cup, but he never got the chance as he couldn't win a League game.
So in conclusion the managerial situation was a big part in our season but it was not the only part, Pellegrino was not just a poor manager, but an unlucky one and sometimes in football a good lucky manager can have ore success than a great unlucky one.
We took a big gamble in keeping faith with him, yes there were reasons to sack him in December, but we gave him a fair chance, but he should really have gone after the defeat to Palace on January 2nd, after that it was a case of a decent squad getting the odd point every now and then but just floating aimlessly with no real sense of direction, there was no excuses other than finding a replacement after that date.
But we stayed up and the three clubs who sacked their managers early doors went down, so Les Reed kept his nerve and can claim that was the right thing to do, I'm not quite sure of that myself, but on a plus point we did keep our nerve and did not panic and that is why we stayed up, with the squad we have there is now cause for optimism with the right signings.
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