Can Southampton Keep Succeeding With Another New Manager?
If the opening match of the 2016-17 Premier League season is any indication, then the answer to the headline question is not really. Southampton was dominated by Watford in the first half of their opener, but the Saints managed to salvage a point thanks to an impressive second 45 minutes.
New boss Claude Puel will expect more from his team as they travel to Manchester United, one of the favorites to win the league, on Friday night. This will be the first Friday night match of the season, and United will also enter as favorites to beat the Saints. They may even steal one of the most prominent players on the Southampton back line in Jose Fonte. Contract negotiations at Southampton have stalled, so Fonte could be on the move. With negotiations underway, Fonte did not play this past weekend, but he featured in 37 Premier League matches and was a stalwart for the Saints last season.
However, this is a team that was predicted for relegation in 2014 and has continued to impress despite losing managers and players. Success is never guaranteed, but there is no reason to believe that the Saints will not continue on their current path.
The vision of success at Southampton has been to stay in the top eight despite a revolving door of personnel. Last summer the entire face of the team changed, but manager Ronald Koeman was able to pull his team together for a good finish.
Koeman left for Everton this past summer and several players bolted, as well. Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle and Victor Wanyama were among the notable departures. Nathan Redmond joined Southampton and scored on his debut over the weekend, but overall the team has failed -- so far -- to fill the void left Mane and company.
It is not to say that Puel took over a team barren of talent. The Saints finished sixth last season and have a roster of young but experienced players.
Charlie Austin has appeared in 250 matches and has proven ability to score. Ryan Bertrand has played 73 matches for the team and appeared in nine games for the England National Team. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is only 21, but he has played 17 matches for the Denmark National Team and spent time with Bayern Munich. Dusan Tadic recorded 12 assists last year and is considered to have a new lease on his career with a new coach and contract.
Of course much of their performance will come down to Puel's ability to get the most of the players. Puel got the most out of Hatem Ben Arfa last season after a trying career to that point, and he will hope to do the same with his current roster.
Puel spent his entire coaching career before this season in Ligue 1 and must now do with his Southampton squad what he did with Ben Afra and the 1999 Monaco squad that won the title in Puel's first year as manager. Southampton fans feels his recent run at Nice will be similar to his time with the Saints because he exceeded expectations with a tight budget.
Puel has been described as a "builder," so the relative youth of the Southampton side should benefit from his abilities. Puel called this job the "ideal place" for him. He has already imposed his philosophy on the team as he hopes to maintain possession and make the opponent work. That was evident against Watford as the Saints controlled nearly 65% of the possession and had nearly five times the number of shots thanks to a wonderful second-half performance.
It is unfair to talk about success without placing realistic expectations on the table. The team will play in the Europa League this season thanks to their sixth-place finish in the Premier League last year, which was one spot ahead of their seventh-place finish in 2014-2015.
Given the heavy schedule, the amount of money being spent by top clubs and the roster turnover, a finish similar to the last three years should be considered a success. In fact, most major betting sites have the Saints finishing in the top half of the league.
We are #SaintsFC. We never stop. #WeMarchOn 😇 https://t.co/skvYLu4BcE
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) August 12, 2016
The team can take the momentum built from the second half against Watford into Friday's match against Manchester United. However, they are not expected to get a result. Puel will likely have to take more away from the group continuing to gel and start fresh for week three. It will also be about stressing the foundation of the club and what they continue to build.
Southampton has a stunning training ground, solid talent in its first-team ranks, a manager with a proven track record and a solid academy. They should finish in the top half of the Premier League and make the knockout rounds of the Europa League. Realistically, this is a success for a team with so much turnover on a yearly basis. The real success for this club could come next summer if the majority of the squad stays, and Puel is getting ready for his second year at the helm. But as we've seen over the past 24 months, the only constant at Southampton is change.