Transfers, near misses and a reluctance to splash out: Explaining Southampton's current predicament

How in the world did this happen? Little over a year ago, it seemed as if there was no better time to be a Southampton fan. After a sensational second half of the 2015-16 season, Saints supporters had enjoyed memorable victories, a record breaking finish, and now had Europa League football to look forward to. The club, despite losing no less than eight first-team players and a manager to bigger clubs in the last two summers, had still achieved constant progression, and the sky was the limit.

However, ever since the historic sixth place finish that was secured in May 2016, things have only gone downhill. Those days of success and optimism are now a world away from the situation on the South Coast now. After another summer of off-field drama, transfer sagas, and a change of manager, the mood around St Mary's is one of unfamiliar negativity and concern about the coming season, which is just over a week away.

It would be a little hasty to say that Southampton are in a crisis at the moment, but following star man Virgil Van Dijk's demand to leave the club, a lack of new signings and a 4-0 loss at home to Augsburg, it would be equally naive to say that they have had anything but an awful off-season.

The celebrations that followed the end of the 2015-16 season seem a world away now. Photo: Getty.
The celebrations that followed the end of the 2015-16 season seem a world away now. Photo: Getty.

So, how did it come to this? How did the Saints go from arguably the best pound-for-pound club in the Premier League, to a bit of a shambles? The answer is not a simple one, and the seeds of this calamity were sown well before it became evident that Southampton were on the decline.

Nevertheless, a series of key mistakes are the root of the club's current issues and, looking back, many of them were very avoidable.

While it is impossible to pinpoint exactly when, why, and how things have gone wrong for Southampton, the four, often overlooked, events below go a long way to uncovering the reasons for their current mess.

The 2014 summer transfer window

There is no better place to start than the infamous 'exodus' of 2014. Southampton, after being the surprise package of the 2013-14 Premier League season, proceeded to self-destruct, selling the core of their starting XI to clubs that were not too far above them.

As if the sales of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers weren't enough, the Saints also let manager Mauricio Pochettino go, to TottenhamMany of these players had several years left on their contract and, quite frankly, did not need to be sold.

Admittedly, to their credit, Southampton recovered from shooting themselves in the foot admirably. New manager Ronald Koeman, armed with a barrage of new signings, were able to fire the Saints to an improved Premier League finish the following season.

Yet despite seemingly dodging a bullet, Southampton set a dangerous precedent in that highly eventful 2014 summer transfer window. From then on, they were still able to attract impressive talent, but players now came to the South Coast expecting no more than a brief stay. From that moment on, the club became a stepping stone for bigger and better things, and led to a further six crucial players moving on in the next two summers.

January-February 2015: Injuries galore

Halfway through manager Koeman's debut season in English football, Southampton were flying. Come the end of January they were sitting pretty in third place in the Premier League, and were a contender for a Champions League place.

Then, almost inevitably, disaster struck. Much of the Saints' success had been built on a tight defence but out of nowhere, the heart of the side was ripped out as Southampton were hit with three disastrous injuries.

Admittedly, some of this was just plain bad luck. Centre-back Toby Alderweireld pulled his hamstring when performing a routine clearance. Morgan Schneiderlin sustained a knock which didn't become clear until after the victory at Manchester United, the same game in which Alderweireld limped off. Meanwhile, his defensive-midfield partner Victor Wanyama also injured his hamstring, just seconds before he was set to be substituted in the FA Cup replay against Championship side Ipswich.

Wanyama, just seconds before half-time and his substitution, pulls his hamstring in the FA Cup against Ipswich. Photo: Getty.
Wanyama, just seconds before half-time and his substitution, pulls his hamstring in the FA Cup against Ipswich. Photo: Getty.

Following this sudden onslaught of injuries, the Saints were simply not the same side. Their form dropped dramatically over February and March and by the time the trio returned, any hope of Champions League qualification had diminished. 

While injuries sometimes cannot be controlled, they can be limited. Perhaps the Saints were just unlucky, but all three of these knocks could perhaps been avoided with slightly better preparation, or by not needing a replay to defeat lesser opposition.

With no Champions League football, something which was very much on the cards had these injuries not occurred, it became much harder for Southampton to convince their best players to stay and to attract new ones. Their status, both in footballing and financial terms, was not what it could have been.

December 2015: An opportunity missed?

One year later, and it happened again. Although it wasn't clear at the time, an awful run of results over Christmas and New Year ensured Southampton missed out on Champions League football once again.

After a victory over Sunderland in mid-November, the Saints would go on to win just one of their next ten games, and thus their league position plummeted.

Fortunately, any fears of relegation were emphatically put to rest come 2016, as Southampton were superb in the second half of their 2015-16 campaign. Had the season began at the turn of the year, Koeman's men would have finished second.

As it were, Southampton ended finishing sixth, a phenomenal effort, especially after the dark, difficult times back in December. However, a glimpse through the rose-tinted spectacles suggests that they missed another chance to gain Champions League football.

In the end, the Saints were just a mere six points off Manchester City and fourth place and, had they performed a little better over Christmas, would have surely finished above them. 

The Saints' poor December form ended up costing them Champions League. Photo: Getty.
The Saints' poor December form ended up costing them Champions League football. Photo: Getty.

Once again, the South Coast outfit fell just short of the top four. Even if 2015-16 was a memorable season, the Saints ultimately could not shake-off their tag as a stepping-stone, and as a club which was not quite good enough for the big time. 

Summer 2016: One change too many

Southampton had already ridden their luck once with a managerial change, but they reluctantly decided to roll the dice again this time last year. After finishing the season like a steam train just weeks earlier, it was rumoured that Koeman was a wanted man. 

Surely this wouldn't happen? It was only Everton who were interested in the Dutchman, and they finished well below Southampton last time out. Besides, Chief Executive Les Reed had assured the Saints faithful that they were expecting to keep hold of Koeman. 

Of course though, it happened again. Koeman was poached by the Toffees, but those at the top of the Southampton hierarchy cannot be classed as blameless. At the time, the Saints were undoubtedly the better team, and so they were most likely outbid by Everton for their man.

Was there really no way Southampton could have matched Everton's offer? The common view at the time was that the Saints simply could not compete financially with the Merseyside club. However, Southampton had sold £120 million worth of players in the previous two summers, making a net transfer profit of well over £20 million. They were also set to earn at least that six times that sum, from the new Premier League TV deal which would come into effect in the 2016-17 season. Is it too unrealistic to believe that Southampton did not have the funds to go that extra mile to pin down Koeman to a new contract?

Were Southampton really powerless to stopping Koeman going to Everton? Photo: Getty.
Were Southampton really powerless to stopping Koeman going to Everton? Photo: Getty.

One year on, and Southampton have very much paid the price for letting Koeman go. His replacement Claude Puel has come and gone after a disappointing campaign, and new manager Mauricio Pellegrino's tenure has not begun ideally. 

Southampton are faced with the prospect off beginning the new season with a manager who is foreign to the English game, with just one new signing to improve what is a weak squad, if much of last season is anything to go by. 

And of course Virgil Van Dijk, their best player by a country mile, is ready to move on from this stepping stone, after his customary two seasons with the Saints.

Pretty much all these issues can be traced back to the key moments above where Southampton established themselves as an admirable feeder club which never had quite enough to reach the very top level.