How to cope with losing your best player(s)?


A Look at the success of Ronald Koeman’s Southampton

Southampton Ronald Koeman


How does a club respond when its best player, the man who has dragged the club to prosperity for months or even years, the man who claimed both punditry plaudits and an assortment of awards, the club’s most important player, turns his back on the club?

Ask Ronald Koeman, who is working magic on the south coast after losing not merely his best player, but half of his first team. Southampton endured what seemed to be the worst summer of their history in 2014 as they watched an array of talent leave St. Mary’s for bigger and better things, or so they thought.

Luke Shaw, Ricky Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana, four players who featured in the top seven highest rated players at Southampton last season, all departed. To compound matters, talents Callum Chambers, Gaston Ramirez and Pablo Osvaldo (maybe not) sought a future elsewhere, oh, and their manager left; concluding what appeared to be a woeful summer of business.

Many had the Saints down as relegation fodder: “a season of struggle looks on the cards” according to The Week’s Neil Clark, author of the ‘Intelligent punter’s guide to the Premier League’. They were 6-1 to go down (!), putting them amongst the likes of Aston Villa, Leicester City and Sunderland, who currently occupy 15th, 17th and 18th, respectively. In short, the odds were, quite literally, stacked against Koeman’s Southampton.

Yet, nine games into the Premier League season, Southampton are second, with nineteen points, just four fewer than the unbeaten Chelsea. The Saints have taken the season by the scruff of the neck, flouting the predictions of the pre-season punters and pundits in what has been their best start to a campaign in England’s top flight. The stand-out performance being the humiliating defeat of Sunderland by eight (yes, eight) goals to nil at St. Mary’s.

In contrast, Liverpool, the beneficiaries of Southampton’s summer of selling, have endured a stuttering, underwhelming start to the 2014-15 campaign, with a meagre 14 points from a possible 27 at the time of writing. They have looked out of sorts.

Like Southampton, Liverpool suffered the unenviable fate of losing their best player, the brilliant Luis Suarez. When one considers that Suarez scored more goals than all of the aforementioned summer departures from Southampton, and notched more assists than Lallana, Ramirez and Shaw combined; it becomes clear just how invaluable Luis Suarez was to Liverpool, just how indispensable the player they dispensed of was.

By the same token, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur have lost crucial assets in recent times. Pardew has lost Frenchmen Loic Remy and Yohan Cabaye in the last 12 months while Spurs unwillingly let a certain winger leave London for the glamour of La Liga (clue: it wasn’t Iago Falque). The process of rebuilding, both in terms of personnel and morale, after your prized possession decamps, is a difficult one.

How, then, did the Ronald Koeman pull his side out from the dark, dank depths of relegation candidacy and engineer immediate success with a shell of a side? And why haven’t Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle done the same?

To answer the first of the probing posers, it is difficult to look beyond the Dutchman at the helm at St. Mary’s. The Saints bought shrewdly and sagaciously, making a startling profit of £31 million and bringing in a remarkable ten players, permanently signing as many as they sold and securing some astute loan signings, including Chelsea’s Ryan Bertrand and Atletico’s Champions League winner Toby Alderweireld.

Koeman utilised his in-depth knowledge of the Dutch market after being a manager and player in the Eredivisie. Such perspicacity saw the procurement of the prolific target man Graziano Pelle and the enterprising playmaker Dusan Tadic, who, between them, have been responsible for the creation and dispatching of 15 Premier League goals: an instant impact. Further arrivals included Fraser Forster, a man who has five clean sheets to his name in just nine matches, tireless Irishman Shane Long and former Red Bull Salzburg winger Saido Mane.

Koeman struck a masterful balance between players he knew would perform (players with Premier League experience like Shane Long and Ryan Bertrand), players he believed would perform (the likes of Pelle and Tadic) and managed gambles. Koeman, alongside the more headline-arresting, fan-enthusing purchases, signed one or two of the more obscure players, delving into the Austrian and Romanian leagues. Saido Mane is one such gamble, and, it seems, a gamble that appears to be paying off. The Senegalese attacker has netted twice in as many starts and set one up in the ruthless mauling of Sunderland, providing a new, faster, more direct dimension to the potent Southampton attack.

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To this end, however, the latter of the three categories has, unsurprisingly, resulted in some failures. Koeman has not conducted a flawless transfer policy, and hasn’t simply struck lucky. Take Romanian Florin Gardos, once of Steaua Bucharest, who has, in the context of the Saints’ other purchases, not exactly hit the ground running. The centre-half, who joined for approximately five and a half million pounds, has made just two appearances for the Saints and only one in the Premier League, coming on as a late substitute. Patently, Gardos’ fledgling Southampton career has not started as well as some of his fellow arrivals’.

The same applies in the interesting case of Saphir Taider, the most pertinent example of Koeman’s transfer miscalculations, whose loan was terminated less than a month into his Southampton career. The Algerian international arrived from Inter Milan on August 6th, and, after recognising that a first-team role had to be earned, chose instead to leave Southampton, heading back to Italy on September 1st.

Alas, such failures are minor in comparison to the transfer calamities that Alan Pardew, Andre Villas Boas and Brendan Rodgers made. Newcastle’s major signings, in response to the loss of Cabaye and Remy, signed Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere and Siem de Jong.  Cabella is yet to score or assist; Riviere, signed to replace the fruitful Loic Remy, is yet to register a Premier League goal; while de Jong was almost immediately inflicted with a long-term injury. Together, they cost about £5 million more than Yohan Cabaye. Let that resonate.

Similarly, Liverpool, like Tottenham before them, replaced a world class player with an array of sub-par individuals. Liverpool signed Javi Manquillo, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can and the ever-frustrating Mario Balotelli; Tottenham signed Moussa Dembele, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches and misfiring Spaniard Roberto Soldado. Granted, I have listed the worst of the signings, but the point remains, the first step to recovery after your best player leaves is to devote a substantial amount of money to signing one or two players of equal current or potential calibre. The worst thing to do is to sign a flurry of average-to-mediocre players, as Tottenham and Liverpool did.

All three clubs brought in players who are simply not good enough. Southampton signed players who were unproven, but had the attributes to shine in England’s top flight. Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle signed players who were devoid of the talents to prosper in the Premier League, and lots of them.

Evidently, Koeman’s transfer policy is stronger than that of Rodgers, AVB and Pardew, but it is by no means faultless, as Taider’s tantrum indicates. Which begs the question, how are Southampton perched second in the table after nine games?

The answer: Ronald Koeman. Just as his transfer policy was good, so is his management and tactical understanding. He has maintained the fluid, interchangeable front three behind the less mobile target man, and placed a great emphasis on the role of marauding full-backs Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne. Southampton play with an inexhaustible energy and a lucid attacking movement. Unconventional wingers Tadic and Long drift and wonder, seeking pockets of space in which they can inflict damage, whilst the pacey, offensive full-backs provide penetrating runs from the wing.

Plus, defensively, the Saints look more capable and more assured, even with Croatian stalwart Dejan Lovren missing. It speaks volumes that they have kept five clean sheets in nine games this season. This, coupled with the fact that they have only conceded two goals.

Moreover, Koeman has been very adroit in his use of players who survived the exodus of 2014, the players who clung on to the walls as the foundations of Southampton were shaken by the footsteps of the Premier League’s giants, as though they were tossing the club through a sieve to see which players would fall through the club’s grasp. Players like Jack Cork, Victor Wanyama and unsung utility man Steven Davis have been deployed cleverly this season, featuring a lot and contributing to a more stable atmosphere, both on the pitch and around the club, than one may have anticipated in early August.

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In addition, Morgan Schneiderlin’s very public dispute with the club’s hierarchy culminated in his staying at St. Mary’s, possibly the best decision the club made that summer. The significance of Schneiderlin cannot be overstated; he was the adhesive on the pitch, the Premier League’s best player paid less than £30,000 a week. If he had left, Southampton would have been thrust into an inescapable turmoil that even Koeman would have struggled to salvage. This term, Schneiderlin has been the best player no one noticed once again: making interceptions, tackles and incisive passes.

One may ponder: why have the other clubs mentioned struggled? Why are Newcastle fans baying for Pardew’s blood? Why are pundits already considering Pochettino’s future? Why do Liverpool have 6 fewer points than they did at this point last season (and that was mostly without the help of the suspended Suarez)?

You may believe that other factors have applied in each case. Tottenham had a poor manager; Chelsea fans may even vouch for them in that one. AVB’s cool, composed, nonchalant exterior was exposed to reveal a maladroit, clumsy transfer policy and a dearth in tactical innovation that resulted in a string of uninspired performances. Additionally, no one could anticipate that signings Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado would be quite so terrible.

Equally, you could argue that Daniel Sturridge’s seemingly endless injury has halted Liverpool’s progress this term and Newcastle’s form was poor even before they waved goodbye to the French duo Cabaye and Remy.

But, in truth, such excuses do not carry much water. There are deeper issues than external, circumstantial, uncontrollable elements.

The most important factor in the disparity in success of the clubs who have recently been pillaged of their star man is the management of Koeman in integrating his signings slowly and almost cautiously. Of course, to an extent, the Dutchman has been forced to throw a few players in at the deep end because he has lost so many players, but, unlike Newcastle, Spurs and Liverpool, for the most part he has been sparing in his deployment of the summer arrivals.

Mane has started two games, Alderweireld has made four appearances and Gardos has started once. The new boys are undergoing a calculated process of tactical amalgamation with the first team. In fact, excluding ‘keeper Forster, top scorer Pelle and top chance creator Tadic, every new permanent recruit has played in fewer than half of Southampton’s games this term.

In contrast, Balotelli has featured in ten of Liverpool’s first thirteen encounters this season, Cabella has played in seven of Newcastle’s eleven games and Tottenham’s first game post-Bale saw six summer acquisitions play.

The impact of an immediate inclusion of new signings can be one of two things. On the one hand, it can click, as though the players have an innate understanding and perform as one seamless entity. Chelsea’s Premier League dominance in 2004 and 2005 provides an apt example of when this can happen, when players such as Cech, Drogba, Robben and Carvalho all gelled under the guide of Mourinho to create a title-winning squad.

On the other hand, the team can be ravaged by a host of new players all adapting to alien tactics, a different tempo of football and, in most cases, a new language. It can be disastrous, and cost a manager his job, as AVB found out when he was handed his P45 just months into his tenure at White Hart Lane. Tottenham signed players from six different leagues, with all players hailing from different countries and clubs. This usually results in a painfully obvious tactical barrier between the new players and between the new players and the old crop.

To conclude, Southampton write the manual on how to rebuild a team in the wake of the departure of your best player, or, in this case, seven of your best players. Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle, on the other hand, defy every instruction in Southampton’s manual, in what is quickly becoming too obscure a metaphor.

Simply put, if your best player leaves, do as Koeman does.

-Sam Mills

2 Responses

  1. What made Tadic a better buy than Cabella, one of the best attacking mids in France two years running? Let alone Eriksen or Lamela, among the most sought-after youngsters in Europe at the time? Why was Pellé, off a great season in the Eredivisie, better than Soldado, after three great seasons in a row in La Liga?

    All of these teams signed quality players who had proven themselves in one way or another. The only difference is knowledge of what happened after they signed. Your “how to rebuild a team” is based exclusively on that.

    If you couldn’t have pointed it out at the time, you have no right to criticize them for it now.

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